On the fashionable/unfashionable style of Stanley Donen’s 1957 musical. Plus, a digression on Rouben Mamoulian’s neglected Silk Stockings.
Stanley Donen’s très cool Funny Face—a film I’ve seen numerous times, though not since my early twenties—strikes a pose on the big screen as part of this year’s Autumn Events slate, and I can’t think of a more attractive big screen musical to grace the country’s three grandest picture palaces (Auckland’s Civic, Wellington’s Embassy, and Dunedin’s Regent Theatre). Donen, one of the great directors of musicals, has certainly made better films in (and outside of) this most Hollywood of genres: Singin’ in the Rain (1952), obviously, but also The Pajama Game (1957) and On the Town (1949), and later with Audrey Hepburn, Charade (1963) and Two for the Road (1967). What distinguishes Funny Face from these movies is ‘the look’—from Richard Avedon’s sleek opening title sequence, to the parade of designer outfits on location in Gay Paree, to the supreme artifice of the mise en scène, Donen’s musical remains a gloriously aesthetic expression of the radiance and glamour so intrinsic to the allure of cinema. Funny Face’s appeal is still potent for me—Audrey Hepburn and Gershwin will never go out of fashion—but with the chance to revisit it after all these years, has anything else changed?
Whether Funny Face works as a satire or not (something I’ll touch on later), as a film about the fashion world, it is itself at once artful and superficial, by turns elegant and aloof. Moreover, how has this colourful yet conservative Hollywood musical, made at a time when the genre was swiftly going out of fashion, managed to transcend its limitations? The simple answer is written in the stars. Besides the fact that Audrey Hepburn was an impressive actress given the right material, the style icon’s sophisticated beauty and demure charm has allowed for even the mediocre films she appeared in to endure. Suspiciously placed alongside genuine classics (Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Charade) and ahead of forgotten ones (Love in the Afternoon, Robin and Marian, They All Laughed), the oft-quoted Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains the most popular example of Hepburn’s blinding incandescence: seduced by her cool indifference, little black dress, and ‘Moon River’ serenade, audiences have embraced a film that, if you’ve ever read (and loved) Truman Capote’s novella, is wildly at odds with the original story, not to mention embarrassingly racist in its Orientalism.
In the case of Funny Face, what’s questionable yet casually overlooked in the afterglow of Hepburn’s starpower is the film’s slavish adherence to the ‘ugly duckling’ myth. Playing to ingénue type, Hepburn’s Jo Stockton, an unassuming Greenwich Village book clerk, is discovered by Dick Avery (Fred Astaire), a smooth-talking fashion photographer. Sensing a new vogue for ‘intellectual chic’, Dick convinces her to give modeling a go—though all that’s really on Jo’s mind as an earnest young thinker is the chance to be in Paris to meet the key figure of a French philosophical movement. There, and despite Jo’s contempt for the fashion industry, a predictable metamorphosis takes place, where she is transformed by a savvy magazine publisher (Kay Thompson), a crack team of stylists, and an entire collection of Givenchy gowns into the proverbial white swan—the final image of her gliding over a pond in a wedding dress to ‘S’Wonderful’ says as much.
What’s wrong with this picture? The assumption that Hepburn’s bohemian waif needs a makeover, not only in her new occupation as a model but in life and love as well, and that by conforming to conventional beauty standards she is better off for it. This magic notion of self-improvement, the stuff of noxious Reality TV shows and body image anxiety, is also continually reinforced in trite romantic comedies—one in particular, The Devil Wears Prada (2006), an analogous send-up of the fashion industry which, like Funny Face, grants its leading lady (Anne Hathaway, another gamine specimen) professional and personal success only when she begins to dress and groom accordingly. Both films feature obligatory makeover sequences and dramatic reveals, while Funny Face includes a song instructing Jo ‘On How to Be Lovely’. The tune is fairly innocent—listen to the lyrics, which coach self-confidence and a cheerful disposition over feminine refinement—and yet it worryingly echoes My Fair Lady’s ‘The Rain in Spain’ number, sung as an exercise to rehabilitate Eliza Doolittle’s unladylike accent into “proper English.” In the film version of the Broadway musical, Eliza is played by Hepburn with more than a hint of déjà vu: Funny Face is to a certain degree a Pygmalion story, only minus the necessary cynicism and social critique.
Our awareness of beauty standards and gender biases is as intense as it has ever been in today’s hypermediated world, so it’s a mystery to me why a film like Funny Face still tends to be spoken of in timeless rather than dated terms. For one, it’s an extremely archaic concept that a woman should have to choose between her intellectual pursuits and the promise of fortune and love, and that they are mutually exclusive in terms of happiness. What’s more, viewed today the film’s none-too-subtle reliance on Cinderella tropes to augment its bridal fantasy—especially the allusions to princesses and aristocracy through costume and roleplay, and the fairytale overtones of its locations and soft focus cinematography—is regressive, if not wrongly suggestive that Jo, a smart, independent female role model to begin with, is oppressed. To be clear, the film’s capacity for romance is not being disputed here. In the same way Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak were always going to seal Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a kiss, Funny Face was never going to end ambiguously for its lovers—that much is certain. But what can’t so easily be excused is the lasting impression that Jo, in saying “yes” to Dick’s chauvinism and the conventional wisdom of his peers, has seemingly abandoned her values and personal style, and that this is some kind of victory we’re supposed to revel in.
This is rightly not an occasion for celebration in The Beauty Jungle (1964), a similar, if pessimistic, melodrama about a working class woman who is moulded into a professional pageant girl. Directed by Val Guest, the film is a sleazy artifact of Mad Men-era sexism—one soon loses count of the amount of times its lead actress, Janette Scott, is groped, ogled, or dressed in nothing but a cantilever bra—and even more problematic is the sense that she’s punished for her ambition once she begins to turn heads on the glamour contest circuit. Conclusively, though, the film does not afford its protagonist the escape of a happy ending: her dreams of becoming a fashion designer are neither realised nor retained, while her romantic prospects with the male lead (Ian Hendry) are irrevocably damaged. She has remodeled herself, but at what cost?
It’s also revealing to view Funny Face in relation to patterns of sexist casting in movies: Fred Astaire is a thinning 57-year-old bachelor who gets to pull a 28-year-old cutie in Audrey Hepburn. To this day, this age discrepancy exists in the same order, though seldom the other way around, as it does concerning age versus work opportunities, where it would be stating the obvious to acknowledge that the career life of an actress is vastly inferior to that of an actor in show business. In this regard, Funny Face is particularly unkind on Dovima, the slinky Vogue supermodel who is deemed obsolete by the magazine’s editorial department the instant Hepburn’s “new, fresh, unusual” look comes along. Recruited to play an air-headed yet stunningly photogenic covergirl with a boorish suburban twang—too bad the role is a throwaway variation on Jean Hagen’s whining diva from Singin’ in the Rain—her cameo grates because she is cheaply devalued by the scriptwriters as a woman of no significance or self-respect; when asked to act “profound” in a photo shoot themed around an art exhibition, all she can think of as she poses against an avant-garde sculpture is “picking up Harold’s laundry.” (Later in the scene, she’s seen reading a Minutemen comic book.) This shrill, crudely domesticated characteristation is less funny than it is lazy and mean-spirited.
Hepburn’s screen legacy featured many May-December romances, and it’s important to note that earlier in Sabrina, she played an unworldly young woman who leaves for Paris and returns as a European sophisticate, much to the delight of her previously uninterested suitors (William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, the latter aged 54). Even so, while the precedent may not have been set by Funny Face, it somehow feels more culpable, especially when we take into account its image consciousness and allegiance to style over substance, which in turn undermine its effectiveness as a satire of bohemian and bourgeois tastes. Rather poorly, Donen doesn’t so much as satirise the leotard-wearing, bongo-drumming set as he sneers and ultimately dismisses it through a series of glib asides centred on Jo’s devotion to ‘Empathaticalism’, an apparent dig at Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism. Meanwhile, the fashionistas are portrayed knowingly, amusingly, but above all affectionately as creative allies—hardly surprising, given that imagination and frivolity have always been essential to the output of Hollywood’s dream factory.
What hints there are at fashion’s ridiculousness are too few and too brief. Most successful is the film’s opening sequence, ‘Think Pink!’, a bright song and dance number caricaturing the trendsetter’s fickle and endless pursuit of the ‘new black’, replete with a clever advertising montage demonstrating insidious commercial applications of the habitually feminised colour. The reflexivity of this scene, however, is not sustained. Funny Face ultimately fails as a satire because of its unwillingness to highlight both the hipness of the anti-establishment and the gospel of high fashion as equal, interchangeable fads. Though evidently as pretentious and meaningless as one another, the two subcultures are framed unevenly: the Left Bank crowd, with its chin-stroking Empathaticalist leader who’s exposed as a disingenuous lech, is a simplistic parody of the Beatnik craze; while the fashion experts, guided by the bold and authoritative presence of Kay Thompson’s editor-in-chief Maggie Prescott (channeling Diana Vreeland), are far too fabulous to ever be thought of as shallow and materialistic in the circumstances. Observing the potential for great satire in Funny Face, and the missed opportunity it presents, one can only imagine it in the hands of Frank Tashlin, a brilliant satirist of creative industries and popular culture whose sharpest films—Susan Slept Here (1954), Artists and Models (1955), The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)—were made in close proximity.
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Toothless satire it may be, purely as a musical, Funny Face is splendid. An exclamation mark on Hollywood’s Francophilia, ‘Bonjour Paris’ is a sprightly, split-screen travelogue of Paris where the dynamic movement through real locations recalls Donen’s trailblazing On the Town. Memorable, too, is the aforementioned ‘Think Pink!’, a fun showcase for the spunky Thompson, perfectly cast in her only big screen role. Also worth singling out is Hepburn’s underrated singing voice—not as polished or as powerful as a professional’s—but endearingly affected and appropriately her own (unlike in My Fair Lady, where her renditions were dubbed out). And when Hepburn finally gets her modelling act together, we’re treated to the film’s most beautiful passage: a fashion spread in motion, set off against the Louvre, Arc de triomphe, and River Seine, and shot in vibrant Technicolor, with the images ever so slightly diffused as per the magazine art direction of the era. Finally, there’s Fred Astaire, nearing retirement, but classy all the way, such as in the scene where he woos Hepburn with a solo tap number improvised from a raincoat and umbrella—quintessential Astaire from go to whoa.
Speaking of Astaire—and it seems sacrilege to have not spotlighted the dance legend’s role until now—it’s vital to remind ourselves that, as a sign of the times, he only starred in two more musicals following Funny Face. The first of those films, Silk Stockings, was also released in 1957, and despite its technical and poetic brilliance, has somehow remained in the shadow of Funny Face—an injustice, as it is the last great musical of its kind. Lifted from a Cole Porter stage hit, in turn a spinoff of the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka, it was a fitting swansong for Astaire as the studio system faded to black. For the dance extraordinaire, years of television followed, before one last musical hurrah in the forgettable Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and two joyous That’s Entertainment installments with Gene Kelly in the seventies—erstwhile longings for the once-popular movie genre and bygone era it flourished from within. As bittersweet farewells go, it was also the final—and arguably, best—film Rouben Mamoulian would direct.
A brief introduction to Mamoulian: an inventive filmmaker who in the thirties delivered the first three-strip Technicolor movie (Becky Sharp, 1935) and the classic Garbo melodrama Queen Christina (1933, famous for the bedroom-stroking scene, and an inscrutable close-up of the actress’s face that, rather than ending the picture, carried it into eternity), Mamoulian’s output was as fraught as it was erratic in subsequent decades, the reasons for which seemed to amount to his technical prowess—an attribute perceived to be the one and only statement behind his films. In the latter half of his career, when not re-editing Michael Powell’s Gone to Earth at the request of serial meddler David O. Selznick (released stateside as The Wild Heart), or getting kicked off the likes of Cleopatra and Porgy and Bess, the director bided his time between the stage and screen. Following two respectable Tyrone Powers vehicles for Fox (The Mask of Zorro, 1940; Blood and Sand, 1941), the few opportunities he received thereafter were minor outings: Rings on Her Fingers (1942), a Preston Sturges knock-off derivative of The Lady Eve (it even starred Henry Fonda), and the Arthur Freed-produced Summer Holiday (1947), a serviceable slice of Americana modelled to recapture the nostalgic glory of Meet Me in St. Louis. It wasn’t until nearly ten years later that Silk Stockings would present itself to Mamoulian, and ironically, the exile he had endured working in theatre and staging musicals goes someway to explaining the unheralded qualities of the film.
Not your standard studio musical, Silk Stockings is an exception among Broadway hits writ large for the screen—many of which, it has to be said, feel like mechanical reproductions and neglect the unique and kinetic dimensions of cinema. Stage musicals like My Fair Lady (as opposed to film musicals like Singin’ in the Rain), while lavishly costumed and impressively art directed, tend to fall flat as motion pictures even if they do manage to sweep their audiences up in song, and Mamoulian’s varied work experience had its advantages in creating a version that existed on its own terms. On account of its deft, able-bodied camera work—Mamoulian may have hated working in Cinemascope, and yet through a combination of elegant masters and sprightly tracking shots, delivered a truly distinctive widescreen musical—Silk Stockings is no mere ‘filming’ of stage material. There’s nothing staid or prefabricated about this late-breaking Hollywood musical, and the way it harnesses width and movement in both its dance choreography and shot blocking is inspired, exemplified in such numbers as ‘The Red Blues’, a frenzied Russian dance off featuring multiple performers, and the ingenious showbiz duet ‘Stereophonic Sound’.
‘Stereophonic Sound’, performed by Astaire and Janis Page (incidentally, playing a kind of spoof of the Jean Hagen prima donna archetype, only with the insipid M-G-M swimming star Esther Williams as the target), also brings into sharp relief the qualities Funny Face lacks. In this keenly sardonic take on the movie industry’s scramble to satisfy audiences and maintain its relevancy, the duo, singing to a congregation of the press while teasing out the conspicuous proportions of the widescreen frame, rattle off such peppy yet cynical sound bites as:
If Zanuck’s latest picture were the good old-fashioned kind/ There’d be no one in front to look at Marilyn’s behind…
The customers don’t like to see/ The groom embrace the bride/ Unless her lips are scarlet/ And her bosom’s five feet wide…
If Ava Gardner played Godiva/ Riding on a mare/ The people wouldn’t pay a cent/ To see her in the bare…
Unless she had glorious Technicolor/ Cinecolor or/ Warnercolor or/ Pathécolor or/ Eastmancolor or/ Kodacolor or/ Any color and/ Stereophonic sound!
While this number is a hoot, there’s more to be said of the film’s rich emphasis on movement, and how its performers aren’t solely dependent on lyrics to carry an emotional throughline. Silk Stockings is a superb musical but an even better dance film, with its gestural choreography showing, rather than telling, us what the characters are privately experiencing. As a point of comparison, the closest Funny Face comes to striking a true emotional chord is with ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’, a soul-searching solo where Jo’s feelings of arousal and longing are illustrated through her frolic with an extravagant designer hat (a sharp visual contrast to her beige tabard and black turtleneck, an iconic ensemble in its own right). Of course, the song spells out exactly what Jo is thinking, and although it’s a stirring rendition, it comes at an inopportune time in the film, which early on is in too much of a rush to get to Paris. In its haste, a lot is taken for granted; Donen knows the images are gorgeous, and lets them speak for everything else. In a fashion sense, what he doesn’t grasp is the ineffable pull of aesthetic objects—what it means to admire a well-dressed man or woman, or how it feels to desire an exquisite piece of clothing—though this is hardly unexpected when he has the incandescent Hepburn to simply wear the couture and highlight its form, all the while drawing our attention and holding it in thrall.
Silk Stockings, a film that introduces the possibilities of aesthetic pleasure through a clash of ideologies, explores the idea of attraction with a lot more feeling. Its protagonist Ninotchka eventually succumbs to the temptation of ‘nice things’, one of her material discoveries being the titular silk stockings. Her awakening is fraught with the same questions raised by Jo’s character arc—as in, should we really be taking comfort in her choices?—and yet there’s something far less contrived about the way her personal journey is drawn. It all comes down to Mamoulian’s renowned ability to convey vivid emotional states, and in Silk Stockings, it is dancing, not singing, that articulates emotion at pivotal junctures in the narrative. As British film critic Tom Milne describes in his book Rouben Mamoulian, it is the physical attraction between the leads that is declared through “movement rather than words,” and with a chemistry that is largely absent from Funny Face’s love affair. Later, when Ninotchka handles her silk stockings in secret (similar to the treatment of the hat in ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’), the role that dance plays in translating the thrill of this moment is really quite sensual and expressive—the appreciation of this garment through touch and body language verges on fetishism.
There are some uncanny similarities between Funny Face and Silk Stockings: both stories are set in Paris and around artists and entertainers; both romances involve Astaire attempting to court and assimilate an unmaterialistic woman of strong intellect and principle; and both productions were released the same year and in the twilight of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Side by side, though, and Silk Stockings is clearly the wittier, more satirical film of the two—fuelled, no doubt, by the political content of the narrative (Ninotchka, played by Cyd Charisse, is a dour Soviet communist; her admirer, Fred Astaire, is a brash movie producer and raging American capitalist). Rhetorical banter from the left and right ricochets around in equal measure, and while liberty eventually gets the upper hand, I’d argue that this outcome, when compared to Funny Face’s ‘happily ever after’ denouement, is far from a straightforward fairytale ending. Indeed, the real fantasy at work here—the socialist ideal, according to Hollywood and its censors—makes way for the oppressive reality that Ninotchka and her comrades will defect to the West, as if they had any other choice as characters in a late McCarthy era picture.
What qualifies Silk Stockings as a satire, above all else, is how conscious it is of its decadence, whether depicting the excess of its characters or enjoying its own expenditure, as well as the folly of its own making as a production out-of-touch with where the world was heading. Crucially, it’s a film that’s playfully self-aware of its own mortality. While there’s a whiff of Hollywood’s desperation in the lyrics to ‘Stereophonic Sound’, a light air of resignation lingers elsewhere. It’s as if these entertainers—from ballerina-turned-movie star Cyd Charisse and her million dollar legs, to émigré character actor Peter Lorre, to filmmaker Mamoulian himself—sensed their time was up, though they sure would have fun while it lasted. To that end, the film’s concluding number is a very deliberate and celebratory adieu to twinkle toes Fred Astaire, the most illustrious of Hollywood’s stars. Donning his favourite costume—top hat, tails, and a cane—Astaire’s ‘The Ritz Rock ‘n’ Roll’ solo is one of his finest musical moments. In its finality, it’s also a doubly poignant encore—a changing of the guard in which classical (ritz) style makes way for contemporary (rock) attitude, symbolised with a triumphant smash as Astaire flattens his top hat.
Both Silk Stockings and Funny Face end on a crescendo—they are, after all, unapologetic Hollywood musicals, the apotheosis of cinematic escapism. However, while they may sing the same tune overall, it is Funny Face’s flight of fancy that leaves us with our heads in the clouds. Silk Stockings, with its sometimes mordant humour, parting atmosphere, and rare “emotional depth,” mitigates the power of fantasy that movies of Funny Face’s visual calibre overwhelm us with. And when one is dazzled, it’s all-too-easy to ignore the beauty myths, double standards, and stifling conformism at play. Make no mistake: Funny Face is magnificent entertainment, a real treat on the big screen, and over half a century later, at the height of vintage fashion. But after indulging in its glamour, seek out the superior Silk Stockings—you’ll see why its neglect from the musical canon is hard to understand.