DVD Review: Funny Face (1957) -- The Paramount Centennial Collection 2-Disc Edition

"Take the Picture, Take the Picture,"
"Think Pink"
& Brush Up on
Your Phony Parisian Philosophy

As Stanley Donen's "Bizzazz" Filled
Arrives on DVD

An Introduction* from Audrey Hepburn:

"... I can easily state that no matter how long the passage of time, or how great the physical distance between us, there is one person whose very name makes me smile in total delight whenever I think of him. And that's Stanley Donen.

"Stanley is a master moviemaker. His knowledge of film is boundless, from his clever camera technique and choreographic grace, to his finely tuned musical ear, to his exquisite taste in color design and story sense. Most important, in my estimation, is that he combines these remarkable professional talents with an extraordinary amount of sensitivity and patience, and, above all else, a tremendous sense of humor.

"And only for Stanley would I have shown the nerve to dance with Fred Astaire."

* Excerpted from the Introduction to Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies by Stephen M. Silverman


It is precisely not only Hepburn's nerve but her intense desire to dance opposite one of her favorite stars that helped push Funny Face into production for Paramount in 1957. Although developed at MGM, when Hepburn expressed interest and clearly requested Astaire for her leading man, the actress-- who was still under contract to her home studio of Paramount-- managed to propel all of the business dealings that set the film in motion.

And sure enough, once it changed studios, Funny Face would not only become a smash success but additionally marked Hepburn's first of three films working with director Donen (followed by Charade and Two for the Road), the first in which she was able to dance and sing using her own voice (a feat she repeated in Breakfast at Tiffany's before she was dubbed in My Fair Lady), and a classic of the VistaVision cinematic format.

Created in tandem with other studio widescreen ventures like Fox's Cinemascope to help lure viewers away from the "clunky round TV image" of their living rooms back to the theatre, the expensive and state of the art process, discussed at length by cinematographers and Paramount camera department employees in a twenty-five minute extra on Funny's second disc, strove for "the ultimate in film presentation" by offering unprecedented "complete focus across the screen" so that everything was clear from left to right.

Although it's hard to imagine Funny Face without the gorgeous color and innovative shots (now fully restored in a a painstaking process in stark contrast to the "washed-out, flat prints" that Paramount noted were only available for years) without thinking of VistaVision, ironically Donen wasn't crazy about the process.

A technically audacious format which was abandoned by 1960 as Stephen M. Silverman wrote (232), VistaVision which was created by using a special camera with 35mm film which ran horizontally instead of vertically resulted in film negative exposure that was twice the normal size. Yet, aspiring to achieve the same "soft, smoky focus," in certain scenes that recalled the fashion layouts of Richard Avedon (the inspiration for Astaire's character Dick Avery), Donen and Avedon experimented with everything from glass to silk stockings to tissue paper to put in front of the lens to try and see the effect it could create visually.

A cinematography nightmare to the studio which threatened to fire both Donen and veteran MGM musical lensman Ray June who was known for his photographic knack of making films look so incredibly gorgeous-- realizing that Avedon was the impetus-- Paramount forbid the fashion photographer from speaking to Donen on the set.

Yet, not taking no for an answer, as Silverman continues (233), Avedon and Donen devised a series of signals involving Avedon's necktie that informed the director of how much light to use in a particular scene since he wanted certain sequences to achieve that iconic fashion shoot feel.

An incredibly stressful experience for all involved, most notably the film's cinematographer, Avedon expressed his fear that the reason Ray June passed away at the end of the shoot was because the studio threats to end his employment had "killed him," (Silverman, 233).

Whatever the case, it's the film's authenticity and its distinct place, subject, and time of the fashion world in '50s periodicals--such as Harper's Bazzar and its editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland which were the real-life counterparts of the film's editor Maggie Prescott and fictitious Quality Magazine-- that make Funny Face a much loved classic to this day.

A fashion photographer and designer's dream and an endless source of creative inspiration as numerous professionals note on the film's plethora of extras in the second disc of this Centennial Collection release, the film itself and notable age difference between its leads Astaire and Hepburn may have dampened it slightly as a whole but what it lacks in some believability it makes up for in charm, style, and of course, "bizzazz."

A phrase crafted to indicate that a shoot required something extra and used mostly in requests that a photo needed more "bizazz," the word coined by Vreeland for as screenwriter Leonard Gershe noted, "lack of a better word," was inserted throughout the film and uttered memorably by Kay Thompson's dynamic editor Maggie Prescott. (On a contemporary note-- one can think of her as an earlier version of Vogue's Anna Wintour or her fictitious counterpart played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.)

Years later, when a journalist "made a mistake and spelled it" with a "p" instead of the film's "b," "pizzazz" was born in a superior form as both Gershe and Vreeland have noted (Silverman, 227), wishing all along that they'd said "pizzazz" instead.

With such show-stopping sequences as Thompson's "Think Pink," as she sets the trend that gray, red, blue and all the other colors have had their day, "Think Pink" is also the name of Disc 2's best featurette that offers a wonderfully inspiring look at Thompson's incredible life. However, not willing to let an early number top the rest, Donen continues to awe with more iconic scenes including Hepburn's memorable black outfit (and white socks she loathed) worn in her Parisian bohemian cafe solo dance that was later made famous in a Gap Ad and the terrific "Clap Yo' Hands" number that Astaire hated (Silverman, 236).

Likewise, it's quite a treat to see the film restored in its visual splendor that's enhanced for 16x9 widescreen televisions and offered up in both the restored two-channel original mono sound along with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround.

Essentially the same type of Cinderella or Pygmalion-like story that Hepburn specialized in with various May/December romances like Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon and others, while the Givenchy fashions that adorned the star and the Parisian landmarks included throughout make it a feast for the senses, Donen and his cast had to work wonders to hide the vast amount of rain that flooded the shoot when they moved to France.

Culminating in a final number "He Loves, She Loves" with Astaire and Hepburn that resulted in numerous pairs of white pumps being ruined in the soggy ground-- Astaire still recalls his "favorite remark of all time" which Hepburn's son Sean Hepburn Ferrer cited in his book Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit: A Son Remembers (57) which was uttered by an exasperated and good-humored Hepburn who joked, "Here I have waited twenty years to dance with Fred Astaire, and what do I get? Mud!"

Noting that it was solely because of Audrey's request for him to take part in the film that made the actor commit as "otherwise, I never would have made it," (Hepburn Ferrer, 56), while Silverman's interviewees including Thompson and Donen recall some intensely difficult days with Astaire on the set, the film remained a personal favorite of Hepburn's and one that her son especially enjoys himself.

As he writes, "I have often been asked which of my mother's films I love best. Every time I watch Funny Face... it fills me with joy to see her soar and dance away after all those years... She gets to spread her wings and fly away on a dancing whirlwind that had been bottled up for years," (49).

For, as the ballet trained actress so malnourished from the war that her frame was unable to support a future in dance had had to put away her earliest desire in favor of acting, Hepburn's sheer exuberance in the role of the intellectual bookseller turned fashion model Jo is easily noticed the first time we see her break out of her elegant shell and let it all out in that wondrous bohemian cafe scene that still dazzles more than fifty years later.