Classic Film of the Week #10: Funny Face (1957)

It's Audrey Hepburn week! At least in my house. I've spent the last few days watching through the majority of her 1950s filmography, and in the midst of it I discovered a magical little masterpiece, the perfect film to serve as the first technicolor picture I highlight in this series: Funny Face, the most fun and stylish musical this side of Golden Age Hollywood.
Directed by Stanley Donen, Funny Face stars Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, and Kay Thompson. Maggie Prescott (Thompson) is the publisher of Quality, a popular fashion magazine, and she's on the lookout for a new, fresh face for the cover of her latest issue. While out on a location shoot with photographer Dick Avery (Astaire), the pair meet Joe Stockton (Hepburn), the intellectual employee of the bookstore they've chosen to crash for their photo-shoot. Maggie and Joe want nothing to do with each other, but Dick manages to convince the pair that Joe would be the perfect kind of fresh blood for the magazine. This arrangement ensures that not only will Maggie gets her new breed of model, but also that Joe will get to go to Paris, where she'll fulfill her dream of hearing a lecture by her favorite philosopher. All seems right with the world, until Joe finds her new, exciting life as a model clashing with the scholarly pursuits that have always defined her--forcing her to decide whether to return to her old life, or try to forge a new path that has room for both.

Funny Face is a musical about fashion and photography, starring a trio of actors who perfectly embody both fun and class. It's all right there from the opening credits: this is a film that rips its visual style straight out of 1950s fashion magazines, full of vivid colors and delightfully vintage compositions that give the film a unique visual flair among the other technicolor musicals of its day.  But despite this film's reverence for the style of fashion magazines, it's not without criticism for the fashion world as a whole, offering an amusing twist on the Cinderella story where Joe's chief ambition is not to be a beautiful and famous model, but simply to sit in a cafe and discuss empathy with a truly great mind. I like the way the film equally pokes fun at the vapid, shallow models and the pretentious, verbose intellectuals, with the naive-at-heart Joe stuck in the middle trying to find her place in the whole mess.

Now, Audrey Hepburn's casting as the titular Funny Face does follow that age-old trend of casting gorgeous women in frumpy roles--it does feel a little ridiculous having other characters call Audrey's face "funny" when hers is the most conventionally attractive of anyone in the cast! But of all the instances of this kind of casting, I think this one actually works: so much of Audrey's beauty really does come from the way she carries and expresses herself, and slouching in that oversized jumper with pretentious ramblings about Embryo Concepts always on the tip of her tongue, it's not hard to see why Joe's potential has been overlooked until Dick comes along. Now, here's where the one big flaw of the film emerges, and that's the relationship between Joe and Dick. Hepburn is quite infamous for being paired with much older men in her films, but this one really takes the cake: not only is the pairing awkward visually, but the two don't have any romantic chemistry to help make up the difference. If I could make one change to this film to have it be perfect, it would be for the love story to occur between Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson instead; they make such a great team here, with their undercover entry into the house of Joe's revered philosopher standing as one of the highlights of the film. I think they would make a great fashion world power-couple, with Joe as their little ingenue.

Above all, what really sets this film apart is its beautiful, memorable visuals. I was especially impressed with an extended sequence that takes place entirely in Dick's darkroom, the wonderful technicolor restricted to a bold juxtaposition of black and red; this color scheme is repeated in Joe's beloved Parisian cafe, which also has a rather thick cloud of cigarette smoke filling the frame--I've certainly never seen that in a classic musical before, but it really adds to the atmosphere of the scene and is even rather striking with the cafe's brightly colored lights shining through it. And then, of course, there's the amazing montage of Dick dragging Joe all over Paris for her big photo-shoot. The resulting photographs are stunning, truly worthy of a cover story in a major magazine, and the sheer array of colors presented in this sequence is astounding, from the brimming flower shop, to the rainbow of balloons, to Audrey's iconic bright red dress. Technicolor musicals are known for being stunning to look at, but among all those I've seen, I must say this is the most lovely of all.

 Funny Face is a beautiful, charming, and fun film that is not only a highlight of Audrey Hepburn's filmography, but of 1950s musicals as a whole. Well-worth watching for all fans of fashion, Hepburn, Astaire, and musicals, Funny Face comes highly recommended and is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and as a showing on TCM.


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