Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Audrey of the Month: 'Funny Face'

Editor's Note: In my frenzied world of the past two weeks, I barely posted my Guilty Pleasure, and the next day my post for "Funny Face" appeared as #45 in the movie musical countdown on the blog Wonders in the Dark. I feel horrible for not posting here to lead to that post. Below is the review; here is the link to Wonders for the conversation that took place there. Thank you to the gang at Wonders for allowing me to participate.


I love her funny face, to steal a line from the title track of “Funny Face,” because I adore Audrey Hepburn.

And this, her first musical, combines everything an Audrey fan would love: romance, comedy, a debonair leading man and Audrey’s stunning wardrobe, an array of late 1950s couture by her favorite designer, Hubert de Givenchy.

As for de Givenchy, Hepburn once said: “I depend on Givenchy in the same way that American women depend on their psychiatrists. There are few people I love more. He is the single person I know with the greatest integrity.”

And why talk about clothes? Because it’s a musical about a fashion photographer and the mousy bookstore clerk he turns into a beautiful model. It’s actually pretty amazing that this 1957 film turned out as s’wonderful as it did, considering how many changes it went through from start to finish.

The original musical “Funny Face,” with songs by the Gershwin brothers, was on Broadway in the late 1920s and starred Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. The Arthur Freed unit actually began developing this musical as a film at MGM but ended up selling it to Paramount. Most of the songs and the plot from the original were dropped, Gershwin songs from some of their other shows were added, and new music was written by Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe.

Yet “Funny Face” comes across seamlessly, filled with great charm from start to finish.

In the film, Maggie Prescott (the glorious Kay Thompson) needs a new gimmick for the upcoming edition of her magazine, Quality. Maggie and Dick Avery determine they want something bold – models who have both beauty and brains. In reality, they just want that perception, not the real thing.

So they descend upon a tiny Greenwich Village bookstore, where bookish Jo Stockton (Hepburn) objects to the fashion team swooping in, dumping books on the floor, taking photos and leaving her with a mess. Later in the darkroom, Dick realizes that it’s Jo’s face in the background that captures a special combination of loveliness and thoughtfulness.

Much to Jo’s horror, Maggie and Dick offer to whisk her to Paris for a big photo shoot. Although it’s against her philosophical ideals, Jo agrees when she realizes the trip will bring her face-to-face to her idol, Prof. Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), who lives in Paris.

Photographer Richard Averdon provided technical expertise on “Funny Face,” and one of the best sequences is that fashion shoot. The combination of Paris locales, Hepburn’s believability as a model and those gorgeous clothes combine for an eye-popping display. I also like Donen’s visual representation of photography by showing the final photo and its color separations.

But this is one of many memorable sequences. Each song in the film can stand on its own, with Donen giving each its own mood within the whole of the film. The zippy “Think Pink” that opens the movie places Thompson against a backdrop of desks, doors and look-alike secretaries and makes the color pink pop off the screen – you have to wonder what this could have looked like in 3-D! The energetic “Bonjour Paris” by Gershe and Edens becomes a marvelous travelogue of Paris as the three leads take viewers on a tour of the city. Conversely, Hepburn’s wistful “How Long Has This Been Going On?” set in the bookstore is marvelous in its simplicity.

It’s worth noting that Hepburn did her own singing in this film (unlike “My Fair Lady,” where, much to Hepburn’s chagrin, she was dubbed). Her voice may not be on par with a Julie Andrews, but it’s perfectly charming here, and it fits right into the film’s fizzy tone.

What Hepburn could do was dance, having taken lessons from the time she was a girl. She originally went to London to become a dancer, so it’s great fun to watch her in a marvelous 1950s beatnik number as she makes black pants, white socks and loafers look like a chic fashion choice. Plus she’s paired with Astaire, the suave dancer whose elegance is timeless. While some carp at the age difference between the stars, I never minded it because of their great chemistry, and together they move as if floating on a cloud.

Thompson, who only made a handful of films, steals her numbers and has a wickedly fun duo with Astaire called “Clap Yo’ Hands,” which is actually from the Gershwin musical “Oh Kay!”

“Funny Face” never ages in my book. It’s everything a musical should be – great stars, memorable musical numbers and a charming plot. Plus it has Hepburn looking absolutely stunning in Technicolor. How could anyone not love her face?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Guilty Pleasures: 'What's Up, Doc?'

I grew up in a small Central Illinois town with no movie theater. So, as a kid with five older siblings, going to the movies was a rare treat, as it was nearly impossible for my parents to logistically corral all of us and find a film that worked for everyone.

Prior to turning 8, I remember being taken to two movies, both involving Disney films at Peoria theaters that no longer exist: “The Love Bug” at the Peoria Drive-In (where I spent more time playing with siblings) and “Never a Dull Moment” at the Rialto (where I fell asleep).

Still, through all of my older brothers and sisters, I was aware of movies, even if I wasn’t old enough to see them. In 1972, one of my sisters saw “What’s Up, Doc?” with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and reported back that it was appropriate for the family, which my parents verified by checking the ratings in the Catholic Post.

So, on one spring evening before turning 9, my family went to the Fox Theatre for “What’s Up, Doc?” and it holds the esteemed honor of being the first film for grown-ups that I ever saw.

For nearly 40 years, it has remained a guilty pleasure of mine, the film I want to watch when I’m in the mood for some well-crafted silliness. As a kid, I didn’t appreciate that Peter Bogdanovich was paying tribute to a bygone era, one of silent screen comedians and screwball comediennes. I just remember laughing out loud at the visual gags and verbal wordplay, and it was love at first sight with the comedic gifts of Madeleine Kahn.

Recently, I found a misplaced gift card from Borders (RIP, you wonderful store). Imagine my surprise when I went to the going-out-of-business sale at a local location and found “What’s Up, Doc?” on DVD for $7! I went home, put my VHS copy on the Goodwill pile and watched the film that very night. It was as delightful as I remembered, and as usual it brought back fond memories of being a kid.

For the uninitiated, the story is about a red plaid bag – actually, four of them, all identical. What I love about the story is that it takes mere minutes to be completely immersed into the plot. The first bag contains secret government documents in the hands of Mr. Smith (Michael Murphy), who is being pursued by Mr. Jones (Phil Roth). Howard Banister (O’Neal) also has bag containing his precious rocks. An absent-minded musicologist, he is traveling with his fiancé Eunice (Kahn) to a conference. Judy Maxwell (Streisand) owns the third bag, which contains her belongings. Finally, Mrs. Van Hoskins (Mabel Albertson) stores her jewels in bag #4, which hotel employees (Sorrell Brooke and Stefan Gierasch) are trying to steal.

All parties end up at the same hotel in San Francisco, staying on the same floor. Judy, who appears to be homeless, wanders into the hotel, sets her sights on Howard – who she calls Steve – and ends up in an empty hotel room without paying. That night, at the conference, Judy impersonates Eunice while a flustered Howard isn’t sure what to think. Meanwhile, the various parties involved with the secret documents and the jewel theft end up in a round of musical rooms like a French farce, and the bags exchange hands so often that even the audience doesn’t know which is which.

To say more would require much explanation and a flow chart, and that would detract from the fun. Suffice to say there’s a fire, a car chase, and an ending that brings everyone together in front of a confused judge (Liam Dunn).

Bogdanovich does a great job of layering in all sorts of sight gags and verbal volleys between characters. I remember Harold Lloyd discussed how he layered gag upon gag when he made a movie. Since Bogdanovich is paying tribute to these comedies, he applies the same principle to “What’s Up, Doc?” While some gags don’t work, most of them do (one of my favs is Eunice’s shoes making black squiggles on a ballroom floor as she’s carried away after fainting). Bogdanovich also keeps the pacing crisp, so even a stale visual like someone absent-mindedly walking into the street and the resulting car crash doesn’t feel forced.

That Bogdanovich chose to follow up his moody drama “The Last Picture Show” with this high-spirited screwball comedy was a bold movie, and he again demonstrates his gift for capturing the atmosphere of a script. “Doc” clearly revives a genre, along with its flair and panache, that was so prevalent during the 1930s.

The stars understand the pacing and rhythms of this bygone era and run with it. Streisand’s character comes on inexplicably strong, but the pairing of Judy with the bland yet appealing Howard (O’Neal at perhaps his likeable best) works. Their final exchange – which may be lost on younger movie fans – is a wonderful jab at O’Neal’s “Love Story” released two years earlier.

It’s the large supporting cast that really shines, led by the supreme Kahn, wearing a marvelous flip wig in her first film. Even the simple utterance of “Howard” comes off her lips in a multitude of hilarious ways. Dunn is also terrific in only one scene toward the end. His judge attempts to understand what’s going on, mixing confusion, frustration and contempt into one hilarious combination.

Someone recently expressed surprise that I would select “What’s Up, Doc?” as my guilty pleasure, as she viewed the film as a good rather than a bad one. Her comments made me think about the definition of a guilty pleasure.

After much deliberation, I decided that a guilty pleasure is a film that may not have won Oscars or is studied in film school but is one that brings joy to the viewer, whether it’s a universally liked film or one that’s universally panned. It also recalls fond memories.

And that sums up “What’s Up, Doc?” for me – a big barrel of fun mixed with the recollection of discovering the world of grown-up films. The Fox Theatre may be long gone, but after 40 years, I still laugh out loud at this zany comedy.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Guilty Pleasures blogathon. You can check the CMBA web site to find a list of all of the blogs participating. I encourage you to read as many as possible.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Get Ready for Guilty Pleasures!

The Classic Movie Blog Association will host its next blogathon this weekend, and it's devoted to Guilty Pleasures!

The fun begins on Sunday, and my post will occur on Monday. The list of blogs participating and the movie lineup can be found at the CMBA web site.

Looking forward to seeing you here on Monday and I encourage you to check out the other blogs. Should be fun!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Take Two: Irene Mayer Selznick

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Take Two, a new feature in which two bloggers have a conversation about a single topic.

I had the great pleasure of working with Patty, aka The Lady Eve, about Irene Mayer Selznick, daughter of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and first wife of producer David O. Selznick. Both of us had recently read Irene's autobiography, "A Private View," and found her to be a fascinating woman.

You can find the post by clicking on the following link to The Lady Eve's REEL Life, where both Patty and I will be responding to comments. In a few weeks, for the people who miss it, I will repost the article on my blog.

I hope you enjoy this new feature, and I have another one already in the works!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Bogart: 'Marked Woman'

“Marked Woman” provides Bette Davis with a meaty role, and in typical Davis fashion she goes for broke. What’s not typical is Humphrey Bogart playing the good guy.

In my continuing look at Bogart’s early career, “Marked Woman” is one of seven films released in 1937 that featured Bogart in lead or supporting roles. While this one is a great showcase for Davis, it’s intriguing that Bogart would not be cast as the mob boss but as the crusading district attorney. Warner Brothers must have wanted Bogart to stretch his range in an attempt to cast him in more leading roles. Or perhaps with the success of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, Warners didn’t need another actor whose strength was playing gangsters.

Whatever the reason, his role is a nice contrast to his other films released during this busy year.

“Marked Woman” is pure 1930s Warner Brothers, a ripped-from-the-headlines story based upon the conviction of New York City gangster Lucky Luciano. His prostitution ring was exposed when several of the working women testified for Manhattan district attorney Thomas Dewey (the same Dewey who ran for president against Harry S. Truman and who the Chicago Tribune proclaimed the winner in its now infamous headline).

Due to censorship issues, the prostitutes were changed to “hostesses” working in a clip joint for gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli). During the first few minutes, Vanning is visiting the club he just bought and menacingly tells the girls, “Anybody that sticks with me gets taken care of. You’re gonna work the way I tell ya or you’re not gonna work at all.”

Mary Dwight (Davis) refuses his advances but assures him she can help his business. She tells the other girls who also room with her that she knows how the beat the racket and dreams of living on easy street.

Unfortunately, Mary’s wholesome kid sister Betty (Jane Bryan) shows up. Betty believes Mary and her friends to be models, but that charade is shattered when the police show up, questioning Mary about the murder of a man who was in the club the night before. D.A. David Graham (Bogart) believes Mary can help him take Vanning down, but Mary is thinking of saving herself, with Vanning’s help.

But in Betty’s eyes, Mary’s real job and association with the murder have ruined her life. Dropping out of college, Betty lingers with Mary, disgusted by her profession yet oddly drawn toward it.

You have to laugh about the “hostess” façade that the censorship board allowed. After all, if the cleaned-up profession of “hostess” was good enough for the conservative Production Code board to allow, why would Betty be so ashamed of what her sister does? The glamour of these women also has a high polish with few rough edges, which suggests something more wholesome than what’s going on. Also, if Mary ruined Betty’s life, why doesn’t Betty just return home? Her character is really more of a plot device that sets up the film’s final act.

Still, the story wisely makes it clear that these women need to work, and Depression-era audiences would have understood the difficulties of finding and keeping jobs, even if that meant compromising your morals. One of the script’s co-writers is Robert Rossen, a mildly successful Broadway playwright hired by Warners and making his Hollywood debut. He would later make the Oscar-winning “All The King’s Men.”

“Marked Woman” is buoyed by a terrific cast headed by its two stars. For Davis, this immediately followed her self-imposed exile from Warners, in which she wanted better scripts in the wake of her first Oscar win. Warners successfully sued her for breach of contract, but Davis was the real winner when Warners gave her this film on her first day back to work.

And she delivers. Davis arguably looks more glamorous than she ever did on film up to this point, and she uses this to her advantage in the second half of the film. When Mary is beaten up by Vanning’s henchmen, she actually shunned the studio makeup that made her battered body look like nothing more than a few cuts and scrapes. Instead, she visited her own doctor for lunch and had him treat her as if she had the injuries Mary suffered. When Davis arrived back on the set, everyone was shocked by her gruesome look, but she got her way. Her appearance onscreen is realistic and shocking for that realism. It is doubtful that most leading ladies would have stripped away all the glamour, especially during the 1930s when Hollywood’s leading women were creating dreamy escapes for Depression-era audiences.

It’s an all-around triumph for Davis. Some began referring to her as the female Cagney because of her quest for realism, and hopes were high for an upcoming project called “Jezebel.”

As for Bogart, his role can be somewhat two-dimensional, and his final appeal to the jury is a bit long-winded. But these are problems with the script, not the actor.

Bogart has one scene in particular that allows you to see just how good he is. When Graham breaks some bad news to Mary, Bogart plays it quietly, and his silent reaction – especially the look in his eyes – conveys his character’s deep compassion and regret. It’s a marvelous moment, and perhaps this moment more than any demonstrates that Bogart could play more than the routine gangster or villain. It’s the type of moment that he would employ more often as his roles contained more substance.

The supporting cast is equally strong. Ciannelli is a marvelously menacing villain. He’s evil, creepy and not someone you want to meet in a dark alley. Isabel Jewell, Mayo Methot, Rosalind Marquis and Lola Lane (above with Davis) are terrific as the other girls. In fact, Methot and Bogart met on this film, and she eventually became his third wife.

“Marked Woman” fits into the Warner Brothers mold perfectly. It’s a briskly told and well-acted drama that made a lot of money for Warners. For Davis, it welcomed her return to top form and foreshadowed her string of hits during the next seven years. For Bogart, the film provided a chance to do something different. Combined with his work in “Black Legion,” you get a glimpse of greater performances to come.

Check out my reviews of “Black Legion,” “Kid Galahad” and “San Quentin,” three 1937 releases featuring Bogart.