Although there is a famous line in one of the truly great films, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ that states the ‘films are getting smaller’ the reverse seems to be true. In the forties and fifties movies were much bigger. More than that they were grand productions and going out to see them was an event for the audience. They were lavish with stars that had a command of the screen the likes of which are rarely seen today. Many of these films came out of the prestigious Paramount studio. Founded way back in 1912 they have been at the fore of creating motion pictures that endure throughout the decades. For a little while now they have been ramping up to their centennial mark by re-releasing some of their best films. The second wave of this series is upon us and the first movie for this deluxe treatment is ‘Funny Face’. It is widely considered one of the best musicals tp come out of the late fifties. It had musical numbers that caught the imagination of the audience and are as full of entertainment now as they were back then. It also had two of the most memorable stars ever to grace the silver screen, Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. You might have heard some of the older folk remark that they don’t make films like this any more and this one proves that rule. It is a story about a young woman in the fashion industry. While many modern critics may try to force a comparison with ‘The Devil Wore Prada’ this is grossly unfair to both films. While the fundamental subject of fashion may be something in common the more recent film, as good as it is in its own right, has nothing in the way of style and gentile grace that is afforded by ‘Funny Face’. There have been DVD releases of this film before both in 2001 and a fiftieth anniversary edition in 2007 but neither of them can compare to this newly restored two disc set. This is not only one of the great musicals of film but it is an important piece of our cinematic legacy. While this may primarily appeal to older viewers it is certainly something the young members of the family will get into.
Writing this film was Leonard Gershe. Prior to this he had a couple of jobs writing scripts for television series and his only notable movie screenplay after this was bringing the popular stage play ‘Butterflies are Free’ to the screen. There has always been a symbiotic relationship between fashion and films. Even back then stars would walk the red carpet at openings and award shows dressed to the nines in the latest the fashion world had to offer. The women in the audience would dream of owning such fabulous gowns as they saw on their favorite stars. It is also a representation of one of the most popular themes in film; the rags to riches story. In this story a young woman, Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) is discovered by a highly successful photographer, Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) and finds herself swept away to fame and fortune in Paris. At her core she is still a little beatnik from the States but now she has to try to fit in to the high powered world of fashion. Some of the younger people out there may be unfamiliar with the term beatnik. Back in the fifties they were the anti-establishment; a group of young people who hung out in coffee houses, most notably in New York City’s Greenwich Village, smoked, drank espresso and recited strange poems. Today’s youth were not the first generation to break away from the social norms. An understanding of this is important to the character arc in the story. Jo was the proverbial fish out of water and that set up the situations for the comedy and romance that would follow. Yes, much of the story was contrived but while watching it you just don’t care. There was less emphasis on reality in movies back then. People wanted and escape into fantasy. You have to appreciate this to fully enjoy the movie.
At the time that this film was made its director Stanley Donen was already a proven commodity in musicals. He directed some of the greats including ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, ‘Kismet’, ‘Singing in the Rain’ and ‘Damn Yankees’. He also had a hand at some of the more memorable movies in a non musical venue such as ‘Charade’ and ‘Two for the Road’. He crafts a movie here that is pure magic. The setting of Paris hits all the tourist haunts like the Louver and the Eiffel tower giving the audience the vicarious vacation they always dreamed about. He paces the film to perfection. It is basically in three acts; The first is how Jo was caught up in w whirlwind taking her from a clerk in a small bookstore to international recognition. The second is her yearning for the simpler days she left behind and the third, finding romance.
Quality is the most famous and influential fashion magazine in the world. Its publisher, Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) can create a trend simply by placing a designer or model in the pages of her magazine. In this cut throat business you are only as good as your last big trend and Maggie is hard pressed to find one. She has grown tired of the current flock of models that look good but all seem to be cut from the same cloth. Maggie wants somebody who is intellectual as well as beautiful. Together with her lead photographer Dick Avery they set out to wind such a young woman. During a shoot in a Greenwich Village bookstore, ‘Embryo Concepts’ then come across Jo who is the clerk there. Although she works there by day she is every bit a beatnik frequently the usual off beat haunts by night. Jo has no use for fashion. She is far more comfortable in her simple all black cloths than anything Maggie could offer. For Jo the world of fashion is a foolish vanity. Still, she has the intelligence and a funny but beautiful face that is just what Maggie is looking for. Dick strikes up a deal with Jo. If she goes to Paris with them for a fashion shoot she can meet her philosophical idol, Emile Flostre. This is something Jo can’t pass up and she agrees. Jo has a difficult time fitting in as a model. She is not used to all the people fussing over her; concerned with every aspect of her look. Once in Paris she rebels against Maggie and chaos ensues.
As mentioned this is a two disc edition of the film. The movie looks and sounds better than ever. What is really the greatest thing about this centennial edition are the extras. They fill the second disc to the brim. This is a film that has to be part of any serious collection.