Category Archives: City of Light

Hooray for Hollywood! Part II: I Love Your “Funny Face”

I’m continuing to focus on films that have been relevant to my life in some way.

The film I’m focusing on today is “Funny Face,” a 1957 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.

I first saw this film at Radio City Music Hall during a memorable trip to Washington DC and NYC, a trip made with my high school classmates, and one that represented the height of excitement in my life at that time.

It wasn’t my first visit to NYC and Radio City.  It also wasn’t my first trip to DC.

My parents had taken my sister and me on a road trip to the East Coast during the summer of 1950, when I was barely conscious and didn’t get a great deal out of it.  I did have a few notable experiences—staying at the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park West (how did we afford that?) and viewing some astounding sites in DC, mostly from a cab Daddy hired to show us around town. The place I remember most was an FBI museum, where I was frightened by a loud demonstration in which a gun was shot at targets to prove how the FBI dealt with crime. (Not a great choice for a young kid.)

Some other memories include our entering a DC restaurant where the tables were covered with pink “reserved” signs, and one sign was magically whisked away when we arrived.  I later learned that the restaurant used this ploy to prevent people of color from eating there.  The staff would refuse to seat them, telling them that all of the tables were reserved.  Even at a tender age, this struck me as wrong, although I was too young to fully understand the ugliness of this blatant form of discrimination, one I’d never encountered when we ate at restaurants in Chicago.

Another vivid memory:  Strolling through Central Park Zoo in NYC, I asked Daddy to buy me a balloon.  Daddy refused.  I didn’t view my request as unreasonable.  Looking around, I saw all those other kids who were holding balloons.  Why couldn’t I have one?  I was too young to grasp reality: My father was in NYC to search for a new job (which never materialized), and our family budget didn’t permit buying an overpriced balloon.  No doubt the balloon vendors catered to far more affluent families than mine.  But I remember crying my eyes out because of the balloon-deprivation, which seemed so unfair to me.

Finally, I remember viewing a film at Radio City.  It was a poor choice for a family film: “The Men,” starring Marlon Brandon as an injured war veteran.  It was a somber film, and the atmosphere was not made any cheerier by the newsreel (ubiquitous in movie theaters then), featuring the brand-new war in Korea, which had just begun in June.  The Rockettes probably did their thing, but I barely noticed them, too disturbed by the sad movie and the scary newsreel.

Fast forward a bunch of years, when I joined my high school classmates on a school-sponsored trip to DC and NYC, during which our group of rowdy teenagers disrupted life for countless locals.  Standing out in my memory is a concert held at the Pan American Union Building, a beautiful Beaux-Arts building in DC, where my silly friends and I began to stare at a mole on the back of a young woman sitting in front of us.  Our adolescent sense of humor led us to start laughing, and once we started, we of course couldn’t stop.  Other concert-goers were probably horrified.  But something else I can’t forget:  The concert included a brilliant rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” a piece I’ve loved ever since.

Moving on to NYC, where we were bused to an odd assortment of sites, we finally arrived at Radio City. The film that night was one of Hollywood’s new blockbusters, “Funny Face.”  Surrounded by my friends, whispering and laughing throughout, I barely focused on the film, certainly not enough to remember it very well.  But when I recently re-watched it on TCM, I found it completely delightful.  (Thanks, TCM, for all of the classic films I’ve watched on your channel.  Please keep showing them!)

In the film, which features a number of Gershwin tunes (including “Funny Face” and “S’wonderful”), Audrey Hepburn stands out as the radiant star she had become, while (in my view) Fred Astaire recedes into the background.

The movie’s storyline focuses on a NYC-based fashion magazine like Vogue, dominated by an aggressive editor played by Kay Thompson (much like the editor played by Meryl Streep years later in “The Devil Wears Prada”).  The editor (Kay) insists on major changes at the magazine and demands that her favored photographer, played by Astaire (Fred), help her effect those changes.  (His character is based on the renowned photographer Richard Avedon.)

Their search for a new look for the magazine improbably leads them to a bookstore in Greenwich Village, where Hepburn (Audrey) is the sole salesperson, the owner being off somewhere doing his own thing.  When Kay proposes that Audrey be the new face of her fashion magazine, Audrey—garbed in neutral black and gray– ridicules the whole concept of such a publication (it features, in her words, “silly women in silly dresses”).  But when Kay’s offer includes a trip for her to Paris, Audrey decides to go along with the idea.  She’s always wanted to see Paris!

Kay, Fred, and Audrey arrive in Paris about 15 years before my own first trip there.  But when the film begins to roam through the highlights of the city, I easily recognize the many breathtaking scenes I saw for the first time in 1972, including the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.  (I’ve luckily returned to Paris many times, and the city and all that it offers still thrill me.)

As a teenager, I had a high regard for “fashion.”  My family’s business–women’s fashion-retailing–probably had something to do with it.  Peer pressure also played a role.  Some of my classmates were obsessed with pricey clothes, like cashmere sweaters with matching skirts, and even though I wasn’t in the same income bracket, their obsession couldn’t help rubbing off on me.  At least a little.  My place in the world just then probably accounts for my somewhat detached view of Audrey as someone who spoofs the fashion industry, at least at first.

Once the story gets underway, “Funny Face” offers a wealth of imaginative episodes.  The writer, Leonard Gershe, whose writing is clever and surprisingly not extremely dated, was Oscar-nominated for best writing, story, and screenplay.  Gershe came up with a whole lot of scenes that highlighted Paris.  A special scene takes place after Audrey goes off on her own, and Fred is sent out to track her down.  He finally finds her in a small café on the Left Bank, where she launches into a stunning dance set to jazz music.  (You may already know that Audrey had a background in dance.  She studied ballet as a teenager in Amsterdam and later studied it in London.  She then began performing in West End musical theater productions and went on to star on Broadway in a non-musical performance of Gigi in 1951.  She reportedly turned down the same role in the 1958 film.)

The jazz dance scene in “Funny Face” became famous a few years ago, when Gap used a portion of it in one of its TV commercials.  (As I recall, Gap was promoting the sort of black pants Audrey danced in.)  A controversy arose during the filming of this scene in “Funny Face.”  Audrey wanted to wear black socks while director Stanley Donen insisted that she wear white ones.  In an interview Donen gave shortly before his death, he explained why. The white socks would highlight her dancing feet while black ones would fade into the background.  Donen succeeded in persuading Audrey to see things his way, and the dance scene is now film history.

Without elaborating on the plot, I’ll point out that Audrey’s storyline has an interesting focus on “empathy,” a concept that has gained a foothold in popular culture in recent years.  (I attribute some of that to Barack Obama’s focus on it, something I picked up on when I first heard him speak to a group of lawyers in Chicago in 2002, when he was still an Illinois state senator.)

Dance highlights in the film include not only Audrey’s jazz dance scene in the Left Bank café but also Fred’s dance scene with an umbrella and a coat lining that transforms into a cape.  The two leads share at least two memorable dance scenes, including the closing scene set in a charming landscape outside a Paris church.

Notably, after Audrey leaves NYC for Paris, she poses all over the City of Light in clothes designed by Givenchy, who became her favorite designer, and whose designs for this film seem timeless.  Also notably, she wears shoes with heels, but they’re invariably very low heels.  These became her favorite style of footwear.  (For some of the “inside Audrey” comments made here, please see my earlier blog post, “Audrey Hepburn and Me,” published on August 14. 2013.)

Finally, the age difference between Audrey and Fred is stark.  She was 28 while he was 58—and looked it.  Despite his agile dancing, he was an unlikely man for her to fall in love with.  But then Hollywood often paired her with much older men.  The all-time creepiest example was Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.  (You can find my earlier comment on this topic in my 2013 blog post.)

In sum, “Funny Face” is a glorious film, featuring a radiant Audrey Hepburn, a clever storyline, and countless scenes of Paris.  The Gershwin songs and the wonderful dancing, which blend almost seamlessly into the story, lead to a stunning result.  Even though I didn’t fully appreciate it in 1957, the memory of seeing it back then has stayed with me for the past six decades.  Seeing it again made me realize just how “’s’wonderful” it really is.

 

 

 

Hats Off to…Hats!

 

I grew up in the midst of a hat-wearing era.  If you watch movies from the 1950s, you’ll see what I mean.  In both newsreels and Hollywood films, almost all of the grown-ups–in almost every walk of life–are wearing hats.

Of course, grown-ups occasionally doffed their hats.  On a vacation, at a beach, in a theater.  But when it really counted, and they wanted to be taken seriously, they wore hats.

Although factory and construction workers wore other kinds of hats at their jobs, white-collar men tended to wear fedoras.  Footage of men attending baseball games makes clear that, even at casual events, most men were wearing felt fedoras

Women tended to opt for a variety of stylish hats, many of which look pretty silly today.  Just take a look at photos of Eleanor Roosevelt.  As the wife and later widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she’s frequently seen in headwear that was not only frilly but also far from flattering. (By contrast, photos of her younger self, sans hat, put her in a far more appealing light.)  Images of other women in frilly hats predominate in the photos of the time.

When did things begin to change?  Probably about the time that Senator John F. Kennedy became a popular media focus.  He was almost never photographed wearing a hat.   It wasn’t until his inauguration in January 1961, when he wore a top hat just like Ike’s, that he appeared in a formal grown-up’s hat.  (He notably doffed it when he gave his memorable speech.)

The popular TV series “Mad Men,” which appeared on TV from 2007 to 2015, illustrates this change.  When the series begins in March 1960, Don Draper wears a stylish fedora whenever he leaves the office.  But as the series moves through the ‘60s, he abandons his hat more and more.

The hat-wearing era clearly ended years ago.  Today a celebrity or fashion icon may occasionally be photographed in a trendy hat, but hats are no longer de rigueur.

I’ve never adopted the habit of wearing hats, with two major exceptions:  I wear warm fuzzy ones to cover my ears on chilly days, and I wear big-brimmed ones to shield my face from the sun.

But two years ago, the de Young Museum in San Francisco put together a brilliant exhibit highlighting the creation and wearing of women’s hats.  “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” focused on the creative artists who worked as milliners in Paris during Degas’s era, as well as on the era’s hats themselves.

The Wall Street Journal described the exhibit as “groundbreaking,” an exhibit that revealed “a compelling and until now less widely known side” of the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.

The exhibit brought together exquisite Degas paintings and exquisite French-made hats.  Paris, as the center of the fashion industry during Degas’s era, was also the center of the millinery world.  Around one thousand Parisian milliners created a rich and diverse array of hats.  Many of these milliners worked in a network of independent millinery shops that competed with the nearby grand department stores.

Hat-making, the display and sale of hats, and the wearing of hats in belle époque Paris—all of these fascinated the Impressionist painters who focused on urban life in the City of Light.  Degas had a particular affinity for millinery, and he would often return to the subject—featuring both the creators, who ranged from prestigious designers to the “errand girls” who delivered hats to their new owners, and the elite consumers of these hats.  This exhibit was the first to display all of his millinery paintings in one place.

The exhibit also included display cases filled with French-made hats from the period, noting that they were sculptural art objects in their own right.  This headwear came from museums that collect hats as part of their costume collections.  Museums like the Chicago History Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco contributed wonderful examples from this fabulous era of women’s decorative headwear.

When I saw this exhibit, I was thrilled by it.  It also became a powerful reminder of a childhood memory I’d nearly forgotten.  Standing in front of Degas’s paintings of milliners, I suddenly remembered going to a millinery shop in downtown Chicago with my mother when I was about 8 or 10.  Although my mother never had the financial assets to become an affluent consumer of fashion, she was acutely aware of fashion trends.  Within the bounds of my parents’ limited resources, Mom carved out a way to dress as stylishly as their funds allowed.

On this occasion, Mom must have felt financially secure enough to travel downtown and purchase a new hat styled just for her.  I was her lucky companion that day, creating a vivid memory of our shopping trip.

We found the millinery shop somewhere in a building on Randolph Street, a block or two west of the gigantic Marshall Field’s store on State Street.  We rode in an elevator to a floor above ground level and alighted to arrive at the cheerful shop, its big windows letting in a great deal of natural light.  Mom sat in a chair that faced a mirror while the milliner offered her several different styles to choose from.

Mom chose a white straw hat with blue flowers.  It was a delightful style that suited her perfectly.  Today I’d describe it as a cross between a cloche and a very small sunhat:  a straw cloche with a brim.  Not the kind of cloche that fits closely around the face, but one with a small brim that framed Mom’s face and set it off in a charming way.  Mom and the milliner conferred, possibly even turned to me to get my opinion, and made a final decision to select that hat, adding the lovely blue flowers in exactly the right place.

Mom clearly felt pretty when she wore that hat.  She went on to wear it many times, and whenever she did, I was always happy that I’d been with her on the day she chose it.  Even though Mom couldn’t purchase an elegant French-designed hat like those featured at art museums, she had her very own millinery-shop hat designed just for her.

She treasured that hat.  So did I.

 

 

Celebrating Love in the City of Light

Along with the rest of the civilized world, I was horrified to learn of the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on November 13th. They were followed by an equally–perhaps even more–disturbing attack in San Bernardino.

Both of these have shaken me. San Bernardino? Because it hit so close to home.

Paris? Because Paris has a special place in my heart.

Special indeed. I celebrated my first, tenth, and 26th wedding anniversaries in Paris.

Celebrating anniversaries in Paris…. Romantic, n’est-ce pas?  But here’s what’s more important: Those anniversaries were filled with the kind of love that lasts even longer than spine-tingling heart-pounding romance.

On our first anniversary, Herb and I were in Paris on our very first trip to Europe. We made plans to dine with some old friends (including one of Herb’s Harvard roommates) who were living in Geneva and drove into Paris to see us.  We didn’t tell them it was our anniversary till we visited them in Geneva several days later. (I think Herb didn’t want them to treat us to dinner.)

So on our anniversary we dined at a typical French restaurant near our hotel on the Boulevard Saint-Germain instead of a pricey and far more elegant one. When we finally confided that we’d spent our first wedding anniversary with them, Herb’s roommate said, “You should have told us! We could have blown our wad and gone to the Tour d’Argent.”

But I hadn’t minded our modest dinner on the Left Bank. Just being with Herb, along with our friends, was more than enough. The evening had been filled with laughter and love. And there was plenty of time for romance later when we were alone.

Our tenth anniversary was very different. Herb was on a sabbatical from the university in Chicago where he taught math.  During our month in Paris, Herb spent most days at the University of Paris, where he communed with other mathematicians while I shepherded our two small daughters (ages 4 and 7) around the city.

We ate dinner together every night, and our anniversary dinner was no exception. We dined with our daughters at a small and inexpensive bistro on the Left Bank, very near our apartment in the 5th arrondisement. Our modest apartment was on the Rue Tournefort, one street over from the better-known Rue Mouffetard, and the area, just off the Place de la Contrescarpe, was filled with bistros like this one.

We were preoccupied with our daughters, making sure we ordered food they would cheerfully eat (no fancy French sauces for them!), and reprimanding them if their behavior became too rambunctious. So as an anniversary dinner, it wasn’t glamorous, and it certainly wasn’t romantic. But the love all of us felt for each other turned the evening into a memorable one I’ll never forget.

Our 26th anniversary was even better. By this time, our daughters were no longer children, and our older daughter, Meredith, was spending all year in Paris on a graduate fellowship at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Herb and I, along with our younger daughter, Leslie, traveled to Paris to meet Meredith and spend some time there, after which the four of us traveled together in France for another ten days.

Our anniversary fell on our third day in Paris, and Herb asked me to choose a place for dinner. I picked a small restaurant on the Ile St.-Louis, one of my favorite places in all of Paris.

We walked there from our Left Bank hotel, strolling along the Seine, crossing the bridge that leads to Notre-Dame, then crossing the bridge to the Ile. The weather was sunny and warm, and we laughed and chatted as we walked.

We arrived on the island and enjoyed perusing menus posted outside the restaurants on the Rue St.-Louis-en-Ile as we approached our destination. Then we shared a delightful dinner at the restaurant I’d chosen, where our charming waiter took photos of us laughing and eating and reveling in just being together.  After dinner, we strolled to Berthillon, famed for its glaces and their unique flavors, and we devoured our ice cream on the spot. That evening was one of the most blissful I’ve ever spent.

I’ve been to Paris on five other trips (I wrote about one of them in a blog post last November, “Down and Hot in Paris and London”). I recently returned for the eighth time, and Paris was just as beautiful as I remembered.

But Paris without Herb? It’s never been quite the same.

When Herb died, he left me with years of memories filled with the extraordinary love and happiness we shared.  The three anniversaries we celebrated in Paris are at the top of my list.