George S. Kaufman was a legendary wordsmith. Turns out that the “G” man was also a legendary lover. Just read actress Mary Astor’s purple diary. Astor’s diary prompted a scandal when read in court during her battle with her second husband contesting their child custody arrangement. Astor’s husband, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, warned her that if Astor filed suit against him, he would reveal her adulterous sexploits luridly detailed in her diary. She did; he did. And the sensational details of her affair with Kaufman among her slate of celebrity lovers kept spectators on the edge of their seats and rocked Hollywood in the 1930s. Absolutely no such explosion drives the cinematic “Succès d’estime”—Kaufman’s term for a success that runs out of steam.
The textbook cinematic Succès d’estime has to be Bell, Book and Candle (1958)—a glamorous 1950s comedy about a beautiful witch with a cat—that has all the ingredients of one fun film brew. As soon as witch Gillian (Kim Novak) and her spellbindingly beautiful feline familiar, Pywacket, hex Shep (good ol’ boy Jimmy Stewart) into a love trance, it looks like we are in for some real movie magic. But even an A List comic coven can’t get this cauldron stirring. Ironically when Hermione Gingold, Elsa Lanchester, and Jack Lemon, three of Hollywood’s finest, join the already formidable cast and enter the promising story, it becomes obvious that the movie has nowhere to go and the plot, like our interest, just trails off.
The most frustrating Succès d’estime has to be 1957’s Funny Face. A dream crew: Stanley Donen (albeit no friend of Broadway’s Alan Jay Lerner—but that’s another story) is a bona-fide musical-movie-genius director with Singin' In The Rain (1952) to prove it: Maestro George Gershwin wrote the music, which includes bookmarked favorites from the American Song Book. Edith Head AND Hubert de Givenchy’s created the elegant costumes. And it gets better—Funny Face has a dream cast: Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and Kay Thompson. Opening Credits by Richard Avedon skyrocket this glamorous mid-century musical about Fashion set in Paris into orbit. We are off and running. And by the time the stars are off and sailing—Funny Face provides one hell of a conclusion with Astaire and Hepburn dancing on the water out of frame and into the future.
But what about those hours in between? Succès d’estime. Funny Face starts with such an outrageously stellar pattern that it is actually irritating in those screen scenes when it shows its seams. The itinerary is as haute couture as the film’s pedigree is aristocratic. And the glitches are few. But you can’t avoid feeling those leaden moments that border on redundant—or worse—downright off the rack. Lethargic genre devices lumber forward and the film struggles to mount the catwalk, much less dazzle along the runway. The cast is so graceful that they make the story ethereal; problem is, the movie just doesn’t take off with them. You wince whenever the film plot touches, much less hits, the ground and just lays there. The film boasts several sensational sequences, but that opening promises far more. Funny Face neither moves as fluidly nor delivers as effortlessly as it promises. Its lackluster inertia makes Funny Face both flawed Masterpiece and “Succès d’estime.”
Let’s take a gander at America’s greatest novel when it’s been transferred to the screen. There are five adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby…from silent version (1926) to simplistic black-and-white melodrama (1949), then three more versions (1974, 2000, 2013) that lurch from excessive Technicolor to 3D-neon overstatements with increasingly painful miscasting. While the infrequent successes of the five versions differ, their failure to entertain, much less engage, is their common denominator: all five film adaptations run out of steam. On film, The Great Gatsby always promises to deliver…but never does. And lavish as the films look, even the trailers quickly turn tiresome.
When Fitzgerald’s Gatsby plans his party, on the page as on the screen, he includes celebrities among his guest list and sends engraved invitations. He orders food and Prohibition liquor and hires an orchestra with vocalist, parking attendants, and Security to augment his formidable household staff. He opens his luxurious mansion from his Versailles-like galleries out to his grand terraces with monumental sculptures bordering manicured gardens cascading to his private beach. He has his custom-tailored formal attire laid out for him, then poses looking handsome and nonchalant, and waits for guests to arrive…. In the novel, hope, infidelity, love, idealism, crime, wealth, deceit, and the American Dream will collide at Gatsby’s party…a sense of uber anticipation; in the films, no, no, and five times over, definitely No. We’re talking five big-time Succès d’estimes.