Funny Face (1957)
Audrey Hepburn had always wanted to work with Fred Astaire, and she finally got her chance in Funny Face. In this shimmering, stylish musical, Astaire is a successful fashion photographer, Hepburn is a reluctant model, and they’re both loose in Paris!
Funny Face features a collection of classic Gershwin tunes, and shares the name of a 1927 George and Ira Gershwin musical. But, oddly enough, Funny Face was not actually based on that stage show. That “Funny Face” has a completely different plot–something about three sisters and a heist.
Despite the plot difference, four of the songs from the musical show up in the movie. And “Funny Face” the show and Funny Face the movie do share something else in common: Fred Astaire. He and his sister Adele had starred in the musical on Broadway and then in London in the late ’20s. The same thing happened with The Band Wagon (1953); Astaire starred in the 1931 musical and the movie, though they share little besides a title and a few songs.
Funny Face was actually based on an un-produced play called “Wedding Day” by Leonard Gershe, who also penned the screenplay. Gershe was friends with legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon, and he based Astaire’s character Dick Avery on his shutterbug pal. Jo Stockton, played by Hepburn, was inspired by Avedon’s wife Doe who was a model and actress.
Roger Edens, a producer within MGM’s fabled Freed unit that was responsible for musicals like Meet Me in St Louis, The Harvey Girls, and The Band Wagon, purchased the film rights to “Wedding Day.” He bought the play with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in mind, but there was a problem.
Hepburn was under contract at Paramount, and she was one of the studio’s biggest stars. Paramount wasn’t going to loan her to MGM to make this movie. And Astaire was freelancing, though he had a one-picture obligation outstanding to Paramount.
MGM could have cast some of the stars it had under contract (apparently Cyd Charisse‘s name was thrown around), or waited to see if Paramount might eventually be willing to work out a deal for Hepburn.
But instead, MGM allowed Edens to take the project to Paramount. And he took more than the film rights. MGM loaned out several key personnel from the Freed Unit, including director and choreographer Stanley Donen, cinematographer Ray June, musical director Adolph Deutsch, choreographer Eugene Loring, and arranger Conrad Salinger. So, although this is technically a Paramount production, it’s really an MGM-Freed Unit film made at Paramount.
Fun fact: as you can see in this spectacular main title sequence, Richard Avedon was hired as a “special visual consultant” to help the filmmakers achieve the high-fashion look they wanted. He designed these opening titles and worked with Donen on several other fashion sequences within the movie.
Another fun fact: this was Stanley Donen’s first of three films starring Audrey Hepburn. He would go on to direct her in Charade (1963) and Two for the Road (1967).
To the film! We open on the colorful offices of Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), editor-in-chief of the fashion magazine Quality, a stand-in for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Kay Thompson was a performer, arranger, choral director, and vocal coach who worked at MGM from 1943-1948. She was responsible for the vocal arrangements for many of the Freed musicals, and was the vocal coach for Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and Frank Sinatra, among others. She had a nightclub act but this was her only large film role, and she practically steals the picture.
Fun fact: despite her huge contributions to Hollywood, Thompson is best remembered today for writing the Eloise children’s books.
Ms. Prescott is not happy this morning. She explains to her assembled underlings that the latest issue lacks pizzazz. She can’t possibly publish it because she would be letting down the American Woman, who is standing naked waiting for Quality to tell her what to wear!
Maggie’s pessimistic appraisal of the substandard issue turns to fevered inspiration when she glimpses that oddly long, pink matchbook. She decides that what the issue and the world needs is pink! So begins the wonderful “Think Pink” number, part work-place dance, part fashion shoot.
Maggie sends her employees scrambling to spread the news about the craze she just manufactured. While they scurry around, we get an awesome fashion magazine-style number to demonstrate Maggie’s success at promoting pink.
Richard Avedon assisted the filmmakers with the “Think Pink!” fashion montage, and the whole thing looks as though it came straight out of a 1957 Vogue. Each image could be framed and displayed in cunning arrangements on chic walls, which would then be endlessly snapped for Instagram and trendy home design blogs, #vintagechic. Perhaps with a low vase of white roses on a Lucite tray, or a stack of artfully staged books or the latest issues of Vogue? #style #blessed
Fun fact: two of Avedon’s favorite models star in this sequence. The blonde is Sunny Hartnett (who appeared in Avedon’s famous roulette wheel photo), and the redhead is Suzy Parker. Parker was one of the top models in the world and also appeared in several films and television shows in the 1950s-1960s.
Side note: it strikes me how different this style of fashion photography is compared to the heroin chic/slouchy hunchback look you see more often today. These models looks happy and beautiful, not purposefully bummed out and huddled in a corner.
Notice that everything except for Maggie is drenched in that rosy hue. When an employee asks Maggie when she’ll start wearing the color she has proclaimed as the only chic option, she fires back, “Me? I wouldn’t be caught dead.”
Fun fact: Maggie Prescott is based on two fashion magazine icons: Diana Vreeland, long time Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor and later Vogue editor, and Carmel Snow, Harper’s Bazaar editor, who reigned at the magazine from 1934-1958. In fact, the film opens with the credit: “We are most grateful to Mrs. Carmel Snow and Harper’s Bazaar Magazine for their generous assistance.”
You can watch the scene, including “Think Pink!” here:
After pushing pink until the entire country looks like a Pepto-Bismol bottle, Maggie turns to her next project. She’s going to proclaim a lucky model the “Quality Woman,” and this paragon will represent the magazine and come to symbolize its ideals of grace, beauty, pizzazz, style, and smarts. That last one is very important to Maggie. She wants do something different; the Quality Woman will promote “clothes for the woman who isn’t interested in clothes.”
The search for the Quality Woman begins. Maggie sends her top photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) to photograph Marion, a nasally-voiced comic book enthusiast played by famous model Dovima, another Avedon regular. She’s the model from that notorious Avedon photograph with the elephants.
Fun fact: Dovima really enjoyed comic books in real life, which is why her character is given that amusing quirk. Also, despite her name and almost otherworldly appearance, Dovima was born in Queens, and got her exotic name by combining her real names Dorothy, Virginia, and Margaret.
Anyway, Dick realizes that this setup with the statue is not working. Perhaps Marion would appear more intellectual in another setting? The gang hops in some taxis and heads to Greenwich Village to find one of those dismal, “sinister” bookshops.
They find the perfect place, “Embryo Concepts,” which specializes in philosophic tomes. They invade, not realizing that the shop’s employee is perched on a ladder. Dick sends her careening into the wall, and things just get worse for Jo (Audrey Hepburn), the mousy assistant.
Maggie is a hurricane that can’t be stopped, and poor Jo is helpless to prevent her hostile takeover. Jo declares quite earnestly that she can’t allow them to use the shop because her boss says, and she agrees, that fashion magazines are “chichi and an unrealistic approach to self-impressions as well as economics.”
But Maggie ignores her, orders her troops to re-arrange all the books, and then sends Jo into the photograph. Maggie hopes that if Jo tells Marion about the esoteric concepts in the books it will make Marion appear smarter by osmosis.
Finally, the shoot is completed. The Quality staff leave the shop in a hurry, all except Dick, who stays behind to help Jo clean up. He chats with Jo, who explains that she subscribes to a philosophy called “Empathicalism” which is based around empathy. Dick tries it out, feels that Jo would like him to kiss her, and goes for it.
Jo kisses him back, but when the kiss ends she abruptly asks him to leave. Once he’s gone, though, she allows herself to surrender to what must have been an amazing kiss. It has woken her, like Sleeping Beauty, from her solely intellectual existence. And now she might be in love…again, it must have been one amazing kiss!
Here is Hepburn rehearsing this number with that fabulous veiled hat.
Fun fact: this song was cut from the 1927 stage version of “Funny Face” and slotted into another Gershwin musical called “Rosalie” (1928) before being revived in this film. Roger Edens purchased the Gershwin score to “Funny Face” from Warner Bros. before making this movie, and four of the original songs are included. Edens and Leonard Gershe wrote three new songs to round out the score.
Back at Quality, Maggie is discouraged by her options for the Quality Woman. She looks at her choices (left to right: Dovima, Sunny Hartnett, and Suzy Parker) and knows she needs someone else, someone who isn’t a famous model.
But she admits that Jo has a certain something…so she asks Dick to develop some close-ups and orders a delivery of books in order to get Jo to Quality. But things go badly when Jo arrives.
Rather than treat her like a human being and explain the Quality Woman project, Maggie and her assistants start undressing, tweaking, and trimming a very confused Jo.
When those enormous scissors appear, Jo makes a run for it. She ends up in the darkroom where Dick is currently blowing up images of her face. It would be creepy if this was a stalker film (Peeping Tom, anyone?), but instead it’s just a little weird. Fun fact: Avedon took these now iconic images of Hepburn.
Jo agrees that her face is “funny,” and says that she could never be a model! Plus, she doesn’t want to, as it is against all her principles. But her resolve wavers when Dick explains that the Quality Woman will get a free trip to Paris…Jo has been longing to meet Professor Flostre, the father of Empathicalism, and discuss all her favorite intellectual topics in Left Bank cafes.
By the end, Jo has made up her mind. She’ll be the Quality Woman if it gets her a trip to Paris and more time with this charming photographer.
Soon the whole gang is off to Paris! Fun fact: the cast spent about six weeks filming at Paramount Studios in Hollywood in the spring of 1956 before jetting off to Paris for another month of production from June 5-July 3.
It wasn’t the first time these stars had roamed the French capital (whether real or a Hollywood set). Funny Face was the second of Astaire’s three French musicals produced in the 1950s. He’d recently made Daddy Long Legs (1955), and would finish off the unofficial series with Silk Stockings (1957).
And of course Audrey Hepburn seems to have been perpetually gallivanting around Paris on movie sets. She had already made Sabrina (1954), and had just finished filming Love in the Afternoon (1957) before starting work on Funny Face. Later she would return to Paris for Charade (1963), Paris When It Sizzles (1964), and How to Steal a Million (1966).
The cast and crew arrived in Paris in the middle of an abnormally rainy summer, which changed the look of the Parisian exteriors in this film. It also delayed filming so that the production had to be extended by eleven days as they waited for a hint of sun or breaks in the downpours.
The sky is awfully grey and watery in the “Bonjour, Paris!” number, in which our three stars run around Parisian landmarks before meeting at the top of the Eiffel Tower. You can watch it here.
Here are Thompson, Astaire, and Hepburn filming the Eiffel Tower scene, though perhaps it is a rehearsal. Maggie is wearing a different coat.
Here is some behind the scenes footage; it’s rare to see actual video instead of photographs!
The purpose of this trip to Paris is to meet with big-time couture designer Paul Duval. He has agreed to design a special collection for the Quality Woman: Jo will wear the clothes, Dick will photograph them, and the photographs will appear exclusively in Quality.
But this grand plan hits a snag when Jo doesn’t show up for their first meeting with Duval. Dick goes searching for her in the smoky, intellectual dens on the Left Bank. He finds her excitedly discussing Empathicalism with some like-minded cronies in a dark cafe. The fact that her new pals only speak French and Jo only speaks English doesn’t seem to bother her. It does bother her, though, when Dick mocks them all. Jo heads to the dance floor to release her irritation in this now-iconic dance.
Here is Hepburn rehearsing. She trained as a ballerina until she turned to acting. She was excited to dance in this film, and especially to partner with the great Fred Astaire.
After Jo has finished dancing her feelings, Dick asks her why in the world she didn’t show up at Duval’s studio. She is shocked–no one told her she was supposed to be there! She promises to do better next time. Dick walks her to her apartment (though don’t you think everyone would be staying together at a hotel?) and Dick dances his apology for his boorish behavior.
It’s our lone Astaire solo, but he does his thing with an umbrella and raincoat/matador’s cape.
The next day, Jo shows up on schedule and the metamorphosis from be-smocked bookshop assistant to glamorous international model begins. When the curtain rises, Jo is the most gorgeous, elegant woman we’ve ever beheld.
Side note: The whole question of whether Jo/Audrey Hepburn can be a model with her “funny face” is doubly amusing because Hepburn is one of the biggest stars and style icons ever. She always looked elegant, and enjoyed a famous muse/designer relationship with Givenchy for most of her life. In fact, I rather think Duval is a stand-in for Givenchy in this movie. They even look alike!
Givenchy first met Hepburn when she was preparing for Sabrina and wanted some real Parisian couture for her triumphant return home. They instantly hit it off, and Givenchy would design her movie costumes and personal wardrobe for the rest of her life.
For this film, Edith Head designed Hepburn’s Greenwich Village smock and the other characters’ and models’ costumes, and Givenchy provided the “Duval” collection. He received screen credit for Hepburn’s “Paris Wardrobe.”
So, Hepburn was no stranger to couture and the world of fashion, and she was also one of the most photographed women in the world.
In a wonderful Vanity Fair piece about his mother’s life in Rome, Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti wrote about her relationship with photographers and the earliest forms of the paparazzi. While living in Rome, Hepburn decided to be photographed less and less, which Dotti ascribes partly to the fact that she spent so much of her life in front of cameras.
He writes, “I believe she still holds the record for magazine covers—she appeared on 650 of them. Without a doubt, this exposure meant a great deal of fame and a lot of glamour, but shooting that many magazine covers also meant she spent a total of nearly two years of her life doing only that. At a certain point, she decided she wanted to do something else.”
So although Hepburn was a model/celebrity/style icon who was frequently photographed in glorious couture, for the sake of the movie, pretend that Jo’s blossoming into a high-fashion model is not a foregone conclusion, and experience the thrill of a fantastic makeover.
Now that Jo has been transformed into a “bird of paradise,” as Duval calls her, she and Dick head out into Paris to photograph the collection. Richard Avedon helped out with this five minute sequence to give Dick’s photographs of Givenchy’s couture the proper look. It’s marvelous, especially if you love midcentury fashion and photography.
The first photographs are taken in the rain at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Tuileries Garden. Jo is nervous and unsure, but Dick gives her plenty of guidance, and the final photograph (bottom right) is a winner.
Then it’s Anna Karenina at the train station. Dick tells Jo that her “character” has endured a tragic love affair, and Jo responds quite properly with tears. She poses as steam billows and tears well up in her funny face. Fun fact: the dog in the basket is Hepburn’s terrier, Mr. Famous.
Then it’s on to flower market, the opera, a barge on the Seine where Jo accidentally catches a fish, and Versailles for a Cinderella-themed shot.
Quick look at two of these beautiful costumes:
The photo shoot is not over yet! They go to the Louvre where Jo hides behind the Winged Victory of Samothrace. She no longer needs Dick’s help getting in “character,” and she’s planning to surprise him.
I’d say the movie does a wonderful job of capturing Avedon’s style. For a comparison, here’s one of Avedon’s photographs of Suzy Parker in Paris:
There is one more gown to capture, so Dick and Jo leave Paris and head about twenty miles north to the Château de la Reine Blanche, just south of Chantilly. As Dick preps for the wedding gown shoot, a priest comes out of the chapel and assumes that Dick and Jo are actually getting married!
This causes Jo some distress, as she is afraid she is in love with Dick, and doubts it is requited. Plus, she feels dishonest posing in a wedding gown when she’s not a bride, and she’s upsettingly aware that her work with Dick is almost over. So she runs away to the back of the chapel.
Fun fact: this gorgeous building isn’t a chapel at all, though it plays one quite convincingly. It’s actually a hunting lodge.
Anyway, Dick comes looking for his model and Jo admits her feelings for him. He is surprised to realize that he loves her, too. So what if he’s thirty years older (Astaire was 58 to Hepburn’s 28, though it’s not nearly as creepy as Gary Cooper’s courtship of Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon!)
They’re finally in love. Hooray! And Dick assures Jo that if she wants to keep modeling, he’ll keep photographing her, and they’ll get to work together for a long time.
Jo pushes down her anti-fashion tendencies expressed so eloquently in her bookshop, and tells him she’ll keep modeling. Love conquers principles, apparently! But in her defense, this modeling isn’t nearly as stupid as she thought it would be.
As I mentioned, it was an extremely rainy summer in France, and the ground was very muddy when they filmed this scene. It was difficult to dance on such swampy ground, and several pairs of Hepburn’s white satin flats were ruined. It was definitely not ideal for an extended dance sequence.
Hepburn joked, “Here I’ve been waiting twenty years to dance with Fred Astaire, and what do I get? Mud!” But they powered through, and thanks to a healthy dose of diffusion which gives the images that soft, Impressionistic quality, you can’t even tell that Hepburn and Astaire are sinking into the mud. Though at times the diffusion is so intense that it looks as though we’re watching through a fogged over windshield.
You can watch it here:
Here they are rehearsing:
I love that shot of Astaire and Hepburn dancing in the soundstage.
Here is Hepburn testing the wedding dress at a fitting with Givenchy. The bodice is basically glued to her torso, and notice the little white bows on the veil at her crown and neck. We’ll see the wedding gown again in the fashion show.
Jo returns to Paris and meets Maggie at Duval’s salon for a run-through before the big “meet the press” event the following evening. Jo is nervous, but Maggie eases her mind with the “On How To Be Lovely” song. The number is charmingly and informally performed. Thank goodness there were pretty fringed tablecloths and napkins lying around!
You can watch the number here.
The next evening, Jo is ready to head to Duval’s in her bright blue satin cloak. But she hears that Professor Flostre, the father of Empathicalism, is making a rare visit to a cafe nearby. Jo can’t miss that opportunity, so she ducks into the smoky cafe in her couture.
An argument ensues, of course. Jo is embarrassed at how Dick treated Flostre, and bummed that she has to go model instead of indulging in philosophical conversation with her idol. The fight continues all the way to Duval’s, with Dick suggesting that Flostre is only interested in Jo because she is a beautiful young woman. She is highly insulted.
They argue all the way to Jo’s spot in the pretty “garden” while Maggie begins her introduction of the Quality Woman in front of the curtain.
It’s awfully sad, since Jo’s dress was so pretty before it got soaked by the errant fountain hose.
The event was a failure, and now Jo is nowhere to be found. Duval fears he is ruined; without Jo, he can’t show his collection! But Dick and Maggie know where she might be hiding. They impersonate two Empathicalist folk singers from Tallahassee in order to sneak into Professor Flostre’s house.
They have to fulfill their folk-singing duties before they can search for Jo, so they launch into “Clap Yo’ Hands,” a Gershwin tune that originally appeared in the 1926 musical “Oh, Kay!”
Dick and Maggie so spellbind the wacky audience (this scene is full of jokes and parodies of Left Bank overly-dramatic intellectuals) that Dick and Maggie are able to sneak upstairs to Flostre’s private quarters.
Their encounter with Jo and Flostre ends with the professor on the floor. Jo shouts at Dick and Maggie to go away, so they finally do. The Quality Woman project is in shambles.
Flostre recovers, and Jo apologizes for her ex-friends. But Jo quickly realizes that Flostre is more interested in her body than in her conversation. It seems that Dick was right. Jo clocks Flostre over the head with a sculpture to escape his unwanted advances.
Jo wows the crowd in a black cocktail dress, a cunning walking outfit, and a shockingly yellow gown with an iridescent wrap.
As Jo rushes to change between runway struts, she begs Maggie to find Dick and tell him she is sorry. He decided to return to New York after the fight at Flostre’s, but Jo hopes that Maggie can get a message to him before he takes off.
We cut between Jo walking the runway and frantic calls to Dick’s hotel and the airport. Then it’s the last outfit, the wedding gown, and all seems lost. Jo walks to the window and stares at an airplane as it flies away from Paris.
She runs off the runway and heads for that little chapel near Chantilly. Somehow it’s daytime again, but don’t worry about it.
Jo isn’t alone for long. Dick wasn’t on that plane, and he knew exactly where to find her after she fled Duval’s. He’s practically a bloodhound. This is the fourth time he’s had to track her down! All is forgiven, all is restored.
You can watch it here:
The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther found the film lovely, writing that Funny Face was a “conspicuously vernal musical picture…Nothing so colorful and glittering is likely until the bunny lays its eggs.”
“Indeed, it is reasonable to reckon that you won’t see a prettier musical film—or one more extraordinarily stylish—during the balance of this year. If you do you may count yourself fortunate, for this is a picture with class in every considerable department on which this sort of picture depends.”
He snarkily added that the Gershwin songs and the Cinderella plot are the oldest things in the movie, “barring Mr. Astaire.”
But, “For all the simplicity of [the Cinderella] fable, Leonard Gershe, who prepared the script, has made it spin by being lightly satiric of all the la-de-da of the dress trade, while taking a few good-natured tumbles out of the breast-beating Existentialists. And Roger Edens, the talented producer, and Stanley Donen, the director, have turned the whole thing into a lovely phantasm made up of romance, tourism and chic…The eye is intoxicated with exquisite color designs and graphic production numbers that are rich in sensory thrills.”
It is a beautiful movie, a “lovely phantasm” with jaw-dropping fashion and an elegant Avedon/Hepburn/MGM-via-Paramount look. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costumes. Unfortunately, it didn’t win any trophies.
Funny Face doesn’t take anything too seriously, sweetly mocking just about everything it touches. That tone, the timeless elegance of the fashion and music, and the eternal star power of Hepburn and Astaire keep the movie lighthearted and fresh so that it doesn’t become too dated or preachy.
And yes, there is a collection of dolls wearing every single costume from this film…