Category Archives: jazz

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.

 

 

 

Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll in New Orleans!)

Let the good times roll! This joyous credo of New Orleans has inspired me to write about the city, now frequently called NOLA (for New Orleans, LA).

I’ll begin with the fabulous food.

Any visit to the Big Easy simply has to include eating at some of the city’s famed restaurants. During our recent trip, my companion and I reveled in the food offered at a handful of the best. Although some highly praised restaurants exist outside the French Quarter, most of the time we chose spots within the very colorful F.Q.

One of our first stops was Antoine’s, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in NOLA. It traces its founding to Antoine Alciatore, who arrived from Marseilles, France, in 1840. Using the bounty of locally available seafood, he developed a cuisine featuring sauces never used before, creating such dishes as crawfish etouffeé and shrimp rémoulade. Today Antoine’s occupies several high-ceilinged dining rooms in which its servers treat you to astounding food. Much of it still features locally caught seafood. I chose the three-course $20.15 Fall Lunch Special, which included an appetizer (oysters, salad, or sweet potato bisque), an entrée of seafood or meat, and dessert. My companion chose a bowl of delicious crawfish bisque from the a la carte menu (and shared my ice-cream-sundae dessert). We both took advantage of the black-cherry martinis for a mere 25 cents each.

Another venerable NOLA restaurant is Galatoire’s, which has featured classic Creole cuisine for over 100 years. In its charming dining room on Bourbon Street, diners noisily celebrate birthdays and other happy occasions, creating a din that only slightly detracts from the excellent food and outstanding service. I savored my crawfish salad and shrimp etouffeé, while my companion enjoyed grilled redfish and a specialty, crabmeat Yvonne.

Somewhat uncertain, we dined at a restaurant on Decatur Street with the odd name of Tujague’s. We discovered that the name is pronounced “two-jacks,” and the place (the second oldest in NOLA) has a fascinating history. Guillaume and Marie Tujague arrived from France and opened their restaurant across from the French Market in 1856. It’s now famous for its own version of shrimp rémoulade and—surprisingly—a succulent beef brisket boiled with veggies in a creole sauce. We ordered blackened fish and had no regrets.

After a disappointing Sunday “jazz brunch” at a spot in the F.Q., we headed the next day for the Garden District. We loved taking the St. Charles streetcar, strolling around the neighborhood, and admiring its historic houses. But the real highlight of our visit was lunch at Commander’s Palace. The food, service, and ambiance were all spectacular. CP is rightly famous for its turtle soup (which my companion ordered), while I indulged in the 3-soup offering, which included not only turtle but also seafood gumbo and shrimp bisque, each of which was superb. My companion and I both had blackened fish—yum!–plus 25-cent cocktails (cosmopolitans and martinis). We ran out of room for dessert and gingerly walked our very full selves back to the St. Charles streetcar.

If you’re hankering for oysters, and the line in front of the Acme Oyster House is forbidding, try Felix’s just across the street. We arrived there near its closing time of 10 p.m., but we were graciously served great food despite the late hour. The shrimp po’boy was very good and the crawfish etouffeé excellent. Although the ambiance is bare-bones, the place is clean and well run, patronized by a wide range of colorful locals. We thoroughly enjoyed our late-night experience there.

Café du Monde is justly famous around the world. Perched on Decatur Street across from beautiful Jackson Square, it welcomes long lines of visitors seeking its beignets and café au lait every morning. We avoided the long lines and headed for the café after dinner one night. It was the perfect nightcap. The warm beignets, fresh from the oven and coated in powdered sugar, were just as wonderful as you’ve always heard, and the café au lait (regular or decaf) is terrific. By the way, the world-famed café now has a location outside the French Quarter. The large Hilton Riverside hotel is linked to an outlet mall called Riverwalk, and Café du Monde has established a small outpost there. The ambiance isn’t quite the same, but the beignets and hot coffee are.

On our last day in NOLA, we lunched at the venerable Palace Café. Located on the fringes of the French Quarter, where busy Canal Street meets Chartres Street, the two-story café features contemporary Creole dishes. We couldn’t resist another opportunity to imbibe turtle soup (almost as good as the one at Commander’s Palace), followed by one more helping of delicious grilled fish. But the real lure for us was Bananas Foster. As our server, Matt, prepared it tableside, he related its history: the dessert originated in New Orleans in the early 1950s, when NOLA was the major port of entry for bananas shipped from Central and South America. Restauranteur Owen Brennan asked his chef to prepare a new dessert that included bananas. Bananas Flambé later became Bananas Foster as a tribute to Brennan’s friend and dessert enthusiast, Richard Foster. It features not only bananas but also rum, banana liqueur, and vanilla ice cream, and it’s great fun to watch it cooking, especially when the rum ignites. The Palace Café’s version was sublime.

Needless to say, NOLA offers much more than world-class food. Its not-quite-complete recovery from Hurricane Katrina has been remarkable. (You can trace the recovery in an exhibit at the Presbytère museum, where you’ll also find a colorful exhibit related to Mardi Gras.)

NOLA offers museums, an aquarium, a zoo, and other big-city delights. But don’t forget the music. Harry Connick Jr. calls NOLA the only city he knows that has “a constant backdrop of music,” a backdrop you can witness for yourself. Musicians seem to pop up everywhere, sometimes creating what appear to be impromptu musical performances. This musical backdrop includes jazz, of course. The city’s legacy of great jazz survives in polished nightspots like Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse as well as unique settings like Preservation Hall.

Finally, let’s not forget NOLA’s literary connections. If you’ve ever seen the stunning film, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” or the play that inspired it, you can view the wrought-iron balcony where Tennessee Williams wrote the original play. (I envision him typing away on a cheap typewriter while he sat on that lovely balcony.) It’s on St. Peter Street, not far from Jackson Square. Other literary luminaries include William Faulkner, who lived on nearby Pirate’s Alley in 1925, working on his early novels while he wrote for the Times-Picayune newspaper. You’ll find a busy bookstore on the ground floor of the house he lived in. Another notable but troubled writer, John Kennedy Toole, wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces,” set in NOLA during the 1960s. Finally published in 1980, years after Toole’s suicide, his book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.

“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” I carried home a shiny coffee mug inscribed with this Cajun expression (no, it’s not classic French). Sitting on a shelf in plain view, it will unfailingly remind me of the great food and good times my companion and I relished during our astonishing visit to New Orleans.