VUDU Diaries: ‘Funny Face’

‘S wonderful! ‘S marvelous! One of the biggest benefits of a streaming service like VUDU is the surprising wealth of movies available for high-definition viewing that can’t yet be found on Blu-ray, including a great many classic films. Recently, I took advantage of this to take a look at the famed 1957 musical ‘Funny Face’, starring the radiant Ms. Audrey Hepburn and the debonair Mr. Fred Astaire.

For much of my life, I’ve had an aversion to certain film genres, especially musicals and Westerns. This bias started in my youth, when Westerns seemed like my grandfather’s type of movie, and I just never understood the artifice of musicals. As I’ve aged and my tastes have expanded, I’ve tried to fill in some of the gaps in my cinematic knowledge. Westerns have been easier to appreciate, since most of them at least feature some shooting. Musicals, meanwhile, have largely remained a blind spot in my film education. When Mrs. Z announced that she had a hankering to watch this particular song-and-dance extravaganza, I decided to approach it with an open mind. At the very least, a young Audrey Hepburn could make anything worth watching.

Hepburn (then 28, just a few years after her breakout in ‘Roman Holiday’) stars as uptight book store clerk Jo Stockton. Despite fancying herself a Greenwich Village intellectual with no patience for the frivolities of life, Jo is “discovered” by magazine photographer Dick Avery (Astaire) and quickly swept up into the superficial world of high fashion. She agrees to become the spokesmodel face of Quality magazine, primarily because the job entails a trip to Paris, where she plans to attend a lecture by her favorite philosopher, Professor Emile Flostre, founder of the precept of Empathicalism, of which she cannot stop babbling.

Once in Paris, Dick and Jo spend a week touring the city, shooting photos in all manner of elaborate fashions (wardrobe courtesy of Givenchy) in front of famous landmarks, singing the tunes of George and Ira Gershwin, and of course falling in love. Their affair is briefly threatened by the attentions of Flostre, who turns out to be a womanizing creep. A few songs and some bumbling hijinks later, and all is set right with the world.

There’s not a whole lot of story complexity here, and some of the characters (especially the magazine editor, Miss Prescott, played by Kay Thompson) are inconsistently drawn. In one scene, Prescott’s a super-bitch ‘Devil Wears Prada’ type, but in the next, she’s giddily flitting around Paris, singing about the joys of being a tourist. I suppose the idea is that Paris is such a magical city that no one can help falling in love with it, but the Prescott character is a lot more fun when she’s jaded. The age difference between Astaire (pushing 60 at the time and looking every day of it) and Hepburn is also a real problem. Yes, he’s dashing, but Jo basically falls in love with her grandpa. It’s kind of disturbing.

That aside, the movie is bright and giddy fun. Its satirical jabs at both the fashion industry and Beatnik philosophers are pretty amusing. The musical set-pieces are frothy and well-orchestrated. Hepburn is luminous and Astaire is charming. Looking back on the film today is also like stepping back into the Paris of more than 50 years ago, which can be a nostalgic kick. While a number of scenes were clearly shot on studio soundstages, the movie has quite a lot of real location work in the city too, including one musical number on the Eiffel Tower that – if you were to tell me that it was just a set with a rear projection backdrop – well, it’s damned convincing.

‘Funny Face’ was originally photographed in the high-quality VistaVision format and Technicolor, which are at least somewhat evident in VUDU’s streaming version. The 1080p “HDX” transfer has bright, popping colors and a pretty good level of detail (especially in fabric textures). Unfortunately, the high-def image (framed at a screen-filling 16:9, which is an acceptable ratio for VistaVision) is clearly sourced from an older master. It suffers from some mild edge enhancement, DNR and occasional black crush. These problems are more distracting in some scenes than others. The edge ringing is pretty bad over the opening credits. Overall, it’s satisfyingly watchable, but I’d hope that an eventual domestic Blu-ray could benefit from a fresh film scan. (A Blu-ray is currently available in France, but reviews of that disc don’t sound much better than what I’ve described here.)

The Dolby Digital mono audio is likewise acceptable but imperfect. The movie was originally recorded in mono. Even though it received a 5.1 remix for DVD a few years back, this seems to be the original mix. I have no problem with that aspect (and in fact prefer it). However, while dialogue is clear, some of the songs are strident or warbly.

VUDU also provides an amusingly dated trailer that exclaims, “When Audrey rocks, you’ll really roll!” and boasts about her “dancing up a storm in every style, from ballet to bebop.”

3 comments

  1. EM

    Good for you, experimenting outside your established comfort zone.

    A year ago, I decided to experiment with westerns. I didn’t dislike the genre per se, but neither had I ever gotten into it. Trying to find westerns in my video library was akin to exploiting legal loopholes: “I suppose Back to the Future Part III counts, but I’ve always considered it more of a bonus feature. Oh, Old Yeller should count! How about Outland? Mmmm, and what about the Road Runner/Coyote shorts?!? Oh, and some Star Trek episodes qualify, kind of…” So, I tried some bona fide westerns out. I didn‘t fall in love with the genre—I didn’t even fall in love with so much as a single western—but I saw some good movies I’m glad I gave a shot. And I aim to keep on trying, every once in a while.

    I haven’t been much of a booster of the musical genre either. I don’t dislike it, but I am fairly critical of it because of the artifice you mention. The song-and-dance sequences take over the film quite conspicuously, and in my mind even one lackluster number can seriously damage the feel of the whole film. That said, musicals have fared much better in my video library than westerns have. But they fall outside of the traditional mainstream Hollywood musical style: outright fantasy like The Wizard of Oz, horror-comedies like Little Shop of Horrors and the “Once More, With Feeling” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on.

    Thank goodness for Oklahoma!: that’s a way to explore two genres with one showing!

  2. August Lehe

    EM… See if you can watch SHANE twice, (go ahead, even if it takes a month), then try STAGECOACH, The BIG COUNTRY, RIO GRANDE and then, the first-half of GIANT and finally, Lonely Are The BRAVE. You will cover about a century of Americana from some of our greatest directors, writers, actors and cinematographers. IF those don’t work. I tried….

  3. I have the same problem with musicals. There are one or two I like, but even they have problems. I think they work best when the songs actually progress the story.

    So for example Singin’ in the Rain (which I really enjoy) works well for the most part, but I always found it came to a boring dead-stop when they drag out the alternate movie pitch with Cyd Charisse.

    I’ve also never been a big western fan, though I must confess to really enjoying The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Searchers.

    You’re right about Audrey Hepburn making something watchable though. I finally got round to watching the original Sabrina the other day, and between her and Bogart, it’s a great film. There are some great comic moments as well (Like the father in the wardrobe!).

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