Warner Home Video
Starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Peter Lorre
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Review by Damon Houx
When one thinks of the things that make cinema great, it's easiest to turn to directors folks like Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Hawks, Ford, Lang, Renoir, Murnau, and Welles. And perhaps, when taking a film in total, theirs are the best. But when evaluating moments and scenes, it's easier to turn to the actors. The inspired lunacy of the Marx Brothers, the wounded compassion of Jimmy Stewart, the commanding but foreign sexuality of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, or perhaps the modern antecedents, like the shaggy swagger of Harrison Ford and the two-gun bravado of Chow Yun-Fat.
Yet, for this reviewer, there is no purer moment of what makes cinema the greatest art form known to humankind than watching Fred Astaire dance.
And in Silk Stockings (based on Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka) he gets one number to show that magic. It happens during chapter 14 in the number "All of You," during a scene when film producer Steve Canfield (Astaire) finally gets through to the human side of Ninotchka Yoschenko (Cyd Charisse), and does so by dancing with her. He shows her some moves and takes her out of her chair. At first she is reluctant, turning only to get out of the way, but Astaire's seduction corrupts her and by the end she finds herself moving along in syncopation with him.
Sound sexy? It is. During their glory days, musicals were the Harlequin romance novels of cinema. In most cases, the plots were ritualistic in nature generally trifles revolving around dancers falling in love but those dance numbers are where these films shined, and shine they did. Unfortunately, once the genre was taken seriously, films like West Side Story took the musical away from dancing. In fact, there are almost two kinds of musicals: the kind that are mostly dance shows, and the more portentous types where dancing is supposed to get this become an expression of character.
It was when this bloated, sexless type of musical that became so expensive that the entire genre eventually was run aground, with only sporadic attempts at revivals (often met with little enthusiasm). Yet even as the musical is being rediscovered and reinvented (a la Moulin Rouge and Chicago), these modern films use excessive cutting to disguise the fact that the stars have little to no rhythm; one can't tell who's really doing what. Compare such to Silk Stockings (as with most classic musicals): The camera moves with the performers and cuts as little as possible to ensure the audience knows exactly how talented (and genuine) the performers are.
* * *
The only problem with the Dancing genre of musicals is that it wasn't taken seriously. However, like the great screwball comedies, they were the most transcendent forms of cinematic escapism. 1957's Silk Stockings isn't one of the best (call it a second-tier effort), nor one of the great Astaire vehicles. But when it's on, it's as good as the best one wishes it was just a little tighter and more consistent. Following the plot of Ninotchka fairly closely, the film starts as three Russian agents (the always amazing Peter Lorre, joined by Jules Munshin and Joseph Buloff) who come to Paris to monitor the great Russian composer Boroff (Wim Sonneveld). But Boroff comes under the attention of American movie producer Steve Canfield, who woos him to score his newest film starring swimming sensation Peggy Dayton (Janis Paige, in a scene-stealing role). And after Steve gets the agents wrapped around his capitalist finger, it is the iron-willed Ninotchka Yoschenko (Charisse) who is sent to straighten things out, complicated by Steve's claim that Boroff's father was a French traveling salesman.
Directed by Rouben Mamoulien in the (at the time) newer CinemaScope ratio, one can see as with many of the early 'scope films that the old-time directors couldn't stand the format and didn't know what to do with it. There's even a good song-and-dance number in the film dedicated to the intrusions of modern technology (entitled "Stereophonic Sound") wherein Astaire and Paige riff on why both the wider picture and new audio technology are obnoxious. But Mamoulien finds ways to fill the frame with interesting things and characters. Still, one wishes he found more use for Peter Lorre, who kills in his all-too-brief running-time. He gets to show off his hoofing talent of which he had little in a number entitled "Siberia."
Nonetheless, the main selling point of Silk Stockings is the pairing of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. They get two great numbers together (the aforementioned "All of You" and its sequel in Chapter 25, the "All of You" dance), while Charisse gets two great numbers to herself, the fetishistically erotic title number "Silk Stockings," wherein she dances her way out of her street clothes and into satin and silk, and "Red Blues," where she gets to dance around a work-house. Unfortunately, there is one number that doesn't snap like the rest, "The Ritz Rock and Roll," where Astaire talks in song about the onslaught of the new music that makes him look like a fuddy-duddy. This, though, was one of his last musicals, and one of the last of its type. Though imperfect, it was a good send-off.
* * *
Warner Home Video's DVD release of Silk Stockings presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and restored Dolby Digital 5.1 ("stereophonic") sound. The picture quality is quite good throughout, although there are moments of damage, while the soundtrack is fine for a 5.1 remix. However, one wishes the original 2.0 stereo mix was included.
Part of Warner's "Cole Porter Collection," this disc has a ten-minute featurette entitled Cole Porter in Hollywood: Satin and Silk, which features and interview with Cyd Charisse from 2003 wherein she recounts the making of the film. Also included is the 1934 short Paree, Paree (21:03) featuring a young Bob Hope and Dorothy Stone, with music by Cole Porter. The film is a short, gag-ridden affair with young rich man (Hope) pretending to have no money to woo a girl (Stone). Also included is the CinemaScope (but not anamorphic) Poet and Peasant Overture (9:08) as Alfred Wallenstein conducts the MGM symphony orchestra in stereo sound playing the Franz Von Suppe piece. Features are rounded out by the theatrical trailer and production notes.
- Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (French)
- English, French, and Spanish subtitles
- Featurette: "Cole Porter in Hollywood: Satin and Silk" (10:00)
- Short: "Paree, Paree" (21:03)
- Short: "The Poet and Peasant Overture" (9:08)
- Production notes
- Theatrical trailer
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