Funny Girl (1968)

Film Society of Lincoln Center: Hollywood’s Jew Wave
November 13, 2011 [2nd of two showings during the FSLC series]
Francesca BealeTheater, Elinor Bunim Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
event web site

Original 1964 Broadway Cast recording cover. Songs that don’t make it to film include “Cornet Man”, “Who Taught Her Everything”, and “The Music That Makes Me Dance”

I attended a screening of Funny Girl for the first time during its first national release in 1968, armed with thorough knowledge of the original Broadway 1964 cast recording to which I listened seriously and often, as I did to the many many LPs in my Streisand-loving mother’s music collection.  At five I could recite the words to “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” from The Barbra Streisand Album (1963), and at 10 I knew the words and orchestrations to Funny GirlFanny Brice‘s musicalized life on stage, taking us from Fanny as as an adolescent to Fanny as a Ziegfeld star and a married mother who leaves her marriage to move on with her life.

My mom escorted me and probably a few siblings and neighbor kids to a showing of the movie version of Funny Girl when it first screened in my western Michigan city in 1968.  At the age of nine or ten I knew the songs from the stage show that remained and many that had been left out of the film score (I always will miss “The Music That Makes Me Dance” in the film version), and saw that story lines had been tightened, at least as far as I could figure out from the liner notes in the cast recording LP gatefold I studied deeply and thoroughly as a child.  This movie became part of my DNA. I next encountered the film on the big screen in 2001 at the Uptown Theatre (in Washington DC where I then lived) as part of a “what defines us as Americans” ad hoc assembled film festival the week after 9/11/2001.  With several friends who had never seen the movie on the big screen and at least one who was seeing the film for the first time, we sang and cried and laughed along with Fanny and her friends.  I revisit the film often on DVD but not often enough on the big screen where it belongs.

This year, this November full of so many blessings, I attend a screening of Funny Girl at the Francesca Beale Theatre, one of the fancy screening rooms newly added to the suite of facilities used by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  Late-ish on Sunday November 13, I venture into the screening room with a set of friends made within the last year — all residents of New York City, all fans of great singing, all of whom have seen this movie before.  We enter, we thrill, we enthuse, we cry.  And I find that my mind (indulge me in this) can’t help but draw certain comparisons between certain scenes in William Wyler‘s 1968 creation and a number of earlier television and film moments featuring Judy Garland.  Sure, you can say that I can always find a connection to Garland from which to draw, but here we have it.  From Barbra as Fanny to Judy as Lily to Judy as herself to Judy as Esther Blodgett, I offer some themes and visuals and dramaturgical observations.

Theme: Youthful newcomer has to find her way onto a stage however she can.

“Funny Girl”  — Young Fanny shows her talents after she has rehearsed with Edie and the “Eight Beautiful Girls Eight” to Mr. Keeney  attempting to get a job in his vaudeville theatre. Screen cap by Martha Wade Steketee.
“Presenting Lily Mars” (1943) — Lily (Judy Garland) goes on unrehearsed with the Thornway Theatre dancing girls, attempting to make an impression and get a job in the chorus. Screen cap by Martha Wade Steketee.

Theme: Funny lady with skinny legs takes on Swan Lake as a lark.

“Funny Girl” — Fanny in a Ziegfeld Follies “Swan Lake” dance and comedy bit prancing about delightfully.  This sequence is not in the stage version of the story. Screen cap by Martha Wade Steketee.
“Judy and Her Guests: Phil Silvers and Robert Goulet” (1963) — (L-R) Robert Goulet, Judy Garland, Phil Silvers. Hamming it up in a medley of comedy skits featuring this segment with the three prancing around to the music of “Swan Lake.” Screen cap by Martha Wade Steketee.

Theme: A powerful talented woman feels she needs to give it all up, at least the way she has known it, at least for a little while, so informs her patron/employer that she will be taking a break.

“Funny Girl” — Flo Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon) and Fanny discuss Fanny’s future on the stage if Nicky wants her back after serving his time in prison.  Fanny wants to let Nick be the breadwinner — “I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.” Screen cap by Martha Wade Steketee.
“A Star is Born” (1954) — Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) and Esther (Judy Garland) discuss her decision to leave his studio and go abroad to allow husband Norman Maine a new chance at work “where they don’t know him the way they do here.” Screen cap by Martha Wade Steketee.

Theme: Star stands in her own power and emotes about her man, who has moved on practically or absolutely.

“Funny Girl” final scene — During a Follies performance Fanny sings of “My Man” and the husband that got away. Screen cap by Martha Wade Steketee.
“A Star is Born” (1954) final scene — Esther announces herself during a benefit performance, two weeks after husband Norman’s suicide, as “Mrs. Norman Maine”. Her love for him remains powerful, and she will go on to perform in her life, but not for the movie audience at this point in the film. Screen cap by Martha Wade Steketee.

These comparisons are meant only to share the themes and juxtapositions that occur to me in watching the mesmerizing Funny Girl. Layers of images, layers of meaning.  And in the end, we must return to the point of origin for these musings.  The show is Barbra’s, whose smashing film career has indeed begun with this film.  The final resonant image of this blog post should belong to her.  So what follows is from the final “My Man” sequence, resolving with a spot light fading on her, only her, in her stage home, having delivered as Fanny-Barbra a stunning performance.  We are yours, Ms. Streisand.

Funny Girl final images, Streisand as Fanny in a fading spot. Mesmerizing. Screen cap by Martha Wade Steketee.

Favorite lines from the film:

  • “When a person is a stranger, he should act a little strange.” (Fanny’s mother watching Nicky’s familiarity at a card table)
  • “What with the Follies and an indecent proposal, it’s been quite a night.” (Fanny to Nicky)
  • “I never have definite plans.  They make me feel too tied down.” (Nicky to Fanny)

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 24, 2011)

[edit/addition 11/27/2011]

One of my companions at the Funny Girl screening, a filmmaker, mused aloud about the film’s final sequence and its visual delights.  How, he wondered, did director Wyler get the idea for that final solo spotlit white and black composition?  I had some ideas myself but kept them quiet at the time — my constant Garland points of reference can weary some, I recognize.  Now I offer up that idea: yet another parallel image, of Streisand herself snapped by Roddy McDowall on the set of CBS television series The Judy Garland Show in October 1963 and used on the cover of her third album, released in 1964.  Just offering for the record, and because I love this image.  Love it so much I have the LP framed.  Judy to Barbra to Judy to Barbra to … and the circle continues.

LP (and later CD) recording cover image for Barbra Streisand’s “The Third Album” released in 1964. Image shot by actor/photographer Roddy McDowall on the set of “The Judy Garland Show” CBS television series in October 1963.

1 Comment »

  1. Lovely article, great image captures. I love the theme you’ve used for your blog. Very nice and clean and sharp. Of course it’s the words (your words) that make a blog worthwhile, but your layout is striking. Thanks you.

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