Funny Face (Blu-ray Review)21 Apr, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Kay Thompson.
One of the most beautiful-looking movies ever to come out of Hollywood, Funny Face started out as an MGM CinemaScope project, which might have had severe ramifications in terms of its artistic durability had that plan continued. Instead of the VistaVision-Technicolor pedigree the movie now carries thanks to its pre-production sale as a package to Paramount, it would have been photographed in CinemaScope and shoddy Metrocolor — unless it turned out to be one of those very rare cases as with High Society (North by Northwest was the other) where Metro utilized the vastly superior process. Either way, the film benefits from the continued participation of Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, a Gershwin score and Stanley Donen directing against Paris locales and runway lushness. But without what the ads used to term “Motion Picture High Fidelity,” the all-important cosmetics wouldn’t have had nearly the snap they had and still do on this scrumptious Blu-ray, another Paramount holding recently leased for release by Warner Home Entertainment. Thank you, VistaVision, the greatest eye candy ever — though one with only a four-year-and-change heyday despite its subsequent utilization as a component in more modern movies’ special effects.
Stunning Hepburn is something of a special effect herself here — well on her way by this time to becoming the permanent personification of ’50s fashion-plate-chic and cast as an intellectually motivated Greenwich Village book store employee whose face isn’t funny at all, though the movie might stop in its tracks if Astaire (taking off on Richard Avedon as a high-end fashion photographer) didn’t think she had one. Fred’s is a sentiment echoed by the glam-magazine editor who employs him, a ticklishly amusing turn by Kay Thompson (then in her Eloise glory) that manages to be both edgy and warm as it keeps full pace with the performances of her better known co-stars. Thompson’s publication is looking for a “new look” for its femme readers to emulate, as if it were all that easy to replicate Hepburn.
The actress’s exceedingly touching rendition of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” early in the film shows that she really could sing capably enough — though maybe not up to the demands of My Fair Lady, whose voice-dubbing efforts by Marni Nixon provided some with an excuse to undervalue her performance there (which, as a Hepburn lover, has always kind of honked me off). Astaire, of course, had a voice that meshed with Gershwin music all the way back to his early career, and this movie’s Verve soundtrack album — taken right off the print and not redone in any studio recording session — may have come about due to Astaire’s relationship with Verve, which had resulted in a landmark boxed set of standards given jazzy renditions late in 1952.
Astaire and Thompson want to whisk their hugely disinclined discovery to Paris for a series of shoots, and she finally agrees by rationalizing the trip as a chance to catch some lectures delivered by philosophers who advertise gray matter but (they’re men, after all) only want to get into Hepburn’s knickers. This leads to some comedy that gets a tad labored (though only a tad) late in the picture — which is really the only thing that bothers me about what is otherwise a screen delight. I saw Funny Face at age 9 during its first-run engagement in 1957, a spring in which my musical tastes were otherwise running toward Elvis’s "All Shook Up" and Buddy Knox’s "Party Doll." Seeing both Hepburn or Astaire on screen for the first time, I was immediately hooked on both, and when Astaire’s 1959 autobiography Steps in Time came out in ’59, I read it right away.
The one unfortunate thing about VistaVision at the time was its absence of stereo soundtracks in almost every instance, but there’s been some moderate 5.1 jerry-building here, and the color is about as rich as home entertainment gets. Even with this, though, is it possible the latter could have been even better? When Funny Face came out on DVD the last time around, it was one of those cases (as with To Catch a Thief and, pretty sure, Artists and Models) where Paramount went back to the original VistaVision elements for a release that knocked off socks — some of them hopefully as cool as the ones Astaire wears here (his entire wardrobe in the movie is a constant marvel of understated pizzazz). I assumed this Blu-ray inherited the fruits of those DVD labors, and maybe it did — but I see that a contributor to Gary Tooze’s essential DVDBeaver.com website opines that this new release might have been taken from an earlier version.
If so, it’s like choosing between Grace Kelly and Catherine Deneuve — and the bottom line is that we’re talking of a jewel I’ll be popping in the player again before very long. One doesn’t quite know what to expect out of Paramount catalog releases these days, even with the added Warner logo/imprimatur many of them now carry. The recent dreadful Warner/Paramount Blu-ray of Hatari! looks like VHS and not particularly great VHS at that. But this is way different. If you invited a potential girlfriend or boyfriend over to see the new Funny Face and they couldn’t see the difference between it and VHS, it would be time to call a dating service.