People are aware again of Funny Face not so much as a result of Paramount’s recent reissue of the DVD as its extended appearance in a widely shown GAP commercial in which Audrey Hepburn dances on behalf of the newly revived skinny black pant. Thanks to digital wizardry, something (fifty years) old looks new again, as Hepburn defines fashion for women several generations behind her own. Ask most college girls and they’ll identify this actress first among vintage stars otherwise unknown to them. Marilyn Monroe’s popular too, but in more of a campy, retro way. Audrey’s the one they’d like to be. Her appeal is of a right now sort. The movies can date, but she somehow doesn’t. Young women speak of the ick factor when they observe all those elderly leading men, but they’d never hold that against Hepburn. This girl’s a role model that transcends her era, and for Funny Face’s occasional politically incorrect misdeeds, she will be forgiven. Read, if you don’t already, imdb comments on this and other classic films. These are fans and casual viewers who write from the heart as opposed to wearisome critics and analysts (not excluding yours truly) who long ago lost perspective on what really makes these audience pleasers tick. The older Funny Face gets, the more mixed feelings it’s likely to arouse, but for three things they’ll say it gets wrong, there’ll be one that redeems all of that, for this is a musical filled with moments still hypnotic and evocative of the fifties in ways few others are.
The fashion industry takes it on the chin in Funny Face. Satire of its disordered personalities replaces efficiency shown by magazine executives in 1944’s Cover Girl. Consider Otto Kruger as Rita Hayworth’s mentor in that earlier musical (both shown here). Competent and avuncular, you might find him chairing the board of directors at a steel mill or auto manufacturer. He’s assisted by models well adjusted and competent. Anita Colby was credited as technical advisor on Cover Girl. She and real life top mannequin Jinx Falkenburg are active participants in the fictional Vanity magazine’s search for a new face. Models in Funny Face don’t speak other than to suggest utter vacuity or outright idiocy. Dovima is said to have been the highest paid cover girl in Manhattan during the fifties. Her character (shown here with Astaire) looks like Vampira and does little credit to a presumably glamorous profession. So when did notions of freaks and eccentrics staffing Vogue come into vogue? Was the post-war "New Look" responsible for newly jaundiced views of fashion and its arbiters? Kay Thompson plays martinet and runs roughshod over robotic girl assistants neither modeling nor typing for her. Just what is their function? Cover Girl reflects a healthier environment for the creation of beauty. Funny Face suggests poverty of ideas and a last possible resort that brings Audrey Hepburn into its decaying fashion orbit. She’s right to run away and fast.
You must come from the stone age, says Audrey to Fred, and if appearance (in comparison to her) is any indication, indeed he must. These two together, let alone romantically linked, is incredulity itself. His talent was undiminished, but Astaire’s wardrobe (his selection?) looks fey as do fussy gestures not befitting romantic partners for a twenty-seven year old leading lady (Hepburn’s age). Had Kay Thompson’s role been more attractively conceived (and cast), maybe this character could have been paired with Astaire for a romantic fade. As it is, Thompson was herself nine years his junior. Fred’s game enough for a kiss when he and Hepburn first meet, though it’s startling still to see a figure more appropriately paternal suddenly moving in for the smooch. Astaire had three show-biz decades on Hepburn when they made this. He jumped at working with her, as did she with him. You Make Me Feel So Young might well have been a theme song for the dancing veteran by this time down to his last musicals. I’m doubting he argued when they told him she’d get first billing. Debates over wizened leading men are ongoing among Audrey Hepburn’s fans, so who instigated all these mismatches? She was at least complicit. It was as though this actress was on an endless quest for onscreen father figures. Where before they were clever and individual clothing accessories, Astaire’s white socks, ascots, and ribbon tied belts seem now like old man’s accoutrements. When Audrey in wedding gown dances with Fred in cardigan buttoned once in the middle, you wonder if she’ll soon be waltzing him into assisted living. It was admittedly hard letting go of Astaire as a romantic partner on ballroom floors. Too many fond memories and much reluctance to turning him loose. It’s not as though this man had successors. If Hepburn couldn't dance with Astaire, why make Funny Face at all? I’ve tried imagining alternate casting. Cyd Charisse as Maggie Prescott, with she and Fred in fadeout clinch? Rita Hayworth would have worked. Ginger Rogers sounds ideal, but where would that leave Hepburn? Would she dance with Anthony Perkins, John Kerr, John Derek? There are good reasons why she gravitated to older leading men. The foregoing are three of them. Commercial realities in 1957 dictated that Astaire dance with a younger woman. But for their cross-generational teaming, Funny Face with its $3.164 million negative cost would never have seen the light of day.
Empathicalism was a word invented for the purpose of sending up intellectual phonies and beat generation predators that get in the way of Audrey Hepburn’s modeling career in Funny Face. They sustain a worse drubbing than the fashion industry itself. Others have pointed out an anti-intellectual current running through this musical. Well, the fact it is a musical automatically places Funny Face at odds with any sort of sedentary or cerebral expression. Thinkers here are subdued and seldom on their feet, making them natural opponents to Fred Astaire’s philosophy of movement and physicality. The audience enjoys his ridiculing them because it is Fred who’s providing the entertainment while these leeches cadge drinks off impressionable Audrey. The issue for modern viewers comes when Astaire extends his commentary to include Hepburn’s character. He’s about as interested in your intellect as I am!, he shouts, when they argue over her apparent dalliance with French philosopher Flostre (who naturally turns out to be a rotter and would-be seducer). The fact that Audrey reads automatically makes her a figure of fun. Oh, one of those, Fred says. Astaire and Kay Thompson perform a wicked beatnik spoof to set things right, but did it? I wonder if 1957 audiences weren’t drifting toward an embrace of the longhair’s mindset, with increasingly educated post-war women becoming more resistant to Astaire’s seeming condescension toward them. It’s surely an aspect of Funny Face that gets the goat of femme viewers today. If not for all the dancing and fashion trappings, I wonder if this movie might have fallen off their popularity charts altogether, for much of its social politics is decidedly incorrect.
What if Audrey Hepburn had taken up modeling in the wake of doing so in Funny Face? What kind of revenue could she have generated? The top cover girl of that period was Suzy Parker. She appears in the Think Pink montage. Parker is said to have been the first model to receive one hundred dollars a day (but wait, some sources credit Anita Colby with having accomplished that in the forties). The aforementioned Dovima made her way up to seventy-five per day by the late fifties. It was possible to parlay posing into a hundred grand a year, as Parker eventually did. Of course, these were so many nickels and dimes to movie stars with Audrey Hepburn’s earning power, but what price might she have commanded had Hepburn divided her post-Funny Face working hours between soundstage and runway? You could say that (most) movie stars were really just glorified models to begin with, but look what happened when members of the latter sorority tried their hands at acting. Suzy Parker was Fox’s effort toward animating beautiful (but hitherto motionless) images. She co-starrred with Cary Grant in Kiss Them For Me (he was sufficiently infatuated as to do the screen tests with her) and Gary Cooper in Ten North Frederick. There was a showy part in The Best Of Everything, then mostly television. Today she’s a name primarily recalled by fashion buffs (Vanity Fair did an excellent recap of her life a few years ago). Parker is credited by some as having provided inspiration for Audrey Hepburn’s character in Funny Face. Models often provided offscreen cues for neophyte actresses. Anita Colby (known as The Face) taught style and deportment to David O. Selznick’s contract youngsters, including Jennifer Jones. She’s a poised and assured presence (as herself) in Cover Girl, though little acting followed. Jinx Falkenburg came closest to stardom of a sort, making "B" musicals and comedies for Columbia before (and following) her appearance in Cover Girl (as shown here).
Radio City Music Hall bookings were more about prestige than money. Out of eleven pictures that played there in 1957, six eventually went into the red. Four were musicals. Silk Stockings, The Pajama Game, and Les Girls followed Funny Face into Radio City that year. All but Warner’s Doris Day show lost dollars. Numbers we have on Funny Face indicate a similar fate. The $3.164 million it cost was not recovered in domestic rentals of $2.235. Expensive mainstream releases out of major studios had to open in big ways. Trade advertising craved long lines in front of the Music Hall. Again, it was all about perception. No one wrote or published figures on high allowances Paramount had to make for Radio City’s house expense, astronomical at the least and all the more so by 1957. Funny Face would have to gross a certain (high) amount before film rental kicked in, and worse yet, Paramount was obliged to pay for most of the advertising. Getting into the Music Hall meant clearing the entire New York territory, including all five boroughs. Runs were exclusive there, and for four or more precious weeks, Radio City was the only place NYC audiences could see Funny Face, its massive house nut meanwhile eating up Paramount’s returns. Studio musicals were beginning to look like elephants marching toward the ivory preserves. Faster profits were being realized off millions of kids dropping their allowance on saturation bookings of rock and roll features, most profitably those with Elvis Presley. Hal Wallis produced Loving You for Paramount release on a budget of $1.295 million, less than half the cost of Funny Face. Its domestic rentals of $3.3 million left little doubt as to directions in which musicals were headed. MGM’s Jailhouse Rock was marketed toward youngsters who could ride their bikes to neighborhood theatres. Opening week for this Elvis vehicle found it playing multiple engagements in most territories, including New York as shown here. Saturation made it possible for everyone to buy a ticket while the product was hot, and Jailhouse Rock, produced at a negative cost of $1.1 million, brought back $3.3 in domestic rentals and eventual profits of $1.6 million. Funny Face was caught between modest films like this and roadshow blockbusters that could take their time getting investments back. With the sixties coming on, stuck in the middle musicals were about to be squeezed out.