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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Funny Face and Fashion At Fifty

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 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 her elderly leading men, but they’d never hold that against Hepburn. She is a role model that transcends an era, and for Funny Face’s social/political 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 who have lost perspective on what really makes these pleasers tick. The older Funny Face gets, the more mixed feelings it will arouse; for three things it gets wrong, there will be one to redeem the lot, this 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. 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. Dovima is said to have been the highest paid cover girl in Manhattan during the fifties. Her character 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 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.

Fictional "Vanity" Magazine Editor Otto Kruger with Fashion Find Hayworth

Real-Life Model "Dovima" with Astaire

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 looks fey, as do fussy gestures unbecoming to romantic partnership for a twenty-seven-year-old lead lady. 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 so many 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 now seem old man accoutrements. When Audrey in a wedding gown dances with Fred in cardigan buttoned once in the middle, you wonder if she’ll waltz him into assisted living. It was hard letting go of Astaire as a romantic partner on ballroom floors, too many fond memories and much reluctance to cutting him loose. Possible successors? There simply were none. If Hepburn could not 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 supplies 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 (ultimately revealed as a rotter and would-be seducer). The fact that Audrey reads books 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.

Suzy Parker with Cary Grant in Kiss Them for Me and Gary Cooper in Ten North Frederick

Jinx Falkenburg Was at Her Peak of Modeling Fame for 1944 and Cover Girl

What if Audrey Hepburn had taken up modeling in the wake of 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 (above) came closest to stardom of a sort, making "B" musicals and comedies for Columbia before (and following) her appearance in Cover Girl.

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 The Pajama Game took a loss. 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 million. 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.


Blogger Michael said...

I think you're kind of looking at it backwards when you ask why Hepburn was paired with all these older stars of the 30s. She was the answer to the question, who can we pair with our older stars?

The sex kitten stars of the 50s with pneumatic bosoms and hips made these guys look like old goats looking for trophy wives-- like Rudy Vallee and his mistress in How To Succeed. Hepburn's relative sexlessness-- obviously she's sexy, but in a demure, brainy, subtle way, especially when the comparison is Jayne Mansfield or Mamie Van Doren-- damped things down enough on screen that we could buy romance on a sort of ethereal level without thinking too much about the bedroom.

3:01 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yeah, I think you've hit on it, Michael. It did look pretty seedy when pre-war leading men got close to post-war sex symbols, though offscreen, boundaries seem to have been let down. Gary Cooper engaged in robust assignations with Anita Ekberg. "Confidential" magazine got snaps of the two outside a motel --- and this was around 1956 --- when Anita was doing "Hollywood Or Bust" with Martin and Lewis!

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've given up trying to understand the appeal of Audrey Hepburn. "Romance on a sort of ethereal level." LOL -- sounds like a typical marriage. Some wonderful movies about typical marriages came out of Hollywood. I'm quite certain that Audrey Hepburn did not appear in any of them.

I know I sound crabby. I just don't get it. Of all the "superstars" that transcend their lifetime on earth, Audrey Hepburn seems to me the least deserving by a longshot. Heck, even James Dean gets more credit from me.

Maybe it's the inherent aristocratic scent so thickly wafting about her that offends my working class sensibilities. I don't know.

How about posting those picks of Cooper and Ekberg, John?

6:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Grandpa --- More's the pity, but I don't have those Cooper/Ekberg shots. Probably buried with the guy that took them ...

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tell you who else could have done that Astaire part, Gene Kelly. But that would for Kelly at least have been going over old ground (Covergirl, but Kelly and Hepburn they would have been good together.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Put me firmly in the "I Love Funny Face" camp, even if Fred is too old for Hepburn; that's one of the concepts that one has to suspend one's disbelief for in Astaire's late movies. But if you buy into the convention of them breaking into song and dance, that sort of romance isn't too much of a stretch. And Audrey was never lovelier (IMHO) than in the beginning of the picture before she cuts her hair.

That said, I absolutely loathe Kay Thompson and every frame of film she's in in the picture. I find her grating, irritating, and annoying, and just want her to shut up and go away.

Cover Girl has its moments, but once one gets past Phil Silvers's nightclub number, the picture's pretty much over for me. I don't like Kelly's duet with himself (the camera trickery aside), and "Long Ago and Far Away" comes off as an MGM number on a Columbia budget.

I find Kelly interesting. I run hot and cold on him, but have lately found it fascinating to think what might have happened to him if he'd undergone a mid-career transformation like Dick Powell's. I think he would have made some great private eye pictures -- he would have been a fascinating Marlowe -- or even noirs if he'd been allowed to pursue that darkness that inevitably flashes into his characters.

3:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The film has some remarkable titling and image sequencing - - a graphic quality that presaged the 1960s, e.g., the Taylor Cleopatra film, Dr. Zhivago and a host of others which have that outright psychedelic approach (though these obviously not as frenetic as the "photo shoot" gimmick of Funny Face).

The film is completely unconvincing to me as a romance but it has a very nice pictorial quality to it.

Another nice posting with insight and analysis.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

The Hepburn appeal is most definitely a girl thing Grandpa Gus. It's for girls who aren't quite ready (whatever their age) to embrace adult sexuality. She is sexless, but still beautiful and seemiingly quite brainy, and pretty innocent of all the temptation that the sex goddesses were and are credited and blamed for. Audrey Hepburn, like fat I'm afraid, is a feminist issue that's best left to young women to grow out of.

I for one like Hepburn best in Roman Holiday and Sabrina. By the time of Funny Face Hollywood seems to have gotten to her and she's less exhuberant, more mannered - even thinner. In Roman Holiday she's an absolute hurricane blast of fresh, lovely air. In Funny Face she's thin, hesitant and a bit on the neurotic side. She looked like she enjoyed making movies less by this time.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wanted to like Funny Face. I really did. It had pretty much everything: a young and beautiful Hepburn, Astaire, Kay Thompson (who had a hugely popular nightclub act with the Williams Brothers around that time period), a great score and pretty shots of Paris. Most of the celebrated Freed Unit came from MGM to Paramount to make this film. The personnel both in front and behind the camera were the best at what they did and knew what they were doing. Alas, this film (for me) is a prime example of the total being less than the sum of it's parts. In the end, it just doesn't do it for me. It isn't just the lack of chemistry between Astaire and Hepburn; with the exception of a couple of scenes in the beginning of the film, the entire thing just falls flat.

Once again, a great post and analysis.

8:52 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Anna, I really like your perspective on Hepburn and what she means to young women. That response is something I can observe but can never fully appreciative, not having been a teenage girl. Thanks for the insight.

Dave, I feel your pain over Kay Thompson, but for some reason, I don't find her too obnoxious, though I certainly understand how others would.

Erik, I hadn't thought of the visual strides "Funny Face" made, but thet are plenty there to see. Thanks for pointing them out.

SJack827,you've summed up objections a lot of people have about this movie. I still like it a lot, but I've sure known others, even otherwise diehard musical fans, who can barely endure it. If nothing else, this DVD is a real pip, a major improvement over the old one that's been out for several years from Paramount.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Ron said...

Yes, Astaire is too old in this film, but Funny Face is simply carried by the personas of the two leads, both of whom we basically like, so we simply want to see them together. Except for Astaire's odd white raincoat, I like the ending which is simply done in song and dance.

It's interesting that I've read a lot of "yes, it's bad, but..." articles about Funny Face lately. It's like people are squeamish about talking about what they like about the film!

10:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, "the Doris Day show"?--The Pajama Game--made money at Radio City Music Hall and everywhere that same year?

For a lot of her fans, The Pajama Game is Doris' best--the only Broadway show she did on film (having lost out on South Pacific)--with most of the NY cast except Janis Paige, whose part she took. Dancing (Carol Haney etc etc), fashion? (pajamas!), great songs that were popular hits in the '50s, mostly by other artists (Hernando's Hideaway, Hey There, Steam Heat).

12:55 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

'The Pajama Game' is a working-class movie told without condescension - whatever else it may be. That, taken together with its catchy tunes and likeable leads, makes it no wonder at all that it was "crowd-pleasing" enough to actually turn a profit.

12:37 PM  

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