Category Archives: summertime travel

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.

 

 

 

Our Trip West: A Memoir

One summer during the 1950s, the thing I cared about most was our family’s long-anticipated “Trip West,” the road trip we’d mapped out for the last two weeks of summer.

Departing from our apartment in Chicago one hot August morning, we crossed the Mississippi River and entered Iowa, the first state west of Illinois. As our eyes drank in the not-yet-boring sameness of the Iowa cornfields, my mother suddenly had an urgent question. Where was the garment bag, filled with four brand-new outfits, that she’d left hanging on the bedroom door? She didn’t remember putting it in the car.

Sure enough, when we stopped for the night, the garment bag was nowhere to be found. My parents, in their haste to leave, had forgotten to take Mom’s bag. The result? Mom had one dress to wear for the entire two-week trip.

Imagine. Two weeks in August in one brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked rayon dress. We scoured store racks from Sioux City to Sioux Falls searching for another summer dress for Mom. But by the last two weeks of August, even the least trendy stores in the least trendy parts of America had NO SUMMER DRESSES left.

By Salt Lake City, Mom was resigned to one more week of the hound’s-tooth-checked number and finally stopped looking. We were all happy to end the search, enthusiastically thanking Providence for Mom’s underactive sweat glands.

Our trip included adventures in the Badlands, the Black Hills, and Yellowstone National Park. But the highlight for me happened when we arrived at the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The town was not yet the “in” resort it has since become, but its mountains were already attracting skiers. And that summer I rode the Snow King Mountain chair-lift 4,000 feet to the top. By myself.

Driving through Jackson Hole, we’d noticed a sign promoting the chair-lift ride to the top of Snow King Mountain. Daddy stopped the car and got out to take a look. The rest of us followed, watching chairs whizzing up the mountain from where we stood at the bottom.

Somehow our signals got crossed because I hopped on one of the chairs thinking that Daddy was going to hop on the very next one. As I blithely began to go up the mountain, I suddenly heard loud voices. I turned around to see my parents, still at the bottom of the mountain, waving their arms and shouting. I couldn’t make out what they were shouting, but I got the idea: Daddy had decided not to ride the chair lift after all, and I’d made a big mistake to hop on when I did.

I faced forward again, realizing that it was too late to get off. The chair was moving fast, and if I tried to dismount, disaster might ensue. So I sat back and feasted my eyes on the spectacular scenery. Chicago never looked like this.

When I reached the top of the mountain, I was startled by a man who emerged from a small structure, took my photo, then pulled me off the still-moving chair. Shouting “YOUR MOTHER WANTS TO TALK TO YOU,” he thrust a telephone receiver into my hand. Calling from the bottom of the mountain, my mother frantically demanded to know if I was all right. After assuring her that I was fine, I hung up, and the top-of-the-mountain man helped me mount a chair going downhill.

As I descended, I realized how very high I’d climbed. I could see all the way down the mountain to the tiny town below, and it finally sunk in just how far I could fall if I slipped out of the chair. Luckily, the rest of the ride went smoothly.

When I landed safely at the bottom of the mountain, my parents rushed to greet me, my mother smothering me with kisses. I wondered why they’d been so worried. Now, a mother (and grandmother) myself, I no longer wonder. Seeing one of my young children whisked up a 7,808-foot mountain, all alone, I would have panicked too.

With the Jackson Hole episode behind us, our family explored Colorado and Utah before heading home. By the time we got to North Platte, Nebraska, we were sure our Western adventures were over. But we were wrong.

We dined at a local steakhouse, figuring on an uneventful walk back to our motel. But when we left the steakhouse, the air was swarming with hundreds of enormous locusts. Unaccustomed to seeing any insect larger than a horsefly, we were shocked to see hordes of gigantic bugs zooming through the air.

We ducked and began running, collapsing in the bug-free atmosphere of our motel room. But it was too early to proclaim victory over the insect world. As Mom began to undress (yes, the brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked number), a locust emerged from the vicinity of her bra and began to fly around the room. We all screamed till Daddy did what was expected of 1950s-era Daddies and got rid of the thing. It took us a while to settle down to sleep that night.

We returned to Chicago and our routine existence. But the memories of our Trip West never faded. A reminder arrived in our mailbox a few weeks later: the photo of me, in the chair-lift, at the top of Snow King Mountain.

Among my favorite memories are those of my travels, starting with those I took with my parents so long ago. I’ve gone on to travel to many parts of the world, and I plan to keep on going. Inside me is a little girl on a chair-lift, eager to be transported up the mountain one more time.

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

PART IV

My family trip to France and the U.K. in the summer of 1995 found us in the midst of a record-setting heat wave in both countries. Parts I, II, and III of this post have described the challenges of hot-weather travel in cities like Paris that aren’t usually very hot.

In Part IV, I pick up the story in London, another city traditionally unaccustomed to hot weather.

Our daytime touring in London began to resemble a tour of hot exotic climes. When we passed by Trafalgar Square, we saw crowds surrounding the pools beneath Lord Nelson’s column, trying to cool off. Dozens of children frolicked in the pools of water as though they were neighborhood wading pools in Chicago.

Sadly, our attempt to tour the wondrous contents of the British Museum was a distinct failure. As we slowly meandered through the rooms devoted to ancient Egypt, pushing our way through the sweaty crowd, I could have sworn we were in a suffocating museum in Egypt itself. I almost envied the mummies in their amazingly-well-preserved cases. Maybe it was cooler in there? We’d planned to stay all morning, but we left after barely an hour.

Another project that went down the tubes was our plan to escort our daughters into a couple of London pubs, where they could soak up the very British atmosphere along with a pint or two of ale. But our attempts to go pub-crawling went nowhere. Every time we entered a pub, it was unbearably hot and filled with cigarette smoke. All the outside tables were already taken, so we couldn’t quaff any ale that way either. So long, London pub-crawl.

The London buses continued to be insanely hot. Their windows opened for about three inches at the very top, where the breeze barely did any good–when there was a breeze. The Tube was somewhat better, although one newspaper headline read “100 DEGREES F IN THE TUBE,” so at times it must have been blazing hot down there, too.

I’d given up wearing makeup by this time–my lipstick kept melting–and I let my hair go “au naturel.” Why not? We no longer cared how we looked, to each other or to anyone else. So if my hair was inordinately frizzy, and my face sans makeup looked less than gorgeous, who cared?

When I checked my money belt, which I wore at my waist, it was–not surprisingly–damp. But I was surprised that the moisture around my waist had permeated the belt’s contents. I had the world’s dampest traveler’s checks!

Meanwhile, our supply of clean clothes was dwindling, and things were becoming desperate. We’d hoped to find a nearby laundromat but never did, and we’d begun to resort to hand-washing. My small supply of Woolite was nearly gone, so we headed to a supermarket for a substitute. There I found Fairy Liquid, a liquid soap I’d read about in books by English women novelists. I felt just like an English housewife of the 1950s as I poured Fairy Liquid into the tiny bathroom sink on Gower Street and plunged our dirty duds into the suds. (The Fairy Liquid label said “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.” Do you suppose the Queen uses it to wash her undies, too?)

On our last day in London, we left the city and traveled to the leafy green suburb of Hampstead, hoping to find a relatively cool and sylvan spot. There, in the midst of a large wooded park, is Kenwood House, a stunning historic house surrounding a spectacular art collection. Admission was free, and the staff were some of the friendliest people we met anywhere in England. A lovely respite from London’s crowds and heat, Kenwood House was a genuine treat.

For our last night in London, we bought tickets to the 100th-anniversary production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Old Vic. The theatre advertised itself as being air-conditioned, and in truth, it wasn’t all that bad inside. Viewing “Earnest,” I was almost comfortable in a long, loose-fitting cotton skirt (hence unconcerned about the potential itchiness of the seat’s upholstery). But my heart went out to the actors, dressed in the heavy satins and laces of Victorian finery. They had to be sweltering under the hot lights.

As we left the Old Vic, we felt a cool breeze for the first time in four days. The terrible heat was breaking–but not soon enough for us.

It was warm–but not hot–the next morning as we set off for Wales and the Cotswolds in a rented Vauxhall. As Herb met the challenge of right-hand drive with aplomb, we rambled around in comfort before leaving for home. Cardiff, Cheltenham, the tiny town of Bibury, Stratford-on-Avon—they were all reasonably cool. But after spending four unforgettable days in London dripping in sweat–from Westminster Abbey to Knightsbridge, from the Temple to Shaftsbury Avenue—we had a whole new outlook on summertime travel.

In retrospect, we had a terrific time together. We shared boundless adventures and rafts of laughs, creating memories to last a lifetime. But when we returned home, I asked myself: Would I plan another trip to England or France anytime soon?

Of course. I knew I would.

But would I plan it in “high season”? Not bloody likely. Give me London in March or April, when it rains a little nearly every day, and traveler’s checks get damp from rain instead of tummy-sweat. Or give me Paris in May, when the hint of sun is just enough to warm me up after a long gray winter.

“High season” in Paris or London? No thanks. “High season” sounded too much like “high temperatures” to ever tempt me again.

EPILOGUE

The four of us returned to France for over two weeks in May 1997. The weather was warm but not hot, and the trip—from Paris to Beaune, from Aix-en-Provence to Lyons–was blissful. Sadly, we were never able to take another European trip as a foursome, making the memories of those two fun-filled family trips even more precious.