By James Kenney
Stanley Donen’s 1957 Funny Face, an exquisite musical starring Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson, focuses on an impassioned but unfrivolous intellectual bookstore clerk, Hepburn, who as the press materials promise, “metamorphoses into a fledgling model, a Left Bank hep chick who dances bop with the gonest, the toast of the Parisian salons and finally a sophisticate conquered by love,” personified by the mildly cynical but good-hearted fashion photographer Astaire. Funny Face “peeks behind the facades of the bizarre Paris and New York fashion world and its slick magazines“!
Injustice collectors on Twitter would have a heart attack at 28-year old Hepburn falling in love with 58 year-old Astaire if Funny Face came out today, so let’s get that over with quickly so the rest of the universe can rightfully adore the charming, colorful VistaVision Technicolor near-masterpiece Funny Face, music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin (additional music by Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe, but before you roll your eyes, they did write the brilliant “Think Pink”), choreography by Eugene Loring and Astaire, written by Gershe and directed by Donen.
Funny Face only grows in reflection, amusingly romantic, spryly essential viewing, and a look at Paramount Pictures’s marketing campaign only reveals that much of what we decry modern Hollywood for (cynical cross promotion and crass product placement within the film) was pretty much in full effect in the mid-20th century; nevertheless it does seem to have been a more agreeable, less cynical exertion of capitalist instincts than what has progressed in its wake. When they sell cars and perfumes and dance lessons in tandem with Funny Face‘s release, Paramount makes it feel like they’re agreeably letting everyone in on the capitalist fun, as opposed to a targeted, militaristic corporate attack on humanity’s overburdened senses.
Step Aside, Mr. Astaire
Fred Astaire, while an undisputed legend on his second wind after Easter Parade returned him to film stardom, is clearly not the focus of marketing attention; Miss Hepburn is, her name first in billing and advertising focusing on audiences opportunity to see her in musical action: “Audrey dances and sings for the first time…to great Gershwin tunes!” We also witness that the producers were concerned about the new trends prevailing in the youth-oriented 1950s—the repeated use of the word “rock” to describe the music of Face, which, while brilliant, most definitely is NOT in the style of Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry:
“FUNNY FACE Rocking from Washington Square to the Champs Elysees”
“Now Hepburn’s Hep!…when Audrey rocks you’ll roll!”
The marketers also appeared to be somewhat concerned about the 3D explosion of the period as they quote Samuel Goldwyn promising “a real new dimension in motion picture enjoyment!”
Gay Paree and the Strange Case of Samuel Goldwyn
One of the most beguiling aspects of Face is its view of Paris as the height of fashion, romance, and Bohemia. The marketing material promises audiences that Face is “the picture that presents the Paris fashions of tomorrow!” Interestingly, marketing of Face partially focuses on a letter ostensibly set to Mr. Barney Balaban, President of Paramount Pictures, by Samuel Goldwyn, who didn’t have anything to do with the film.
“Everything about Funny Face is just brilliant. Not only the cast but the production, the direction, the choreography, the music, the photography, the color – the warmth, the gaiety, the fun, the beauty of the picture –are nothing short of extraordinary. Everyone who had anything to do with the picture deserves tremendous credit , for it proves that Hollywood is still capable of turning out the greatest entertainment in the world.”
He finishes the letter “I would be very proud to have Funny Face to my credit.” Why so much of the marketing materials is made up with a “letter” sent to the head of Paramount by someone not involved in the making of a film with such exploitable elements as Hepburn, Astaire and Gershwin is curious, but would seem to indicate that Goldwyn was a name the public recognized and reckoned with. With auteurism still struggling to get footing, the Producer as King still reigned supreme.
Truth be told, Funny Face’s pace slackens a bit in the second half when in Paris Hepburn drifts away from the modeling to hang out with the one-dimensional (and as the film posits, phony) bohemian poets the film harmlessly mocks, keeping it from the masterpiece level of Band Wagon or Singin’ in the Rain; but it is romantic, pretty, extraordinarily stylish, and visually intoxicating. Funny Face is, to use a word not often used to describe current cinema, “charming,” even when it is not especially inspired in content.
Astaire never phoned in a performance and has an, of course, perfect sparring partner in Hepburn, no singer and an awkward if enchanting and responsive dance partner, but of course she is one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses and presences. The marketing materials were big on this being Hepburn’s first musical, detailing how her “early ballet training and London musical stage background” foreshadows her role as a bookish Greenwich Villager transformed into a world-famous model by glamor photographer Astaire (described as “the grandmaster of all dancers“).
Hepburn is quoted as calling song-and-dance her “first love,” and as the marketing explains she “was in training for the ballet in Holland when the near-starvation brought on by the war ruined her hopes. Instead, she became a chorus girl on the London stage…” The Paris-set, Gershwin-tuned Funny Face is described as the fulfillment of a dream for Hepburn, as she “ranges from a wonderful rendition of a romantic ballad to a mad bebop dance as she portrays a bookish girl transformed into a world-famed model.”
The marketing focus on Astaire is on relaying how the “dean of dancers retired at the zenith of his career and then came back to defend his title – with one major difference,” the difference being he has at this point unretired “seven times” including Face and he’s “still the undisputed champ.” We’re told that the “man who revolutionized the art of the movie musical has once again had critics and audiences reaching for superlatives.”
As Paramount explains (and makers of 21st century musicals such as Chicago and The Greatest Showman would do well to educate themselves on), “Before Astaire, dancers were generally photographed in pieces – parts of their bodies rather than the whole. But to keep the extraordinary flow of movement that characterized his dancing, Astaire’s numbers, from his first picture on, were filmed full or nearly full figure. Almost every film musical since then has used that technique. It inevitably led to greater camera mobility and then to wider story scope, and with Fred’s uncanny ability to come up with novel and flexible routines, the true incorporation of the dance into the plot.”
The War Against Television: VistaVision and Technicolor
The marketing focuses on the Paris locations “recorded with unusual VistaVision camera work and a revolutionary use of Technicolor.” The film captures Paris, the City of Light and of a thousand enchantments, not only the “Gay Paree of the tourists and the lesser known but even more exciting byways of the Left Banke and Montmarte.” Lots of justifiable attention is paid to the lavish production and its VistaVision, Technicolor photography, still startling in its vivid saturated effect today: “scenes in a photographic darkroom, the smoky cellar spots of the Montmarte, on a barge in the Seine, in the Left Bank’s winding streets and the exquisite French countryside are presented with a startling new camera eye. All the well-known as well as the seldom-seen enchantments, filmed on the spot and from a hovering helicopter, are captured in amazing color that ranges from the hottest to the coolest imaginable.”
The marketing offers some interesting insight to the Technicolor process employed in Face: “especially striking is the unorthodox flashing of the screen from one color to another as the complementary hues are optically removed. The rhythm with which the screen changes color also helps set the pace for certain sequences.” However, there were problems, as it is noted that the Paris shooting “was slowed down by torrential rains, day after day. Eventually, some scenes originally intended for sunlight were re-written and filmed in the rain.”
Mannequins On Display
With fashion at the forefront of Funny Face, the press materials talk up Dovima, “America’s top mannequin” (!), appearing in the film, with Paramount’s Oscar-winning Edith Head and Paris’ famed coutier de Givenchy executing the fashions on display—and famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon is credited with “Special Visual Consultant and Main Title Backgrounds,” with the producers “most grateful to Mrs. Carmel Snow and Harper’s Bazaar Magazine for their generous assistance.”
Top models (or, err, “mannequins”) Suzy Parker and Sunny Harnett are also featured in the film, wearing the pink poplin raincoats with pink calico linings, pink gloves pumps, handbags, cloches and cosmetics demanded by Kay Thompson’s fashion editor Maggie Prescott. Hepburn herself avoids the color, instead appearing in fashions such as a black sheath dress and tall white hat; a flaming red, back paneled strapless gown; a black daytime frock with gathered skirt; a long-torso dinner dress of pale silk; and a misty, danceable-length wedding gown.
Trivia I’ll put here because I don’t know where else to put it: Audrey Hepburn’s mother, the Baroness Van Heemstra, visited her daughter during filming and is an extra seen as a patron at a sidewalk café.
Not yet mentioned is one of the primary aspects of why Funny Face is a winner: Kay Thompson, playing Prescott, editor of Quality Magazine, a slick fashion publication that sets all the trends (“Think Pink!” is the brilliant opening number where Thompson declares Pink is the thing, only to say moments later she “wouldn’t be caught dead in it!”). Thompson had never acted in film before Funny Face, and didn’t do much after, but she’s unforgettable in her acerbic role as America’s preeminent fashion tastemaker. Thompson had been an arranger and coach for some of the screen’s top stars, including Judy Garland and June Allyson, but she “finally rebelled at the anonymity,” writing herself a cabaret act with the Williams Brothers and quickly became a top night-club performer, as well as successfully selling her own brand of ladies wear and, most memorably, authoring the indelible series of Eloise at the Plaza children’s books.
There were many marketing ideas given to exhibitors by the busy Paramount team:
Sandwich Boards and BMWs
“Funny Face,” Fred Astaire’s pet name for Audrey Hepburn in the film could be used as a basis for sending an inquiring reporter around town to ask of young women: “Does your boyfriend or husband have a pet name for you, like ‘Funny Face’ – Fred Astaire’s name for Audrey Hepburn in their Paramount musical – and would you mind telling our newspaper what it is?” Guest tickets, of course, should be presented to those answering in the affirmative.”
Photos of Astaire photographing Hepburn were suggested as possible camera store window displays, photo sets of them in locations such as the Tuileries Gardens and the Arc de Triomphe were deemed perfect for travel bureau displays.
Most unusual was Paramount’s idea to send “attractive girls around town with sandwich boards reading”:
I wonder if any of those sandwich board girls are still alive (likely) and willing to talk about their experience (not so likely).
Further marketing ideas included having a local photographer take photos of local girls who think they look like Hepburn (“you’ll be surprised at how many there are around”) and the winner of the contest “will receive a glamour buildup similar to the one given Miss Hepburn.”
Reaching out to younger audiences, Paramount engineered a Seventeen Magazine merchandising tie-in, with the magazine devoting 12 pages to the “Think Pink” fashion theme (which no one mentions is considered passe 10 minutes into Funny Face!) and leading department stores across the country participating in the fashion promotion, including, as just a sample, E.W. Edwards in Syracuse, The Paris Co. in Salt Lake City, Rothschild-Young-Quinlan Co. in St, Paul, Pomeroy’s in Levittown Pa., and Lovemans in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Curiously, no New York City or Los Angeles stores were listed in the promotion. Hmm.
Kay Thompson was prominently featured in effort to promote the fairly ridiculous looking BMW Isetta 300, which appears in Funny Face (product placement is a lot more charming in the rear-view mirror, I admit!) They suggest theater managers arrange a parade of Isettas, or display an Isetta in the lobby (“if your lobby area permits.”) They are aware the eccentric Isetta is “so unusual in appearance that it invariably attracts every eye on the street,” so make sure to have one parked in a prominent spot with promotional materials for the film draped on it. Local television stations should be approached to use an Isetta as a prop on a live show, which has already been done on a coast-to-coast basis on the Perry Como show and the Arlene Francis show. You’ll be happy to know Paramount describes all Isetta dealers as “extremely alert and cooperative” (!)
Well, reviewing Paramount’s publicity materials, it’s clear that newspaper plants, product placement, and tacky cross-promotional efforts were alive and well long before Top Gun and it’s naval recruiting and Tom Cruise’s Rayban avaitor sunglasses. It does seem more “innocent,” then, when corporate monoliths and the internet didn’t control everything – the materials are all about reaching out to local travel agents and camera stores and Isetta dealers, all the different disparate elements of capitalism getting a chance to get in on and enjoy the Funny Face ride. Plus the movie is an imperfect classic, a spring breeze of quality tunes, performers and photography that would make anyone smile. Face may prove a bit too superficial and reactionary in content (pretentious, plain hipster girl realizes that fashion does matter) to resonate with the deeper themes present in musical classics Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain, but it’ll do, and then some. It’s a great film, so after putting in a day wearing your promotional Funny Face sandwich board, don’t forget to hurry over to the local theater and steal one of the Hepburn-Astaire pink balloons hanging in the lobby!