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Funny Face
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 Funny Face

Funny Face

A Pygmalion story set in the rarefied world of high fashion, Funny Face (1957) is an irresistible combination of music, style, and star talents: top production staff from MGM's fabled Freed unit; legendary dancer Fred Astaire; enchanting gamine Audrey Hepburn; and photographer Richard Avedon. Astaire plays fashion photographer Dick Avery, who turns a scruffy Greenwich Village intellectual (played by Hepburn) into a supermodel, takes her to romantic Paris, and falls in love with her.

The source for the story was an unproduced musical play called Wedding Day by Leonard Gershe, loosely based on incidents in his friend Avedon's life. Freed unit producer Roger Edens bought it for MGM with Astaire and Hepburn in mind. But at that time, Hepburn was Paramount's most valuable star, and Paramount was not about to loan her to MGM. Astaire, who was by then freelancing, also owed Paramount a film. With uncommon generosity, producer Arthur Freed not only allowed Edens to take Funny Face to Paramount, but also to take some key Freed unit talent with him: Director Stanley Donen, musical director Adolph Deutsch, arranger Conrad Salinger, choreographer Eugene Loring, and cinematographer Ray June. Edens bought the rights to the Gershwin score for the 1927 stage musical, Funny Face, from Warner Bros., although the plot of that show had nothing to do with Gershe's story. (Astaire and his sister Adele had starred in Funny Face on Broadway.) Edens added another Gershwin song, "Clap Yo' Hands," plus three new ones that he co-wrote with Gershe.

Hepburn, who had idolized Astaire since she was a child, was thrilled to be working with him, but very nervous. Although she'd had dance training, she was by no means on Astaire's level, nor was she a trained singer. But at their first meeting, he soon put her at ease. "Fred literally swept me off my feet," she later recalled. Putting an arm around her waist, he twirled her around, and his ease dissolved her nervousness. The perfectionist Astaire practiced with Hepburn for many hours, but made it so enjoyable that Hepburn didn't mind.

Kay Thompson, a nightclub performer, composer and arranger, was a Freed unit vocal coach for Judy Garland and others, as well as a close pal of Edens. Both he and Gershe knew Thompson was the only person who could play the flamboyant magazine editor, which she did, brilliantly. Funny Face was one of only a handful of films in which Thompson appeared, and the only one in which she played a significant role. The character is said to have been based on both Vogue editor Diana Vreeland and Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow.

Richard Avedon, whose innovative photographs of haute couture had inspired Gershe's story, was hired as "special visual consultant" for Funny Face. He worked with director Stanley Donen to create one of the film's centerpieces, a five-minute montage of Hepburn posing all over Paris for a fashion layout, as well as the witty fashion sequence in the "Think Pink" number, which featured two of his favorite models, blonde Sunny Hartnett, and redhead Suzy Parker. (The latter would soon begin her own career as an actress.) Avedon also designed the opening titles, based on some of his most famous photographs, and the darkroom sequence.

Another Avedon favorite, Dovima, appeared in Funny Face as the whiny-voiced model Marion, who poses and preens in Hepburn's bookstore. The character was given one of Dovima's own traits: a fondness for comic books. In spite of her exotic looks and name, Dovima was actually born in Queens. Her name was a combination of her given names, Dorothy, Virginia, and Margaret.

Donen's visual inventiveness was a good match for Avedon's. As he had done with New York in On the Town (1949), Donen took one Funny Face number, "Bonjour Paree", into the streets of Paris in an exhilarating travelogue that splits the wide screen into three parts and culminates at the Eiffel Tower. But filming in Paris wasn't all glamour. The crew had to contend with unpredictable weather during much of the outdoor shooting. In some of those scenes, the drizzly weather gave the film a very effective Impressionist effect. But by the time they shot the bridal gown number "He Loves and She Loves" at the country chapel in Chantilly, it had been raining for so long that the ground on which Astaire and Hepburn had to dance was a swamp. Dancing was difficult. Hepburn's expensive white satin shoes kept sinking in the mud, and getting ruined. The delays were making everyone tense, until Hepburn joked, "Here I've been waiting twenty years to dance with Fred Astaire, and what do I get? Mud!"

Hepburn had met French designer Hubert de Givenchy when he designed her Parisian wardrobe for Sabrina (1954). Unfortunately, Edith Head received sole screen credit, and when that film won an Academy Award for costume design, the Oscar® went to Head alone. For Funny Face, Givenchy did all of Hepburn's Paris costumes, and she made sure he received equal billing (and an Oscar® nomination) with Head. The film also earned nominations for original screenplay, cinematography, and art direction, but did not win in any category.

With a few exceptions, the reviews for Funny Face were very good, and the film did well in the big cities. However, it may have been too sophisticated for mass audiences, and did not make back its four million dollar cost. Today, in an era of celebrity-fashion worship, Funny Face looks better than ever, and remains one of the treasures of the American film musical.

Director: Stanley Donen
Producer: Roger Edens
Screenplay: Leonard Gershe, based on his unproduced musical libretto, Wedding Day
Cinematography: Ray June
Editor: Frank Bracht
Costume Design: Edith Head, Hubert de Givenchy
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Hal Pereira; Set Designers, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer
Music: George and Ira Gershwin, Roger Edens, Leonard Gershe
Principal Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Jo Stockton), Fred Astaire (Dick Avery), Kay Thompson (Maggie Prescott), Michel Auclair (Prof. Emile Flostre), Robert Flemyng (Paul Duval), Dovima (Marion), Virginia Gibson (Babs).
C-104m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri

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