August 9, 2016
Silk Stockings (1957) is remembered less for what it is than what it represents – the end of the Golden Age of MGM musicals. It was adapted from the last musical Cole Porter wrote for the stage, contains Fred Astaire’s final leading performance, and was director Rouben Mamoulian’s farewell feature film. Viewed outside of that melancholic context, the film is a peppy Cold War burlesque that turns the ideological battle of Communism and capitalism into a decision between cold logic and effortless entertainment (guess what wins). Astaire reunites with his Band Wagon co-star Cyd Charisse to solve East-West relations through dance and expensive undergarments. An enormous hit in its time, it was the highest grossing musical to ever play Radio City Music Hall, but its reputation has suffered since. Silk Stockings deserves a better fate than to be an answer to an end-of-career trivia question, and Warner Archive is helping by releasing it on Blu-ray. It will also screen on TCM this coming Sunday, August 14th, at 6PM.
Since 1939 Arthur Freed had run a musical production unit inside MGM that made the studio famous, but at the time of Silk Stockings he was no longer under contract. He formed Arthur Freed Productions, and Silk Stockings was the new entity’s first film, to be distributed by MGM. They had invested in the 1955 Broadway musical of the same name, which had a book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath, and Abe Burrows and music by Cole Porter. It was itself based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 film Ninotchka and Melchior Lengyel’s story that inspired it, pitting Hollywood producer Steve Canfield (Astaire) against strait-laced Russian commissar Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse). In the film she is sent to Paris to retrieve composer Peter Boroff (Wim Sonneveld), a Russian icon who Canfield is wooing to write the music for his next film, a “loose” adaptation of War and Peace to star Peggy Dayton (a loopy, wonderful Janis Paige). Canfield has to convince the straitlaced Communist to allow Boroff to participate in this capitalist enterprise, and perhaps open her eyes to the pleasures of the decadent Western lifestyle.
It essentially transposes the high-art/low-art divide of The Band Wagon onto the Cold War. The pretentious Faust opera of The Band Wagon is now the Russian symphony of Boroff’s “Ode to a Tractor”. Both need to bow to the easy spontaneity of Astaire’s more approachable, personable art. There is little difference in the Freed Unit’s conception of high art and Communism, both are depicted as self-obsessed ideologies that ignore pleasure in favor of sterile, elitist thought.
The character of Ninotchka is broken down from a fiercely independent bureaucrat into a silk-stroking, conspicuously consuming wife. The flirtation that leads to this point is awfully entertaining, including her come-ons like: “The arrangement of your features is not entirely repulsive to me.” Ninotchka trades in her mind for more awareness of her body, most spectacularly in a sinuous pas de deux with Canfield during “All Of Me”.
The Broadway tunes by Cole Porter were deemed “unacceptably vulgar” by the production code and had to be cleaned up for the film, robbing the meta-Hollywood parody “Stereophonic Sound” of the lines: ““If Zanuck’s latest picture were the good old-fashioned kind, / There’d be no one in front to look at Marilyn’s behind.” Porter would pen two new songs exclusive to the feature: “Fated to be Mated” and the fascinatingly lame rock pastiche”The Ritz Roll and Rock”. Freed had the songs, but he had some difficulty convincing Astaire to return to the screen. The debonair actor was concerned he was too old to play a leading man (he was 57, Charisse was 35), and he had never met Mamoulian before. Freed made the unpopular choice of hiring Rouben Mamoulian to direct, who had done groundbreaking work in the musical at the start of his career with the sound collages of Applause (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932). But those were long ago, and he hadn’t directed for nearly a decade, not since the Mickey Rooney flop Summer Holiday (1948).
Freed still had enough weight to push his choice through, and Astaire, was initially reluctant until Mamoulian met him in person. Mamoulian told Astaire that (as quoted in Hugh Fordin’s M-G-M’S GREATEST MUSICALS: THE ARTHUR FREED UNIT), “I see all the young actors today on the screen and none of them can match you in charm or romantic appeal. So, for heaven’s sake get off that peg – you’re not too old!”. He also sketched out his vision for the film to the actor, “I think we can introduce a new element-pantomime-in place of extended dialogue. We’ll have high comedy with the three Russian commissars and a love story that is believable and touching.” Astaire was convinced, writing to Freed that, “I’m so pleased with his viewpoints on the picture.” With star, subject, and director locked in, the film was shot entirely in Culver City from November 1956 to January 1957. Astaire’s dances were choreographed by Hermes Pan, the rest of the Broadway show choreographer Eugene Loring.
One of the “Three Russian commissars” that Mamoulian mentions is Peter Lorre, on the downswing of his career but still a pungent screen presence. His apparatchik has fallen hard for the Western lifestyle, and is a regular customer at the Folies Bergeres, his froggy face lighting up at its mention. It is remarkable to watch Lorre’s uncanny features and lumpen legs work their way through a musical sequence – with Loring giving him one little joke to work wit – he does the Russian Cossack dance (the squatting kicks) – but only when propped up on two items (tables, chairs, pianos). He goes at it with a deadpan stare and mechanical efficiency, and is hilarious. I would advise keeping your eyes on Lorre in the long shots inside the CinemaScope frame, he’s always reacting, flinching, or rearing.
Silk Stockings is a bizarre, fascinating, and perversely entertaining, a film where Cyd Charisse belts out the phrase “bourgeois entertainment” during this most bourgeois of entertainments. It presents Charisse at her most cutting and funny when she is at her most anti-capitalist, and at her most beautiful and free when she has caved to the pleasures of the flesh. The only way out is to go into the movies, as one of the loveliest dances, “Fated to be Mated”, which Porter wrote for the film, has Astaire and Charisse twirl through a series of backlot sets. The song title sounds like a threat, but in the dance and in Mamoulian’s framing they are given balanced space on screen. Equality at last, only in the movies, only until the end of the song.