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Thursday, November 29, 2012

FUNNY GIRL (1968)

Barbra Streisand’s sparse film output, 21 films over four & a half decades, hardly measures up to her talent . . . or her potential. Now, even her smash debut looks a bit threadbare, though a recent restoration brings out its shiny gloss. (The ladies all look like they’ve had their hair done for that year’s Miami Beach Republican National Convention.) The original B’way show librettist, Isobel Lennart, got stuck having to please producer Ray Stark, the real-life son-in-law to both leading characters, Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein, the mid-level crumbum conman she married. And if Brice’s rise in the Follies was lightly fictionalized, her slightly sordid romance had to be completely re-imagined. Well, re-imagined if you don’t know the plots of SHOW BOAT and/or A STAR IS BORN: near-matching principals (tough, kindly producer; glam. but fading/emasculated husband; star wife with unconventional looks; asexual guy pal); a shameful night court appearance; there’s even a ‘This is Mrs. Norman Maine’ moment. Three or four numbers from the stage show still make their mark. Not so much the showcase Follies numbers, staged by dance director Herbert Ross, but the integrated set pieces director, William Wyler kept a hand in: ‘People;’ the ultra-dramatic finale, ‘My Man’; and especially ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade,’ a blissed out end to the first act that’s Wyler’s tribute to Ernst Lubitsch who invented this sort of musical epiphany for Jeanette MacDonald on a moving train in MONTE CARLO/’30. Some of the original Jules Styne/Bob Merrill score got swapped out for actual Brice specialty pieces, even, ‘I’d Rather Be Blue,’ co-written by Fanny’s next husband, Billy Rose! Alas, in gaining ‘My Man’ for the climax, they lost the show’s own great torch song ‘The Music that Makes Me Dance.’ (Listen to a rare live B’way perf here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxWrfKiAxKI )

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How times have changed. Now, when Streisand opens the film by slyly looking at herself in the mirror and saying ‘Hello, gorgeous,’ we’re apt to agree. If only she didn’t.

CONTEST: Kay Medford as Mama Brice purposefully & repeatedly mispronounces something in this film. (A gag that goes missing on the French-language soundtrack.) Spot the mispronunciation to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

DOUBLE-BILL: The obvious double-bill is the follow-up, FUNNY LADY/’75, but it’s a bit of a stinker. What not try the real Fanny Brice. Her first film, MY MAN/’28 has all her hit tunes, but this early Talkie only survives as a complete set of VitaPhone Synch-Discs, most of the visual elements have been lost. But you can get a pretty good idea of what she was about from THE GREAT ZIEGFELD/’36 where she sings a verse of ‘MY MAN’ on stage; and in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES/’45 where she applies her astonishing (and astonishingly physical) comedy technique to a not particularly amusing missing lottery ticket sketch. These skits always date badly, but she’s something to see. Completely exposed, working without a trace of vanity, she’s thrillingly . . . common.

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