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SILK STOCKINGS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Janis Paige, Joseph Buloff, Jules Munshin, Peter Lorre
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Audio: Dolby Digital English 5.1, French 1.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: letterboxed widescreen, color
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: cast and crew, trailer, behind-the-scenes notes, two musical shorts, featurette
Length: 117 minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2003

"I love the looks of you, the lure of you, I'd love to make a tour of you..."

Film *** 1/2

In 1953, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse teamed up for the MGM musical The Band Wagon.  They displayed charming screen chemistry, and the film became a solid hit, one of Astaire's best musicals.  Fast forward several years later as MGM's legendary Arthur Freed unit, responsible for the studio's greatest musicals, pondered its next production.  Freed had recently acquired the rights to the Broadway musical revision of the Greta Garbo comedy Ninotchka.  It was certainly a weird concept, but the Broadway musical had been a success, so a film version could work, too, given the right cast.  The glamorous Cyd Charisse seemed an ideal choice to reprise the Garbo role.  Once she was cast, the choice for her leading man was a natural one - Fred Astaire!

Silk Stockings (1957) would prove not only to be Cyd Charisse's final MGM musical but also one of Astaire's last, too.  After this film, he officially announced his retirement from the genre.  Save for Francis Ford Coppola's Finian's Rainbow and a few That's Entertainment compilations, he was true to his word, and all his remaining films were dramatic endeavors.

To direct Silk Stockings, the Freed unit chose Rouben Mamoulian.  He was not a popular choice with MGM, as his last MGM film had been the disastrously over-budgeted Summer Holiday.  As a director, Mamoulian had a rather wry history.  His film credits included such impressive films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Greta Garbo's Queen Christina.  But, he often returned to his second career as a Broadway director whenever Hollywood exasperated him.  This occurred fairly frequently, too, for Mamoulian had the dubious distinction of having been fired twice and replaced by Otto Preminger twice(!) for two established classics - Laura and Porgy and Bess.  Most infamously, he was fired from Cleopatra and replaced by an eventually overwhelmed Joseph Mankiewicz.  One might say that Mamoulian was as famous for the films he almost directed as for the ones he did do!  Nonetheless, early in his career, he had a solid reputation as an innovative director, and the Freed unit ultimately won out over the MGM execs for their choice of director.  Silk Stockings, however, would be Mamoulian's last completed film.

Anyone who has seen Ninotchka will be familiar with the general plot for Silk Stockings.  Ninotchka Yoshenka (Cyd Charisse) is a strict and icy Russian envoy sent abroad to discipline three Russian commissars who have been seduced by the decadent lure of western capitalism.  And where else to find a prime example of such debauchery but in Paris?  Originally, the commissars, including Peter Lorre in a surprisingly comic turn, had instructions to bring the Russian composer Boroff back home to Russia.  Unfortunately, they are brainwashed by the clever schemings of filmmaker Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire).  Canfield wants Boroff to compose a new score for his next movie and will do anything to keep Boroff planted.  This includes persuading his film's bubble-headed star, Betty Dayton (Broadway mega-star Janis Paige in an uproariously hilarious performance), to charm Boroff into staying in Paris.  It also includes Canfield himself seducing the stern Ninotchka, no easy feat considering that she would prefer to tour steel factories and municipal works than to look at women's attire or jewelry.  When he initially flirts with her, she asks, "Are you flirting with me?"  His response, "Of course.  No question about it."  Her cool rebuttal - "Suppress it."  Later, he entreats her, "Darling, please don't call me Mr. Canfield," to which she promptly retorts, "Mr. Canfield, please don't call me darling!"

Of course, Canfield's persistence gradually melts away Ninotchka's icy exterior, and the rest, as they say, is movie magic.  The chemistry between Astaire and Charisse is wonderfully appealing.  They play off each other so well in scene after scene that an enthusiastic U.S. Congressman once remarked, after having watched Silk Stockings, that there should be legislation mandating a new Astaire-Charisse musical every two years!

The film contains numerous musical numbers and a few stand-outs.  One of the funniest routines is "Stereophonic Sound," a comic dance duet between Astaire and Paige that self-deprecatingly mocks the many innovations devised by Hollywood to entice audiences away from their televisions.  All the leads have at least one solo number.  Charisse has two solos, in fact, one in her hotel suite and another, "The Red Blues," in her Russian apartment.  Paige has one-and-a-half hilarious routines, while Astaire has the final number, "The Ritz Roll'n'Rock," a Cole Porter satire about the new trend in the music industry.  Astaire considered this number his final farewell to the movie musical, and it was actually the last sequence photographed for Silk Stockings.

The best dance sequences, however, are the two Astaire-Charisse romantic dances.  The first is performed to the melody of  "All of You" when Astaire finally wins over Charisse after numerous miserable failures.  It is a great example of a classic Astaire theme, wherein the dance plays the role of the seduction.  This dance theme occurred in many of his early films, most classically in the memorable courtship of Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcée.  The second Astaire-Charisse duet is a gleeful romp through the various sound stages and props of Astaire's film-in-production.  The dance occurs just before the two lovers break up over a misunderstanding about Paige's disastrously funny butchering of Boroff's music in the song "Josephine."  After all, what classic Hollywood musical does not have a prerequisite break-up to ensure the inevitable reunion?

One may also wonder how some of the other musical elements in the film slipped by the Hayes Office, the rigid censorship board of the studio era.  In one famously arresting sequence, Cyd Charisse dances around her hotel suite wearing only silk stockings and a thin slip.  Janis Paige's "Satin and Silk" number is a light-hearted but sexy dance performed in a black corset in order to seduce the Russian composer.  The lyrics to this Cole Porter tune and especially "I Love the Looks of You (All of You)" must have left the Hayes Office in fits with their suggestive phrasings, yet these lyrics remain mostly intact in the film.  While nothing in Silk Stockings is beyond PG-material in today's film environment, the inclusions of these little details was quite a feat in the studio era days.

It is a shame that Astaire chose to retire from musicals after Silk Stockings.  His decision was timely, though, for the era of the Hollywood musical was drawing to an end.  Nonetheless, Astaire did continue to create occasional, award-winning dance specials for television.  His co-star for these specials was Barrie Chase, a young and pretty dancer he actually met during filming for Silk Stockings.  And so Astaire continued to entertain his legions of fans with his peerless dancing feet well into his 60's.  Assuredly, Fred Astaire's musical legacy will almost certainly never be equaled by another performer again.

Video *** 1/2

Silk Stockings is presented in a letterbox format that preserves its original Cinemascope vision.    The transfer is quite pristine, and I have never seen the film look so great before!  The colors are quite vibrant, if somewhat different in appearance from the famous 3-strip Technicolor process employed for so many years by MGM.  For this film, MGM uses their in-house Metrocolor processing, which provides a more natural appearance than Technicolor's sometimes saturated, surreal glow of colors.  The image clarity and detail levels are superb, and the transfer shows absolutely no signs of image breakup or artifacts.  Aside from some very rare dust specks, this is as good as it gets!

Audio ***

The film has been re-fitted with a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix.  I am usually very wary of older soundtracks receiving the 5.1 update because the disaster rate in such attempts is astronomically high.  However, Silk Stockings sounds fantastic!  While the mix does not deliver standard-bearing spatial definition, it is still crystal clear and very faithful to the spirit of the film.  The musical numbers alone demonstrate why the MGM orchestra was so famous, and the new audio mix does justice to these musicians.

By the way, the "Stereophonic Sound" number is supposed to have the echo quality that appears in the film.  I'm happy that Warner Brothers did not mess this up!

Features *** 1/2

There are a few short features on the DVD.  Two of them are just a few pages of text - a brief cast and crew section and a behind-the-scenes section.  The film's trailer is also included but is somewhat faded.  Much more fascinating is a 10-minute featurette in which Cyd Charisse speaks about Cole Porter's score and reminisces about the film.  It may be short but it's fun to see the lovely Charisse, who has aged most gracefully.

The next feature is Paree, Paree, a Vitaphone short from 1934.  The image has a rather low contrast quality and the audio is scratchy and shrill.  But, this 20-minute film is a fabulous gem for Bob Hope fans, as it showcases the musical comedian in his youth and is a virtual microcosm of the typical 1930's musical with its chorus girls, Busby Berkley-inspired designs, and catchy score by Cole Porter (including his classic "You Do Something to Me").  There's not a wasted minute, either, as the film contains four production numbers and numerous comedy sketches...all in just 20 minutes!  It's lean, it's funny, and it's a sheer delight from start to finish.

The last feature, however, is even better and is practically worth the price of admission.  It is a 9-minute performance of Franz von Suppe's The Poet and Peasant Overture by the MGM orchestra.  The feature is filmed in Cinemascope with bright colors and energetic camerawork.  The MGM studio orchestra is simply fantastic and clearly re-confirms its reputation as the best in the business.

Summary:

Fred Astaire was one of cinema's finest and most talented dancers.  Silk Stockings was his final role as a romantic musical lead and was one of the last, great MGM musicals.  Coupled with Cyd Charisse, Astaire provides a graceful curtain call to a fantastic musical career in this highly enjoyable film.  Strong recommendations!