This filmed version of the 1927 George Gershwin Broadway musical Funny Face utilizes the play's original star, Fred Astaire, and several of the original tunes, then goes merrily off on its own. Astaire is cast as as fashion photographer Dick Avery (a character based on Richard Avedon, the film's "visual consultant"), who is sent out by his female boss Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) to find a "new face". It doesn't take Dick long to discover Jo (Audrey Hepburn, who does her own singing), an owlish Greenwich Village bookstore clerk. Acting as Pygmalion to Jo's Galatea, Dick whisks the wide-eyed girl off to Paris and transforms her into the fashion world's hottest model. Along the way, he falls in love with Jo, and works overtime to wean her away from such phony-baloney intellectuals as Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair). The Gershwin tunes include the title song, "S'wonderful", "How Long Has This Been Going On" and "He Loves and She Loves"; among the newer numbers is Kay Thompson's energetic opener "Think Pink". For years available only in washed-out, flat prints, Funny Face was eventually restored to its full Technicolor and VistaVision glory.
Class, sophistication, and an impeccable sense of style define both Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, so their pairing in Stanley Donen's 'Funny Face,' a frothy musical confection set in the realm of Parisian haute couture, seems perfectly natural. So what if Hepburn's limited terpsichorean talent keeps her from rivaling Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, or Cyd Charisse; she's an absolute vision in her elegant Givenchy wardrobe, and her luminous presence makes us forgive any clunky steps or sour notes. As always, Audrey is adorable, and her May-December chemistry with Astaire is as relaxed and easy as their understated dance duets. Though a trite story prevents it from joining the ranks of the musical elite, 'Funny Face' remains a fan favorite 57 years after its initial release, and its creative presentation and stunning look make it one of the genre's most visually arresting works.
Donen's film borrows its title and several of its tunes from an old George and Ira Gershwin show that was a big Broadway hit for Astaire and his sister Adele back in 1927. But the similarities end there. This incarnation (based on the story 'Wedding Bells' by screenwriter Leonard Gershe) chronicles the 'My Fair Lady'-like transformation of Jo Stockton (Hepburn), a plain-Jane intellectual whose quiet life as a Greenwich Village bookseller is upended when a highfalutin fashion magazine invades her hole-in-the-wall store for an impromptu photo shoot. Craving a more substantive model than the vacuous beauties with whom he usually works, acclaimed photographer Dick Avery (Astaire) convinces his skeptical, flamboyant editor, Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), the fresh, unassuming Jo would sublimely complement a hot French designer's new line. Jo, however, cares more about philosophy than fashion, but soon realizes a Parisian junket would enable her to track down and meet her idol, the famous "empatheticalist," Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair).
So off go Jo, Dick, and Maggie to Gay Paree, where the fledgling model spreads her wings, indulges her ideology, and learns about love, heartbreak, and the vagaries of French men amid an array of time-honored Gershwin melodies (and three sparkling new songs by Gershe and Roger Edens that exude joie de vivre). 'S'Wonderful,' a rousing 'Clap Yo' Hands' (performed by Thompson and Astaire in beatnik garb), 'He Loves and She Loves,' the melodic title tune, and Hepburn's winsome solo of 'How Long Has This Been Going On?' nicely augment the skimpy, meandering plot.
The film's vibrant personalities, however, bulldoze any script weaknesses. Thompson, in one of only a handful of on-screen appearances, leads the charge, and the supremely talented performer, vocal arranger, and author — perhaps best known for penning the beloved children's classic, 'Eloise' — nearly pulls the rug out from under her legendary co-stars. Her boundless energy, dry wit, and infectious enthusiasm punch up every scene and number in which she appears, and makes her blunt, boisterous character — reportedly modeled after Harper's Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland and a kooky forerunner to Miranda Priestly in 'The Devil Wears Prada' — irresistible.
Thompson and Hepburn are so delightful, it's easy to overlook Astaire, who seems strangely content to back off and give the ladies the spotlight. His trademark charm and elegance still shine through, and he's touchingly tender with Audrey, but his dances lack the energy and invention audiences expect. Though Hepburn's inexperience may account for some of the simplicity, even Astaire's big solo turn, built around a tired matador theme, never approaches the dancer's elevated standard. (Perhaps the absence of Astaire's long-time collaborator, Hermes Pan, has something to do with the anemic routines.) Astaire's influence pervades 'Funny Face,' but Hepburn and Thompson drive the film.
As does Donen's trés chic direction. Enhanced by the creative influences of photographer extraordinaire Richard Avedon (a consultant on the film and the man upon whom Astaire's character is loosely based), Donen's colorful, innovative visuals lend this age-old musical a contemporary flair that's as timeless as Hepburn's look. In addition, an intoxicating Parisian feel permeates the picture, thanks to extensive location shooting and the knockout number 'Bonjour, Paris!,' in which Donen employs aerial shots and split-screen technology to produce the ultimate love letter to the City of Light.
The director also worships at the feet of his ravishing leading lady. Arguably, Hepburn has never been more beautifully photographed, and in the fashion sequences she's nothing short of breathtaking. One image, of course, stands above the rest. With the Louvre's iconic sculpture, Winged Victory, as a backdrop, Hepburn — arms stretched to the heavens, swathed in a bright red Givenchy gown with a billowy shawl and a dazzling smile across her lips (as pictured in the Blu-ray cover art) — descends a flight of stairs and chants to a bedazzled and flustered Astaire, "Take the picture! Take the picture!" That's the essence of 'Funny Face,' and thankfully, even after 57 years, that glorious vision hasn't faded.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Funny Face' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The enhanced clarity of VistaVision improved many Paramount films of the 1950s, and it's all on glorious display in Warner's stunning 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of 'Funny Face.' Though some scenes do suffer from a slight nagging softness, on the whole, Stanley Donen's musical looks spectacular on Blu-ray, with the musical numbers and Paris locations possessing a thrilling immediacy. Pitch-perfect contrast heightens the image's impact and supplies welcome depth, while a faint grain structure adds necessary texture to the picture. Just a few errant marks dot the pristine source material, which is distinguished by a gorgeous color palette that mirrors the lushness of three-strip Technicolor. The multi-hued doors of Maggie's office resemble a rainbow, while her turquoise eye shadow, Astaire's red belt, Hepburn's memorable red dress in the Louvre scene, and the shiny yellow of New York City taxicabs all possess plenty of pop. The beautifully saturated shades of pink in the 'Think Pink' number leap off the screen, and the red tint that bathes the darkroom sequence is well rendered. Blacks are rich and inky, whites are bold, but never bloom, and fleshtones are stable and true.
Some of the close-ups of Hepburn take your breath away, and the cityscape shots of New York and Paris allow us to drink in copious amounts of detail. Shadow delineation is quite good, background elements are easy to discern, and patterns remain rock solid and resist shimmering. No banding, noise, pixelation, or other issues afflict this solid effort, and no edge sharpening or DNR could be detected. Hepburn and Astaire deserve the best, and Warner complies with a top-notch transfer that celebrates her timeless beauty and style, and his supreme artistry.
A spanking new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track graces the 'Funny Face' disc and supplies clean, well-modulated sound. Surround activity is, of course, extremely limited, but all the musical numbers benefit from enhanced fidelity, and the lush orchestrations fill the room with ease. Any hiss, pops, crackles, or other age-related imperfections have been scrubbed away, leaving a bright, full-bodied track that complements the film's light and airy feel quite well. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, and though bass frequencies aren't very pronounced, low end tones nicely resonate and lend the track a lovely, understated sense of depth. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, as are all the song lyrics, and no distortion creeps into the mix, even during highly active sequences. For purists, a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is also included, but it lacks the "bazzazz" of this vibrant lossless mix.
With the exception of an extensive photo gallery and retrospective featurette showcasing numerous Paramount films of the 1950s, all the extras from the previous 'Funny Face' DVDs have been ported over to this release.
Featurette: "Kay Thompson: Think Pink!" (HD, 27 minutes) - This absorbing, lovingly produced piece celebrates a woman who, according to her biographer, was "modern, fresh, very ahead of her time, and never boring." From her early career as a popular radio singer through her stint as MGM's chief vocal arranger in the 1940s (where she pioneered the distinctive MGM sound) to her successful nightclub act and participation in 'Funny Face,' Thompson's life is meticulously chronicled by friends and colleagues, including Hilary Knight, the artist with whom she collaborated on the classic 'Eloise' books, and actress Ruta Lee, who played her assistant in 'Funny Face.' We also learn about Thompson's special connection to singer-actress Liza Minnelli (and her friendship with Liza's mother, Judy Garland), as well as the evolution and development of the 'Eloise' series. Thompson was quite a dynamo during her day, and this superior 2008 featurette makes sure she never will be forgotten.
Featurette: "This Is VistaVision" (HD, 25 minutes) - The "tremendous" impact of VistaVision, the widescreen process developed by Paramount to combat declining movie theater attendance in the early 1950s due to the popularity of television, is explored in this fascinating featurette. Clips from such VistaVision classics as 'White Christmas,' 'To Catch a Thief,' and 'The Ten Commandments' illustrate the form's enhanced clarity and brilliance, and are juxtaposed with comments from various photographic experts, who explain the technical aspects of the cumbersome process and outline the various pitfalls that afflicted it. Eventually, elevated costs associated with VistaVision contributed to its demise, yet it was later resurrected to aid in producing visual effects for the 'Star Wars' movies. Technical geeks will especially want to check out this comprehensive piece.
Featurette: "Fashion Photographers Exposed" (HD, 18 minutes) - Though this featurette touches upon 'Funny Face,' saluting Hepburn's timeless glamour, the allure of Paris, and Richard Avedon's distinctive photographic style, it's mainly a behind-the-scenes look at how today's fashion photographers set up and execute their shoots. The essentials of makeup and lighting are examined, as well as the intimacy that often exists between a photographer and his subject. I found it all rather dull, but others may feel differently.
Featurette: "The Fashion Designer and His Muse" (SD, 8 minutes) - This breezy look at the close professional relationship between Hepburn and her iconic designer, Hubert de Givenchy, focuses on how Givenchy soothed Audrey's physical insecurities, how his "timeless" wardrobe infused her with confidence, and how the two are "modern masters of their respective métiers." Two fashion experts examine and analyze Hepburn's 'Funny Face' costumes, and relate a couple of amusing anecdotes during this interesting featurette.
Featurette: "Parisian Dreams" (SD, 8 minutes) - The transformative power of the French capitol is the raison d'être for this piece, in which historian Drew Casper analyzes the film's Cinderella story, and how the influences of Donen, Avedon, and Paris itself turn a standard musical into something very special.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview, which heralds Hepburn's unsung musical talents and celebrates the beautiful Parisian cityscape, completes the disc extras.
'Funny Face' may not rival 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'The Band Wagon,' but Stanley Donen's vivacious, visually stunning musical never fails to captivate and delight. The talented stars, creative direction, and Parisian setting transform a pedestrian premise into a light and airy diversion, while the lilting Gershwin score is easy on the ears. Topping it all off, Warner's scrumptious transfer and fine spate of supplements revitalize this 57-year-old film and make it an essential keepsake for fans of Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and Golden Age musicals.