Fred and Cyd are fated to be mated in... Silk Stockings (1957)
Silk Stockings is perhaps one of the weirdest remakes you can see. Let me explain: when you think of Ninotchka, what comes to mind? The irresistible Greta Garbo? Sure. The dapper, underrated Melyvn Douglas? Of course. The tagline "Garbo Laughs," as if it were the first time the actress ever broke her frown? Annoyingly, yes. Do you think of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancin' and romancin' to Cole Porter tunes in a Metrocolor Paris? Or even more out of left field, Peter Lorre singing and dancing? No? Exactly.
To me, Silk Stockings is so completely the opposite of its source material that it's able to become its own film without the strings attached to the classic that started it all. I don't watch it and go "Man, Lubitsch did it better!" or "Ninotchka had much more depth!" I'm too busy thinking "Holy cow, that number was beautiful" and "Cyd Charisse, you are a dancing goddess." Look, I love both movies, but to be honest, I think I'm more partial to Silk Stockings, and that's probably only because it's got such fantastic musical moments. Let's break down the film by its routines.
Silk Stockings is set in the show biz world, with the plot focused on producer Steve Canfield (Astaire) trying to keep Russian composer Peter Boroff in Paris long enough to use his work in a film starring an Esther Williams-type named Peggy Dayton (Janis Paige). In Russia, the Commissar of Art, Markovich (George Tobias), has orders to bring Boroff back to his native country on the basis that his work belongs to Russia and no one else. Enter Ninotchka (Charisse), a humorless commissar whose mission is to get Boroff and the original three comrades (Jules Munshin, Peter Lorre, Joseph Buloff) who were sent after him but failed after being enticed by the wonders of Paris, or rather the trickery of Steve. Plying the men with beautiful women, champagne, cigars, and a gorgeous hotel suite, our first number is "Too Bad (We Can't Go Back to Moscow)," Steve seducing our clueless commissars into complying with what he wants.
When Ninotchka arrives, Steve figures he can dazzle her with the pleasures of Paris as well, taking her out on a hotel balcony and crooning "Paris Loves Lovers." Our heroine isn't so easily swayed, sticking to her principles and interjecting them during the song's refrain. She doesn't see a point in things that aren't industrially useful, but to Steve, those are the very things that give life purpose. Seeing the City of Lights in all its glory makes you feel alive and part of an extraordinary existence. It has romance and beauty and a uniqueness spun into its very fabric -- why else would Paris be used over and over for stories of transformation? If you can't find yourself there, you're in serious trouble, Hollywood seems to say.
One person who knows exactly who she is is Peggy Dayton. Daffy from a little too much water stuck in her ears, Ms. Dayton is thrilled to be cast in Steve's version of Tolstoy's War and Peace, hoping that the part will bring about a different career, one that shows she can be a dramatic actress. After meeting her, though, you know that'll never happen -- she's just too goofy. This is especially displayed when she teams up with Steve to tell the adoring press about "Stereophonic Sound," Cole Porter's way of mocking Hollywood's obsession with trying to beat TV by creating PanaVision, CinemaScope, VistaVision, and the like. It's a clever song, and it's sold by the solid talent of Astaire and Paige. They look like they're having so much fun, don't they?
Hoping to thaw Ninotchka, and thus convince her to let him keep Boroff in France, Steve spends a whole day doing what she wants, all the while trying to convince her that going to Cartier's and relaxing at a cafe is better than visiting steel mills and factories. Ninotchka remains steadfast, forcing Steve to bring in the big guns: inviting her up to his place. He's not the most subtle guy, but being Fred Astaire, he's still charming as hell. Their discussion on love baffles him, as Ninotchka maintains "It's a Chemical Reaction, That's All," stripping the romanticism of love away until it's only scientific facts and ideas. (You can hear Ms. Charisse's actual voice singing the song here, a fun find since the studio never let her use her own voice and she seemed to prefer it that way.) Part of what I like so much about Silk Stockings, and Ninotchka, is the give and take between the couple. He states his views, she states hers, and they fall in love as they try to understand the other. It's about compromising -- is it asking too much to compromise this? Is it fair that someone should change that? What is right and what works for them in order to have a healthy, loving relationship?
Steve is practically appalled that Ninotchka looks at love coldly and methodically. To simplify what he thinks of love, he sings to her "All of You," a song that couldn't be more straightforward in its ideas of what being in love (and/or lust) is. I love this song so much, and hearing the perfectly imperfect voice of Astaire sing it is marvelous. When Steve begins to throw in some dance steps, Ninotchka's hardened stare exacerbates him: "Don't you ever feel so happy you just want to dance all around the room?" "Happiness is the reward of industry and labor. Dancing is a waste of time." "Well, I like wasting time." He picks up a chair and gently swings it around, noticing Ninotchka perking up a little. He leads her on to the floor and is surprised when her leg automatically extends into a dancer's pose. Embarrassed, she corrects herself, but Steve has already entranced her -- she slowly loses herself in the dance, where languid movement and short pauses give way to twirls and dips that mimic her hesitantly giving in to Steve's pull.
When they end the number by sitting on the floor, there's an unmistakable hint of afterglow, which Ninotchka only lets herself bask in for a few seconds before getting defensive again. However, it's too late; Steve has caught a glimpse behind the tough facade and he likes what he sees, leading him to kiss her. Nintochka then gives her infamous reply, "That was restful," and asks Steve to kiss her again. We'll never know what might have happened after that because Peggy shows up, all atwitter about the movie. She's met Boroff and she thinks his music is absolutely dreadful, offending Ninotchka. Once she leaves, Steve is back to scheming, telling Peggy that if she wants the music to have more pep, she should convince Boroff by using her, um, assets.
And boy, does Peggy do that. She invites the poor, unsuspecting Boroff to a boutique to talk with him while she just happens to be trying on clothes. The resulting number, "Silk and Satin," reminds me of something you'd hear a cute, little blonde sing in a pre-Code musical. It definitely reminds you that 1) this is certainly a Cole Porter show and 2) this is certainly 1957. I don't think you could have that number if this movie had been in production in, say, 1945, or even 1950. Janis Paige winds up in lingerie as she flirts with the very nervous Boroff, and I'm sure she inspired many a thought in the male audience.
The next day, Ninotchka prepares for another date with Steve, but this time she reluctantly indulges in all the things she denounced, a fact she's all too aware of as she locks her door and turns her picture of Lenin to the wall. Watching Cyd Charisse dance while her character is transformed before our eyes is one of my favorite parts of this film. She was one of the greatest gifts the musical ever had, and I will fight anyone who disagrees. This number is just so superb, Charisse literally gliding around her suite as she uncovers the clothes and accessories she's hidden away. It's so tastefully done, too. Mere minutes ago, we witnessed Ms. Paige whipping off her robe and swinging her hips with no apologies, and here we have this delicate, graceful portrayal of a woman simply changing her clothes. But of course, it's more than that -- it's about Ninotchka embracing herself and feeling comfortable in her own skin. The new clothes are much more elegant and chic, sure, but to me they've always been a metaphor for Ninotchka discovering what makes her happy.
When Steve and Ninotchka return from their date early in the morning, the commissars anxiously tell her that Boroff is changing his score to fit the structure of popular music. Influenced by her time with Steve (and buckets of champagne), Ninotchka reacts favorably to the news and sends the boys on their way. The one song that I think the movie could do without is "Without Love," ironically. It's Ninotchka's way of telling Steve that she's falling for him, but it's not very memorable and the lyrics unfortunately focus on how a man becomes a woman's life and that's all she has. I always fast-forward through this portion, so feel free to do the same if you're watching the movie for the first time.
Some time later, the commissars and Ninotchka meet up with Steve at the studio to watch filming. While the crew sets everything up, Steve takes Ninotchka aside and proposes to her, followed by a song that promises they were "Fated to be Mated." Unlike the simmering "All of You," this number is joyous and quick. No longer confined to one room, Steve and Ninotchka dance from one set to another, grinning ear to ear. If you can't watch this scene or look at these stills without smiling, I suggest a visit to the doctor:
Back at the shoot, Ninotchka and Boroff are outraged when Peggy begins singing "Josephine," a swinging version of Boroff's "Ode to a Tractor." Although the composer had given his permission to alter the music, he definitely wasn't expecting this. Steve defends the tune, arguing that it's common for Americans to take classical music and make it over into the popular style. Realizing that she's been ignoring her duty, Ninotchka tells Steve that she can't let their brief romance interfere with her job and she's taking Boroff and the commissars back with her to Russia. Dismayed, the comrades sing "Siberia" on the now-empty set, as they worry what will happen to them once they get home, the worst fate being exiled to Siberia. Warning: this song will get in your head, and you will not be able to hear the name Siberia again without remembering said song.
Months go by before we join the group back in Russia. Thanks to a good report from Ninotchka, everyone was able to escape punishment, but they all miss Paris dearly. The guys visit Ninotchka in her curtained-off quarters when she receives a letter from Steve. Her excitement is dashed once she sees how heavily the contents were censored, leaving practically nothing to read. Hoping to cheer his friends up, Boroff reveals that after the incident at the studio, he became interested in pop music and he's been working on something that he then presents to the group. "The Red Blues" is so lively, it brightens up the whole place, as Ninotchka's neighbors put away the partitions and everyone joins in singing and dancing. It gets even better when Ninotchka steps in, Charisse showing for the hundredth time how unforgettable she is. I'm also really obsessed with how amazing her skirt looks throughout her routine -- it's perfect skirt action, guys.
Steve, meanwhile, has attempted and failed many times to get into Russia. Finally, he cooks up a way to bring Ninotchka to him. The commissars are once again sent to Paris to sell Russian films, and once again they neglect their duties. Egged on by a searing report of the men's inappropriate escapades, Markovitch sends Ninotchka to retrieve her friends. In Paris, she's surprised to find out that the guys have opened up a Russian cafe and plan on staying in the city forever. They then seat Ninotchka at a table and have her watch part of the floor show, which starts with a song and dance by none other than Steve.
"The Ritz Roll and Rock" is a light parody of the rise of rock music. It's also an interesting way to bookend Astaire's long career, Silk Stockings being one of the last of his musicals. It's purposely set up to resemble "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails" visually, but it wouldn't be like Astaire to rehash something he's already done. He adds in some play with a mirror (see below); he interacts with a group of guys and a group of women; and he ends it all with the smashing of his top hat, a symbol that couldn't be lost on the audience. And let's be honest, Fred likely enjoyed it after years of hating those tails and hats. But back to Silk Stockings. After his performance, Steve tells Ninotchka that he wrote the false report to bring her here. Seeing how much he loves her, she rips up her plane ticket and they embrace.
A great entry in both Astaire and Charisse's respective filmographies, Silk Stockings is top-notch all the way, from the fine directing by Rouben Mamoulian to the terrific sets captured in magnificent CinemaScope. If you'd like to read more about the behind-the-scenes action, I'll direct you here. You can find Silk Stockings quite regularly on TCM, and it's also available on DVD. Let me know what you think of the film in the comments!
This is my first of two entries to the fabulous France on Film Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Summer. Please do yourself a huge favor and check out the roster here.