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January 23, 2023

Movie Review: Funny Girl

By Cheryl Haimann

I like movies, but I don't go to the movies very often. The hassle, the cost, and the time lost usually outweigh my desire to see the latest thing. I make an exception, though, when one of the independently owned theaters in town brings in an old movie. I don't mean "released in June and the kids won't pay full price for it anymore" old. I'm talking "Eisenhower administration" old, the classics that have been tested by time and found worthy. Let an Alfred Hitchcock movie play for a week, and I am the first one in line to see larger-than-life Cary Grant climb Mount Rushmore.

So for me, the big summer blockbuster was not that one with whats-his-name, nor the one where all that stuff blows up. The movie that drew me out of my house was the re-release of 1968's "Funny Girl." Barbra Streisand re-creates on film the role that made her a Broadway star before she was 20, playing singer/comedienne Fanny Brice. The film is charitably called a biography, but if it were being made today, it would probably bear the disclaimer, "Suggested by events in the life of Fanny Brice."

I didn't know it until the end credits ran, but the movie has been spiffed up in preparation for a new DVD release in October. (Note to my husband: And so close to Christmas shopping season!) According to Sony Pictures, the goal was to repair the film, bringing it back to its original 1968 condition, but not to remove, digitally and obsessively, every scratch and fleck.

While I'm aware of what can be, and has been, done in movie restorations, I did not know any of these things had been done when I watched "Funny Girl." A few seconds into the opening credits, I thought, "Wow, I don't remember those colors - this must have been remastered." But before the credits were over, I saw a significant flaw on the film. I don't know the technical name, but it looks like a piece of lint. "Surely they would have fixed that," I thought.

So it continued throughout the movie. Changes in color saturation between reels. Audio clear enough to pick up things I never heard on video, but with hissing that would come and go. The good things were good enough to make me think it had been fixed up, but the flaws were enough to keep me off balance. Sony swears that these flaws have been there all along. The color differences at the reel change, for example, happened because two of the master reels were missing, and they had to work with one of the duplicate reels.

If that isn't enough, this dear old theater has not had new seating at least since I saw "Rocky" in its original run. Narrow seats with short, fixed backs tilt at an uncomfortable angle. At least, that is how my middle-aged body felt about them. I popped an Aleve and reminded myself that neck spasms were key to reconstructing the original movie experience.

That's all geeky details, though. What about the movie?

"Funny Girl" is still one of the all-time great movies about show business. Young Fanny uses her spectacular voice and comedic gifts to muscle her way into burlesque, and it's only a matter of time until she is headlining the Ziegfeld Follies. On her way to the top, she meets a charming and handsome gambler, Nick Arnstein, played by Omar Sharif. Their courtship is frequently interrupted by her tours and his gambling excursions, but when Nick sails for Europe near the end of her run, Fanny impulsively decides to join him. He rides a lucky streak at the poker table, and wins enough money so they can be married.

Back in America, though, Nick's luck turns sour, and his pride will not let him accept money from his superstar wife. He gets involved with a phony bond scheme that goes bad and is sentenced to prison. The movie is framed by Fanny waiting at the theater on the day Nick is released, waiting to see if he wants to continue the marriage.

While the story line takes generous liberty's with Brice's true story, director William Wyler does a splendid job of recreating, movie-style, the scenery and clothing of early twentieth century New York, from Fanny's working class neighborhood to the theaters and luxury ocean vessels.

The colors are dazzling, almost too dazzling in some cases. One of the hallmarks of Technicolor was how it handled red, and the red dining room where Nick seduces Fanny is, at first glance, almost laughably red. The stars held my attention, though, with one of the best PG seduction scenes ever. When Fanny first meets Nick, she calls him "gorgeous," and this scene proves how right she was. Rrowr!

Also dazzling is young Streisand's voice. She was still in her early 20s when this movie was filmed, and already had two signature songs from the score of the musical. She sings "People" to Nick in the alley behind her mother's saloon, just after opening night of the Follies. When Fanny decides she would rather be with Nick than be in the Follies, "Don't Rain On My Parade" takes her on a train, and cab, and finally a tugboat (an incredible aerial shot that reminds you what great things could be done before computer graphics) in an attempt to catch up with his ship.

The movie version excises several songs from the Broadway show, but adds some of Brice's own set pieces: humorous "Second Hand Rose" and torchy "My Man." This versions restores the intermission music from the original film, all two minutes of it. If you want to freshen your popcorn or visit the necessary, leave the second they cut away from the tugboat. I mean it. And hurry back.

Among the very few down sides: Omar Sharif sings. And not exactly dances, but is choreographed a bit. I let it pass because, as I mentioned, he is jaw-dropping gorgeous. Also, there was some prominent noise on the soundtrack. I hope it was because I was in an old theater with an old sound system, and that it will not be a problem on the DVD version.

Where the theatrical experience really shines, though, is not the big Ziegfeld production numbers, but the intimate and emotional scenes. Nick's return from prison, for example, has an emotional punch on screen that is difficult or impossible to capture on television.

Even as an experienced "Funny Girl" viewer, I welcomed the chance to see this classic musical on the big screen, and was not disappointed. Now, if only I can get that DVD. (Are you paying attention, dear?)
Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-09-22
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