Category Archives: London theatres

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.

 

 

 

Punting on the Cam

The keys to my front door reside on a key ring I bought in Cambridge, England, on a magical day in September 1986.  It’s one of the souvenir key rings you used to find in Britain (and maybe still can, though I didn’t see any during a visit in 2012).  They were fashioned in leather and emblazoned in gold leaf with the name and design of a notable site.

During trips to London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1980s and ‘90s, I acquired a host of these key rings. One of my favorites was a bright red one purchased at Cardiff Castle in Wales in 1995.  I would carry one of them in my purse until the gold design wore off and the leather became so worn that it began to fall apart.

Until recently, I thought I had used every one of these leather key rings.  But recently, in a bag filled with souvenir key rings, I came across the one I bought in Cambridge in 1986.  There it was, in all of its splendor:  Black leather emblazoned with the gold-leaf crest of King’s College, Cambridge.

I began using it right away, and the gold design is already fading.  But my memories of that day in Cambridge will never fade.

My husband Herb had gone off to Germany to attend a math conference while I remained at home with our two young daughters.  But we excitedly planned to rendezvous in London, one of our favorite cities, when his conference was over.

Happily for us, Grandma agreed to stay with our daughters while I traveled to meet Herb, and on a rainy September morning I arrived in London and checked into our Bloomsbury hotel.  Soon I set off in the rain to find theater tickets for that evening, and in Leicester Square I bought half-price tickets for a comedy I knew nothing about, “Lend Me a Tenor.”  Stopping afterwards for tea at Fortnum and Mason’s eased the pain of trekking through the rain.

When Herb and I finally met up, we dined at an Italian restaurant and headed for the theater. “Lend Me a Tenor” was hilarious and set the tone for a wonderful week together.

We covered a lot of ground in London that week, including a visit to Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, a sunny boat trip to Greenwich, viewing notable Brits on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, tramping around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and lunching with a British lawyer (a law-school friend) at The Temple, an Inn of Court made famous by our favorite TV barrister, Rumpole (of the Bailey), whose chambers were allegedly in The Temple.

Other highlights were our evenings at the theater. Thanks to advice from my sister, who’d just been in London, we ordered tickets before leaving home for the new smash musical, “Les Miserables” (which hadn’t yet hit Broadway). It was worth every penny of the $75 we paid per ticket (a pricey sum in 1986) to see Colm Wilkinson portray Jean Valjean on the stage of the Palace Theatre.  We also loved seeing a fresh interpretation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Barbican and Alan Ayckbourn’s poignant comedy “A Chorus of Disapproval” at the Lyric.  Although “Mutiny!”–a musical based on “Mutiny on the Bounty”–was disappointing, we relished a concert at South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall, where I kept expecting the Queen to enter and unceremoniously plop herself down in one of the hall’s many boxes.

But it was our day trip to Cambridge that was the centerpiece of our week.  On Friday, September 19th, we set out by train from King’s Cross Station and arrived at Cambridge in just over an hour.  We immediately reveled in the array of beautiful sites leaping out at us on the university campus nestled along the Cam River.  Our first stop was Queens’ College and its remarkable Mathematical Bridge.  The college spans both sides of the river (students jokingly refer to the newer half as the “light side” and the older half as the “dark side”), and the world-famous bridge connects the two.  The legend goes that the bridge was designed and built by Cambridge scholar Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts. But in fact it was built with nuts and bolts in 1749, 22 years after Newton died, and rebuilt in 1905.

Our next must-see site was King’s College.  During my college years at Washington University in St. Louis, I learned that Graham Chapel, our strikingly beautiful chapel–built in 1909 and the site of many exhilarating lectures and concerts (in which I often sang)–shared its design with that of King’s College, Cambridge.  So we headed right for it.  (Graham Chapel’s architect never maintained that it was an exact copy but was only partly modeled after King’s College Chapel, which is far larger.)

Entering the huge and impressive Cambridge version, we were suitably awed by its magnificence.  Begun by King Henry VI in 1446, it features the largest “fan vault” in the world and astonishingly beautiful medieval stained glass.  (A fan vault? It’s a Gothic vault in which the ribs are all curved the same and spaced evenly, resembling a fan.)

As we left the chapel, still reeling from all the stunning places we’d just seen, we noticed signs pointing us in the direction of punts available for a ride on the Cam.  The idea of “punting on the Cam”—riding down the river on one of the flat-bottomed boats that have been around since 1902–sounded wonderful.  We didn’t hesitate to pay the fare and immediately seated ourselves in one of the boats.

The river was serene, with only a few other boats floating nearby, and our punter, a charming young man in a straw boater hat, provided intelligent narration as we floated past the campus buildings stretched out along the river.  He propelled the boat by pushing against the river bed with a long pole.  His charm and good looks enhanced our ride enormously.

The boat wasn’t crowded.  An older British couple sat directly across from us, and we chatted amiably about Britain and the United States, finding commonality where we could.

The sun was shining, and the 70-degree temperature was perfect.  Beautiful old trees dotted the riverbanks, providing shade as we floated by, admiring the exquisite college buildings.

What’s punting like?  Ideally, it’s a calm, soothing boat ride on a river like the Cam.  Something like riding in a gondola in Venice, except that gondolas are propelled by oars instead of poles. (I rush to add that the gondola I rode in Venice had a much less attractive and charming oarsman.)

An article in the Wall Street Journal in November described recent problems caused by punting’s growing popularity.  Increased congestion in the Cam has led to safety rules and regulations never needed in the past.  According to the Journal, “punt wars” have divided the city of Cambridge, with traditional boats required to follow the new rules while upstart self-hire boats, which have created most of the problems, are not.

But luckily for Herb and me, problems like those didn’t exist in 1986.  Not at all.  Back then, floating along the river with my adored husband by my side was an idyllic experience that has a special place in my memory.

I don’t recall where I bought my leather key ring.  Perhaps in a small shop somewhere in Cambridge.  But no matter where I bought it, it remains a happy reminder of a truly extraordinary day.

 

Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell) Part III

PART III

During the summer of 1995, my family and I traveled to France and the U.K. during a record-setting heat wave in Northern Europe. In Parts I and II of this post, I’ve described some of the challenges of our overheated stay in Paris and elsewhere in France.

After ten days in France, we departed for England on a posh air-conditioned ferry from Cherbourg, hoping to find cooler climes on the scepter’d isle. But the moment we disembarked in Portsmouth, our hearts sank. If anything, the air felt warmer and even more humid.

Our taxi driver dropped us and our bags unceremoniously at the train station (I don’t think he liked my remarks about the Royal Family). With no baggage carts anywhere, we dragged our bags to the ancient lift. We waited and waited and, finally fearing that we’d miss our train, we abandoned the idea of taking the lift and schlepped our bags up the flight of stairs to the track-level (it took two trips for each of us). At least the train itself was high-speed and air-conditioned.

At Waterloo Station we climbed into a black London cab and sped on our way to Gower Street in Bloomsbury. Our room was much like that in Paris–one large room with the same assortment of beds, and an enormous screenless window that was sure to be a beacon for the mosquitoes then plaguing London. (I actually read about them in The Times.)

But mosquitoes were not on our minds as we set out to see London on foot that afternoon. We’d sat for five hours on the ferry and another hour and a half on the train. We were raring to go, weren’t we?

The heat assaulted us as we walked hopefully up Gower Street toward Covent Garden and points east. Herb and I wanted Meredith and Leslie to see the Temple, home of their favorite TV lawyer, Horace Rumpole (of PBS’s Rumpole of the Bailey), and we set out in that direction, stopping at Covent Garden and other sites en route. But even at the Temple, on the Thames River embankment, the air felt like a heavy blanket.

A centuries-old Inn of Court, the Temple was in the midst of an ambitious renovation project. Forced to pick our way through the construction equipment and loose building materials strewn in our path, we found the Temple a massive disappointment, hardly worth the long walk in the sun. We crawled back to our hotel, stopping only for a high-carb spaghetti dinner before we collapsed in our beds on Gower Street.

The next day, we resolved to see as much of London as we could despite the oppressive heat. (That day turned out to be the hottest day of London’s summer–93 degrees.) We decided to take a city bus that meandered from Gower Street to Kensington. I’d be an unofficial tour-bus guide, telling our daughters about the sights of London with which Herb and I were already familiar. The bus was hot, and its seat cushions covered with itchy upholstery, but we’d set out fairly early so we didn’t yet mind terribly much.

The bus cut a wide swath through many of the city’s most interesting sights, and I proceeded to act as tour guide till we disembarked near Kensington Gardens, where we began walking back towards Piccadilly Square.

Things got sticky right away. As we passed Royal Albert Hall, we grabbed ice cream bars from a sidewalk vendor and kept going, in the shade wherever possible. Soon we hit the Knightsbridge shopping area and headed for Harrod’s. The massive department store was packed with people, and no wonder. It was air-conditioned. Hordes of women were lined up to use the restrooms. The “luxury ladies’ room” cost one pound per “lady” (then about $1.70) so we spent five minutes searching for one that didn’t cost anything. (It turned out to be adjacent to the book section, where huge stacks of signed copies of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography languished on a table.) We toured the impressive Food Hall and whizzed through some other departments, leaving without buying anything but grateful to have cooled off while we were there.

Across the street, at the non-air-conditioned Scotch House, we were nearly the only customers insane enough to even contemplate woolens on a 90-plus-degree-day. Meredith was hoping to get a warm woolen cap for winter, but surrounded by heaps of wooly wear for sale, we couldn’t find exactly what she wanted.

We kept walking past Knightsbridge towards Piccadilly. The grass in beautiful St. James’s Park was dry and brown, not the lush green lawn Herb and I had seen on previous trips. We stopped to rest on a shady park bench for a while, stunned to encounter Londoners who were deliberately sunning themselves. Some had even stretched out on portable lawn chairs, supplied by the park, in the sunniest spots available. Were they crazy, or what?

We forced ourselves to walk a few blocks more, heading for lunch at the Fountain Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason. En route, we peered into the elegant Ritz Hotel lobby. It was eerily deserted, no one lined up for “high tea” at the Palm Court tearoom. The uniformed doormen, wearing long heavy wool overcoats, looked absolutely miserable.

When we finally staggered into Fortnum & Mason and read the prices on the menu, we nearly swooned, but too hot and exhausted to go anywhere else, we decided to stay. We couldn’t face going elsewhere without some rest and sustenance, so we paid top dollar for skimpy salads and F&M’s famous milkshakes. At least the apricot milkshakes were worth it–almost.

After our overpriced lunch, we pushed on to Leicester Square and the half-price theatre-ticket booth. Scanning the board, we narrowed our choice down to a few offerings, then selected “Hot Mikado.” No, we hadn’t gone completely bonkers. The show was one of London’s musical hits that season. Plus, we all loved the original “Mikado,” and the idea of seeing a jazzed-up version in an air-conditioned theatre had great appeal. And so, after more sightseeing and freshening up at our hotel, we walked to the theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, looking forward to an evening of air-conditioned comfort.

Shock! No air-conditioning! We pinched each other in disbelief. Back home, we’d never heard of a theatre without air-conditioning. Even the humblest movie theatre showing third-run flicks had some sort of air-conditioning. But not this swank theatre! A couple of fans moved the air around a bit, but they couldn’t keep us from sweating through “Hot Mikado.” We loved the show but pitied the performers, whose sweat ran dripping down their faces. After the opening scene, the male chorus even took off their colorful jackets and sang and danced in their shirtsleeves. I didn’t blame them one bit.

The next night we made our way to the Aldwych Theatre to see Tom Stoppard’s latest hit, “Indian Ink.” Again, we were dismayed to discover that this prestigious theatre, showcasing brilliant stars of the London stage, was stifling. The same itchy upholstery found on London buses covered the theatre seats. As the lead in “Indian Ink”–a poet who travels to India in the 1920s–talked about a poem she was writing called “Heat,” I squirmed in my seat, trying to escape the bristly fabric. I was wearing shorts that night–we hadn’t had time to change before arriving at the theatre. Although I’d never imagined that I’d go to a London theatre in shorts, I regretted wearing them only because the itchy seats attacked my bare thighs more ferociously that way.