Funny Face - Centennial Collection Review

I'm sure you've already seen Funny Face. Even if you've not sat down and watched it, you've seen clips. Or, at the very least, you've seen a Gap commercial from a couple of years back that made memorable use of a dance performed by Audrey Hepburn, clad in all black while moving to her own rhythm in a Paris club. Refrain from being shocked when AC/DC's "Back in Black" isn't actually played over the scene in Stanley Donen's film. Fred Astaire doesn't dance with a vacuum cleaner either. What does occur amounts to a very pleasant, very colourful run through movie star heaven where the viewer may have to be reminded that people don't usually break into song without prompting and cute, intellectual book store clerks rarely get whisked away to Paris to be big time fashion models.

Funny Face is, unapologetically, a bright, soaring musical unconcerned with reality or the parameters of what might happen away from the immediate four corners of the screen. Its story is light, but still more dramatic than comedic. The two main actors are blessed with charm that belies their massive age difference. Astaire the artful codger maintains an infectious chemistry with the forever winsome Hepburn despite the thirty years of separation. Director Stanley Donen was, by the film's 1957 release, a pro of the genre, having already co-directed On the Town and Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly and performed solo duties on a number of musicals including the Astaire-starrer Royal Wedding. In short, the main principals were more than capable of the task at hand, and greatly assisted by Kay Thompson, the unique entertainment personality who had her largest screen role here and only appeared in a handful of films total.

Thompson dominates the picture's opening "Think Pink" number as fashion magazine editor Maggie Prescott before wryly confiding she wouldn't be caught dead in the song's colour of choice. Remember Meryl Streep's Oscar-nominated role in The Devil Wears Prada? It was one-note and overly infused with Cruella de Ville-like dourness in comparison. The plot soon kicks in when Prescott and Astaire's fashion photographer Dick Avery venture (unannounced) with a few models to Manhattan's Greenwich Village in search of a quaint little book store for a photo shoot. They happen to find the one where Hepburn's Jo Stockton works, and they ramshackle the place in the process. She's unamused, immediately bristling at the vacuousness of the fashion industry and the unpleasant image magazines like the one using her shop convey. Avery sticks around to clean up the mess and finds an in when the subject of Paris is brought up - Jo longs to visit and attend lectures of her preferred philosopher and author Emile Flostre. Avery tabs her as a potential model representative of brains, despite Prescott's titular qualms, and soon enough we're off to Paris with everyone closely in tow.

The plot of Funny Face is almost brazenly simple and threadbare. It's the sort of unlikely love story found in film after film, and more than familiar to fans of Hepburn by now. She's the ugly duckling who blossoms into a swan (reminiscent of Roman Holiday and Sabrina). Here, though, it's almost reluctantly so and that's hardly unimportant. Hepburn's character of Jo displays a blissfully naive integrity undeterred by her seemingly contradictory actions. She goes to Paris with the primary goal not of modeling but of expanding her mind via cultural experiences and the off chance of meeting Professor Flostre. Jo's like an adorable little rebel dressed in form-fitting clothes. Her Achilles' heel turns out to be, unsurprisingly, love. A kiss between Avery and her had set off, quite frankly, uncomfortable sparks while still in the book store, and she grows increasingly googly-eyed throughout the Paris trip.

I find it impossible to not interject some sense of rationality while viewing the courtship between Astaire and Hepburn. This sort of age-defying romance is hardly unheard of, but nonetheless irritatingly unnatural all the same. Age is just a number, sure, but 30 is quite the number. That being said, Astaire's inherent regalness and the fluidity of his performance both tend to mitigate the age difference. The romance between the characters is largely left to the imagination anyway and, as such, refrains from full-on distraction. More critical to the film's detriment is the point, somewhere in the second half, when any idea of keeping the audience's interest aside from the Hepburn-Astaire pairing is entirely lost. It's as though the shallowness of the colour orgy wins out over the need to maintain a respectable attempt at pretending Funny Face is about something. Anything, really.

As entertainment, Donen and company do well to give themselves over to an appreciative audience. I'm hardly a fan of musicals and I was still seduced by the array of shiny ornaments, not the least of which being Hepburn herself. She's such a lovely screen presence. Fragile, yet strong. Graceful, yet awkward. Beautiful, yet somehow unattractive. The embodiment of a contradiction if I've ever seen such a thing. She was the perfect anomaly who seemed to gravitate in the direction of staid, predictable roles, but also managed to reinvent herself in each performance. It simply doesn't compute how Audrey Hepburn was able to flutter into one part after another, consistently transforming into that swan and finding love with a mature paramour in the process, without playing on most anyone's negatives. She was, utterly and completely, a screen princess blessed with just the right roles in just the right films over a disappointingly short time span.

Funny Face, then, is one of her essentials. One of Donen's too, and maybe even a last gasp of stardom from Astaire after his resurgence in The Band Wagon. He had some notable parts in more serious fare like On the Beach and The Towering Inferno, but this was probably a final successful outing in his own unique element. Hepburn would again work with Donen in the excellent Charade, perhaps the best Hitchcock-like film the master didn't make himself. Her romantic partner there was yet another older man in Cary Grant, merely 25 years Hepburn's senior. I greatly prefer that film to this one, with Singin' in the Rain outpacing them all, but Funny Face remains undeniably significant for some of the most dazzling use of colour in any classic Hollywood movie and for its marked transition from the sunniness of earlier musicals to the more serious-minded ideas of '50s and '60s fare. It's hardly an homage or throwback to the earlier outings, despite a similar outcome. Instead, Funny Face stands sort of alone among the most notable of American musicals for its genuine placating of ideals outside the common wisdom. Hepburn's Jo may or may not get what she bargained for, but the character at least receives an intellectual endowment outside middle America and far removed from the idea that merely singing and dancing will make the world go 'round.

The Discs

Spine number 4 in Paramount's R1 Centennial Collection, Funny Face has received little improvement over its impressive 50th Anniversary release from 2007. There are a couple of additional bonus features on disc two, but the quality is largely the same. I think I've caught on to Paramount's scheme in this Centennial Collection racket. The idea appears to be to release some of the studio's key titles in two-disc versions at an inflated price over the existing incarnations, and take the cheaper versions out of print. The Centennial Collection editions look magnificent, to be sure, in elegant black slipcases that open at the side and nice two-disc sets (with cover art losing the thick black borders) waiting in the package. With Blu-ray on the minds of many collectors, though, a new, hardly improved, DVD version seems somewhat superfluous. The red sticker on the outer plastic proclaiming "Mastered in High Definition" provides little comfort, not to mention some possible confusion for less savvy consumers.

As for the image quality, it's certainly near the high end of classic DVD transfers. The VistaVision 1.78:1 image (slightly modified from the original 1.85:1) is progressive, enhanced for widescreen televisions and consistently bright and vibrant, reproducing the often spectacular colours with ease. There was no damage detected and the image looks free from artifacts. The detail is strong for a film of this vintage, though expectedly not equal to a new release. Fair or not, my most common reaction while watching was the lament that it would look even better on Blu-ray. As it is, Funny Face looks certainly good enough to please most viewers and Paramount has given the film a high enough bitrate to maximise the capabilities of a dual-layered DVD.

There are two English language audio options, but both suffer slightly from apparent overdubbing presumably inherent to the film. An English Dolby Digital 5.1 track allows the musical numbers to breathe in surround sound. The original restored mono keeps things closer to that format's limitations, but sounds nonetheless more natural. Neither is perfect due to the distractions of the audio veering out of synch from the dubbing. As a purist, I prefer the original mono, but the songs do tend to sound better with the surround track. French and Spanish mono dubs are also available, as are subtitles in English, French and Spanish. They're yellow in colour and the font is somewhat large. All the supplements contain optional subtitles in the same three languages.

Speaking of which, the bonus material can be found entirely on a second disc. Only three featurettes are new for this release, with two more brought over from the previous edition. The enjoyable "Behind the Gates" bits that were on the earlier three Centennial Collection titles haven't been continued. Here's a breakdown of what we do have:

"Kay Thompson: Think Pink!" (26:35) - New for this release, and quite informative, the life of Kay Thompson is explored. From being head of the MGM song department to writing the "Eloise" books and, of course, playing a significant part in the success of Funny Face, Thompson was a fascinating lady who's given some well-deserved attention here.

"This Is VistaVision" (24:39) - Also new, but strangely unconcerned with Funny Face aside from the fact that the film utilised Paramount's widescreen process. The featurette goes into some detail about the studio's short-lived innovation that made the negative larger by using 8 perforations, putting the frame at 1.85:1. Mention is made of VistaVision's revival when it was used for Star Wars, and we hear a rambling story about To Catch a Thief. Still, this is a nice way to appease those fans who have little interest in the fashion industry.

"Fashion Photographers Exposed" (17:52) - Everyone else gets this, which goes behind the scenes of a magazine fashion shoot. Several people are interviewed, including a couple of photographers and a make-up stylist. There's some discussion of Richard Avedon's influence on the film and generally in the industry. It certainly fits with the movie.

"The Fashion Designer and His Muse" (8:07) - A featurette that returns from the 50th Anniversary edition, it takes a broad look at the enduring relationship between Audrey Hepburn and her designer of choice Hubert de Givenchy. Fluffy, and the kind of thing where a wedding dress is described as "daring."

"Parisian Dreams" (7:38) - Another carryover from the last Funny Face DVD, this is a fairly unhelpful piece with the focus mostly on the film's Paris setting. Talking head film professor Drew Casper overly dominates by stating the obvious.

"Paramount in the '50s" (9:33) - The same stroll down the studio's memory lane that's found its way onto numerous titles. It remains of poor video quality and questionable worth.

Original Theatrical Trailer (2:20)

Galleries - A collection of 22 stills from Production, 25 from The Movie, and another 22 of Publicity. The quality of the pictures looks a little ruddy and off.

Booklet - An eight-page insert with two pages of text and the remainder occupied by photos.

Final Thoughts

Those who already have the 50th Anniversary edition of Funny Face may have a difficult time justifying this barely improved entry in Paramount's Centennial Collection series. The film here is given its own disc so the transfer may be a slight bettering of the earlier release, but the price tag is a bit higher and only three additional featurettes are added. I'd like to see Paramount continue with its Centennial Collection titles, but the studio really should consider delving deeper to make them more worthwhile.

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