By Christine Bamberger
Silk Stockings has often been cited as one of the last great MGM musicals, and indeed it was the last to emerge from the prestigious Arthur Freed unit at the studio. It was the final romantic lead role for Fred Astaire (age 58 when it was released), and the last time Cyd Charisse, 36, would dance in a movie musical. It does not possess the dynamism of Astaire’s work of the thirties or even The Band Wagon, made only four years before, and is sometimes described as reflecting the tiredness of the genre. Still, it exhibits plenty of verve thanks to the distinctive direction of Rouben Mamoulian, whose last film this was. The director began work on a film version of Porgy and Bess and on Cleopatra, but was replaced on both projects, whereupon he returned exclusively to stage work.
Between his first film, the seminal musical Applause, and Silk Stockings, Rouben Mamoulian had a career comprising a variety of genres and artistic disagreements with colleagues. Experienced in stage direction, Mamoulian famously was one of the first directors of sound film to restore a liberated camera movement that had been hobbled by the new sound technology that required keeping the camera quietly enclosed and still. Though he allegedly hated Cinemascope, Mamoulian made lively use of the technology in this film, especially in “Stereophonic Sound,” a number that parodies the innovation of both technologies, along with Technicolor and other less technical innovations of the fifties that were part of the movies’ design to woo back the audiences turning to television. Many of Mamoulian’s shots are framed in such a way that there are two complete images with center points, thereby avoiding more typical early widescreen stagings in which empty space around or between two central figures dominates the composition. Mamoulian also gets his dancers across the long screen in a natural and voluptuous way. He opens the film with a nod to his own traveling-camera style (strikingly used in the opening of his Love Me Tonight) and to Fred Astaire’s by using a tracking shot that follows the jaunty legs and feet of Astaire from his hotel room to a concert hall. Fitting–Mamoulian is as revolutionary in directing the camera as Astaire is in directing dance movement and shots thereof.
A script with touches of both Billy Wilder and George S. Kaufman has got to be entertaining, but writers galore bring us the story as we see it here. Wilder, along with Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, jazzed up a somewhat mundane story by Melchior Lengyel into the screenplay for the celebrated 1939 film Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. In 1955 Cole Porter wrote the music for a Broadway musical based on the story, starring Hildegarde Neff and Don Ameche. Coming up with a plot tailored for Cold War sensibilities were Kaufman and his wife Leueen MacGrath, but producer Cy Feuer subsequently worked with Abe Burrows to further revise it. The musical film, employing additional writers Leonard Gershe and Leonard Spigelgass, actually reverted to the script of the movie Ninotchka far more than the musical play had.
Silk Stockings often is unfavorably compared to the Lubitsch-touched Ninotchka, paradoxically for lacking both the earlier film’s frothy lightness as well as its serious politics. At the risk of sacrilege, I much prefer Silk Stockings’ leads in these roles. Charisse and Astaire were particularly adept at communicating emotion while dancing, and Mamoulian also was noted for his use of body movement to communicate narrative development, which of course works perfectly in a musical. Here, the dance becomes a vivid counterpoint to Charisse’s icy character; Garbo has no similar outlet.
Astaire’s final musical performance in an MGM production is an oddball nod to the rock ‘n’ roll that helped kill musicals, and I’ve always thought Cole Porter did a fair job of satirizing the style of the music, but Fred and choreographer Hermes Pan missed an opportunity here. Instead of trying to imitate Elvis-like dancing (which, judging from some of Astaire’s hip-swinging in Latin-tinged dances, I’m sure he could have pulled off) Astaire overemphasizes the writhing-on-the-floor stuff (not to mention the truly bizarre “hanging onto the mirror stuff”) and rarely seems to be dancing here so much as posing. There is some symbolism inherent in the way his last act is to smash his top hat into the floor, but a more interesting number would have had him embrace the new form rather than play the fogey.
Cyd Charisse exudes a sense of competence and energy that, at least in dance terms, is not diminished by her throwing off of her woolen stockings to don the silk ones (despite the fact that the song she later sings to Astaire while sitting at his feet, is one of the most sexist in popular music–”Without love, what is a woman?” And to make matters worse, it’s not even a particularly good song). Her two solo numbers were choreographed by Eugene Loring, and beautifully reflect her unique mix of wholesomeness with sexiness. Her transformation from icy Soviet envoy to woman in love is depicted in the form of a classy almost-striptease, but as she dances, she also adds a piquant vulnerability and confusion to the character that is lovely to see.
As the late Tom Milne wrote in his 1969 book on Mamoulian, “[O]ne is almost tempted to say that every Mamoulian film is a musical. It isn’t true, of course, but with every action and line of dialogue conceived in terms of stylised rhythm, choreographed rather than directed–it feels as though it were.” Mamoulian himself was to comment, “I had two of the best dancers in the world, and what interested me was to give greater importance to the dancing than to the action proper. The psychological and dramatic development existed only in the dances.” Astaire and Charisse, in turn, had one of the great directors.
USA, 1957. 117min. MGM.