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.

1957 Silk stockings - La bella de Moscu (aus) 02

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”.

1957 Silk stockings - La bella de Moscu (bel) 01

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).

July 1957: Film star dancers Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz) (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse (Tula Ellice Finklea/Lily Norwood) as they appear in 'Silk Stockings' which opens at the Empire Theatre on August 1st 1957.

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.


March 3, 2015



Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse stroll through Central Park together without saying a word. Their silence continues past a bustling outdoor dance floor, but their steps begin to sync in rhythm. Then there is an orchestral swell on the soundtrack, and they twirl individually. It is test of compatibility, a flirtatious movement to see if their bodies can work in unison. Astaire scratches his lip, gauging their chances. Once the melody of “Dancing in the Dark” eases onto the score, though, they move as one organism in a dance of light, joyful communion. It is an expression of love by other means, and, as choreographed by Michael Kidd, is one of the glories of the Hollywood musical.  The Band Wagon (1953) is an overwhelming sensorium of movement and color, and one of the more convincing arguments in justifying Hollywood’s existence. It is finally out on Blu-ray today from Warner Brothers (bundled with KISS ME KATE 3D, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and CALAMITY JANE in a desert island Blu-ray “Musicals Collection”) and the result is a near-flawless transfer of the three-strip Technicolor.


The Band Wagon was originally a 1931 stage show put on at the New Amsterdam Theater starring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz. In 1952 MGM was looking for a new project to assign Vincente Minnelli after he had put nearly a year of pre-production into a musical version of Huckleberry Finn that had just fallen apart (it was to star Dean Stockwell, Danny Kaye and Gene Kelly). So they tried to conjure that old Singin’ in the Rain magic by assigning Betty Comden and Adolph Green to whip together another screenplay around a revue. This time, instead of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, they were to create a narrative around the songs of Schwarz and Dietz. And just as Freed was a producer for MGM while Singin’ in the Rain was made, so Howard Dietz was the studio’s publicity manager when The Band Wagon went into production. They liked to keep things in house.


Comden recalled that the original Band Wagon, “was a revue in the real sense of the word. There was no plot. There were just some wonderful performers and charming numbers, but it was not a musical that had any kind of linear story that you could base anything on. It was just a revue. Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us.” What they did, in collaboration with Minnelli, was to incorporate the real-life personalities behind the scenes into a boilerplate backstage musical. As Minnelli writes in his autobiography, I Remember it Well, he thought “It would be delicious to base the characters on actual people. Why not base his [Astaire’s] part on the Astaire of a few years back, who’d been in voluntary retirement? Why not develop the situation further by suggesting that fame had passed him by?”


Astaire plays Tony Hunter, introduced with his trademark top hat and tails going for pennies on the dollar at an auction house. With his career permanently “between movies”, he takes a train back east to New York to hear a pitch from his old friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, respectively), who promise him the lead in a light musical comedy on Broadway. The idea is he would play a children’s writer who makes money cranking out Mickey Spillane-esque pulp on the side. Lester and Lily are thinly veiled stand ins for Comden and Green – the only difference being that Comden and Green were never married. But Lester and Lily are seduced by the theatrical wunderkind of the moment, Jeffrey Cordova (British music hall star Jack Buchanan), who instead tries to turn their comedy into a portentous, inflated version of the Faust legend. Minnelli name drops Orson Welles and George S. Kaufman as the model for Cordova, while Comden and Green place him as a Jose Ferrer clone. In any case, this exaggerated amalgam is a pompous whirling dervish with loads of talent but no common sense.  Hunter is an old-school entertainer put off by Cordova’s airs, and Hunter is equally intimidated by his co-star, the ballet-trained Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). He’s scared by her pedigree as well as her height. As a hoofer on the silver screen, Hunter never had the time or interest to court highbrow respectability, but now he’s working for it. But when Cordova’s ambitious gambit goes bust, the whole production crew decides to put on Lester and Lily’s original toe-tappin’ revue, in which the performers don’t have to worry about meaning but can just entertain.


Film theorist Jane Feuer, in her essay “The Self-Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment”, calls this “the myth of spontaneity”. She writes that “the primary positive quality associated with musical performance is its spontaneous emergence out of a joyous and responsive attitude toward life.” In  The Band Wagon, the Cordova production is depicted as stiff and overdetermined. If fact, we never see a full number from that show – they are always cut short by mechanical malfunction or actor temper tantrums. High art is restrictive and stifling. It is only when Hunter is alone that he can dance naturally, whether coming off the train (“By Myself”), or exploring a Times Square arcade (“A Shine on Your Shoes”) . And it’s only after the “Faust” Band Wagon flops, and Hunter parties with the young cast and crew afterward in a joyous bacchanal of old popular songs, that the pretentious can be overthrown for what the people really want. Which in this case are the phantasmagoric collection of sets and tunes connected with “Triplets”, “New Sun in the Sky”, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan”, “Louisiana Hayride” and  the angular, knifing Spillane parody “Girl Hunt Ballet.” I don’t know if the people want it, but it’s certainly what I desire. Feuer again:  “The myth of spontaneity operates to make musical performance, which is actually part of culture, appear to be part of nature.”

1953: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse perform a dance number in 'Band Wagon', directed by Vincente Minnelli for MGM.

Though Feuer intends this as a critique of the conservatism of the Hollywood musical, this is exactly what I value from these extraordinary films. They make the magical look natural, prying open the possibilities of the visible. What is even more remarkable about The Band Wagon is how troubled the production was, in comparison to the ease and joy on-screen. Minnelli was in the process of divorcing Judy Garland. MGM fired director of photography George Folsey halfway through production because of his slow working speed. Oscar Levant had just been released from a mental hospital. Fred Astaire’s wife Phyllis was dying of cancer. Nanette Fabray remembered, “It was a very cold atmosphere.” Dancer James Mitchell recalled, “It wasn’t a pleasant experience, Minnelli kind of trod on Cyd.” Everyone seemed to be taking their annoyances out on everyone else, and yet the end product is near seamless, in which, as the closing number exclaims, “The world is a stage, the stage is a world of entertainment!” It is a lie, but a lie to aspire to.


September 20, 2011

Screen Shot 2020-01-31 at 5.51.10 PM

Vincente Minnelli had been interested in making a surrealist musical since his days as a Broadway set designer and director. After he saw successful stagings of “Four Saints in Three Acts” (with libretto by Gertrude Stein) and “Pins and Needles” (starring members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union), he was convinced he could make it work. In 1938, he tried to woo musical comedy star Bea Lillie to take the lead role in a “surrealist revue” he titled “The Light Fantastic”. In a letter to Lillie, quoted in Minnelli’s autobiography, he wrote, “It sets out to prove that the world today is completely screwy. A surrealist fantasy set in jig time.” The project was shelved, and he moved on to direct “Very Warm For May”, the first Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein collaboration in eight years.

Once in Hollywood, and flush with studio goodwill off the hits Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and The Clock (1945) (he had also directed the majority of the revue-style Ziegfeld Follies, which the studio tinkered with until ’46), he finally put his “Light Fantastic” inspiration into action, resulting in Yolanda and the Thief (1945), one of the strangest and most enchanting films ever released by a Hollywood studio. Released earlier this year on DVD by the Warner Archive, Yolanda and the Thief  is also screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October, as part of a complete retrospective of the director’s work (presented along with the Locarno Film Festival).

The genesis of Yolanda did not begin with Minnelli, but with children’s author Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the Madeleine series. In July, 1943, he co-wrote a fanciful short story called “Yolanda and the Thief” for Town & Country magazine with Jacques Thery. Producer and songwriter Arthur Freed purchased the rights the same year, and installed Bemelmans in an office at MGM to hash out a script from the material. He produced a treatment, but it went through three more rewrites before a fourth draft by Irving Brecher was accepted.

In the fantastical South American Ruritanian country called Patria, a beautiful heiress named Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) will inherit the family fortune and the defacto throne on her 18th birthday. Raised in a Catholic orphanage, she is naive in  the dirty ways of the world, and Johnny Riggs (Fred Astaire) takes full advantage. He overhears Yolanda praying to her guardian angel, and so Johnny pretends to be the embodiment of this protective spirit. Yolanda immediately believes his schtick, and is soon convinced to sign over power of attorney to this sweet-faced con artist. Johnny’s heart may be as soft as his shoes, and he’s not sure if he can go through with the theft…

Lucille Ball was originally slated for Yolanda, but after Minnelli was hired, Lucille Bremer took the role, since she had worked well with the director as the older sister in Meet Me In St. Louis. While he had little involvement in the scripting process, Minnelli immediately went to work on the visual design, which pulls from a dizzying array of influences and styles, from children’s picture books to Salvador Dali. Minnelli wrote that “I tried to get the quality of Bemelman’s books and illustrations, a curious mixture of worldliness in high places and a primitive naiveté, using his sometimes crude prism colors right out of a child’s paint box and combining them with beautifully subtle monotones.”

No concession is made to realism, with the waking sequences as garish and artificial as the centerpiece dream ballet. The opening sequence includes plastic ferns, papier-mache rock formations, a llama, and children sitting in green, yellow and red robes with a pinkish-orange sunset matte-painting beckoning them to greater flamboyance. This transitions to the orphanage, in which a parade of red-dressed, black hatted girls add skipping accents to a regal castle edifice. The nuns, in contrast, are in a dull blue-gray, building blocks of the building itself.

When Yolanda first appears in her family’s palace, out of the orphanage’s garb for the first time, she wears a simple cream-colored dress, which brightens the grays of the marble and fading murals. Her dotty Aunt Amarilla (a sublime Mildred Natwick, “Do my fingernails and immediately bring them to my room”) greets her wearing a blue-gray shade similar to that of the sisters, again blending into the background, part of the institution.

Yolanda’s next outfit is worn to visit Johnny for the first time, whom she believes to be an angel. Appropriate to such a worshipful occasion, she wears a black lace number, with a veil-like mantilla . A white rose adds a pop of contrast. In order to convince her of his otherworldliness, Minnelli shows Johnny arranging his own lighting, angling a lampshade so the rays seem to emit from his forehead. Positioned in front of heavenly mural behind him, he is a picture of vain celebrity, but Yolanda falls for the ruse, and also, Minnelli winks, he hopes we fall for his technical tricks.

The dream ballet is where Minnelli is fully allowed to display his Surrealist influences, with a Dali-esque landscape the setting for irruptions of unconscious illogic. The sequence begins in what looks like the film-world’s reality, as Astaire walks down the town’s main thoroughfare. The first puncture of this reality occurs when Astaire is asked for a cigarette. It’s the same rumpled man who had asked earlier in the film, but Astaire obliges anyway. After he lights one, a third hand appears from the blackness, cig in hand. He lights it, but more hands appear, until there are six arms sharing puffs from one mouth. The coins he had flipped to some street urchins start falling from the sky in rhythmic patterns, as the street set disappears for one streaked with lines of gold. Washerwomen in flame red skirts (recalling the orphanage outfits) ensnare him in reams of white laundry, as the rhythm set by the coins continues.

Echoing the reams of white fabric, a figure emerges from a pond, fabric flowing up and around her, as if in her own personal hurricane (this is a reversed image of Bremer walking backward into the water). She leads him into a desiccated Dali landscape of mutated white clumps and bare trees looming over an empty space, leading nowhere. Minnelli: “I wanted to suggest South American baroque without actual architectural forms, and used a series of rock formations in fantastic shapes.” Astaire removes the drapery of Bremer’s body, revealing her face. She is again wearing a cream-colored dress, as in her first, welcoming, arrival. The fabric that entangled him, he is able to free her from. It is a dramatization of Johnny’s fears of entrapment and attraction, visualized in spare, haunting landscapes.

This wildly imaginative sequence is a logical extension of the fantastic real world, and, as Jane Feuer wrote in The Hollywood Musical: “The transition to the dream in Yolanda is one instance of a play on the boundaries between fantasy and ‘reality’ which  informs the entire film. It is through cinematic technique that the boundaries between worlds are able to be blurred, placed en abime.”

Audiences were not receptive, and according to the AFI Catalog, Yolanda and the Thief  lost $1.5 million on its initial release. Minnelli muses that “much of the public couldn’t accept a simple story in an avant-garde setting.” Likely so, but it should be appreciated now in its oneiric Technicolor glory. Minnelli, a humble sort, should have the last word: “Film buffs say the picture was ahead of its time. I like to think so.”