Film moments #26: Silk Stockings (1957)

4 November 2017

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Silk Stockings comes almost at the end of the cycle of musicals from MGM’s Freed Unit. It stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. He is an American film producer who has persuaded a Soviet composer (Boroff, played by Wim Sonnefeld) to stay in Paris to write him a score. She is the Soviet agent sent to retrieve both the composer and the Soviet commissars sent previously, now living it up in a Paris hotel.

It is a remake of the 1939 Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka, which had been adapted in the mid-50s into a Broadway musical with a fine set of Cole Porter songs (I particularly enjoyed the lyrics). It lost money.

Here’s some quick thoughts.

  1. This is 1950s Paris, and therefore still, in the minds of 1950s Americans it represents the emblem of the exotic, probably still living in the afterglow of Hemingway, Fitzgerald etc. Obviously MGM captured this to excess in An American in Paris, but it’s also the theme of another Astaire musical, Funny Face, released the previous year. Unlike An American in Paris, however, there’s no visual evidence that the film ever escaped from the studio lot.
  2. 1957 is the start of the “Soviet moment“, as I discussed in my Sputnik post. Even though it is the middle of the Cold War, the House Un-American activities Committee is in decline, and although the jokes are at the expense of the Soviet Union, they are mostly affectionate rather than critical.
  3. There’s lots to like about the film: the lyrics are clever, the plot is well-constructed, the script is light and knowing, some of the dancing is fine. It’s a film that puts a smile on your face. But it’s impossible to believe that Charisse would fall for Astaire; she was 36 when it was released, he was 58, and he looks old throughout the picture. Gene Kelly, maybe: but his stock had fallen at MGM by 1957 after a series of flops.
  4. It was Fred Astaire’s last film as a dancer (if you don’t count Finian’s Rainbow). One review takes the moment at the end of the last dance in the film where Astaire crushes his top hat as a symbolic ending. Maybe. Certainly in some of the dancing sequences he’s showing his age. Astonishingly, it was also Charisse’s last film as a dancer, though that may say something about the decline of the musical.
  5. Because Astaire’s character is a film producer, *Silk Stockings* is almost a commentary on the American film musical, written in the medium of film right at the end of the ’40s and ’50s musical cycle. I have borrowed this idea from Jane Feuer’s book The Hollywood Musical. By way of example: the Russians (Charisse and the three commissars) confront Astaire when they realise he has taken the melody of the Russian composer’s piece and turned it into a jazz number. “In America,” Astaire tells them, “we do this sort of thing all the time.”
  6. There’s more than a nod towards Singin’ In The Rain as well. The adaptation of *War and Peace* that Boroff thinks he’s scoring turns into a Napoleon and Josephine musical called “Not Tonight” because Peggy Dayton, the none-too-bright star (played by Janis Paige, with a touch of [Lina Lamont](http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0008638/), doesn’t like the story or the music.

Here’s Jane Feuer:

The entire sub-plot of *Silk Stockings* ridicules elite art through a farcical contrast between modern serious music and modern popular music… Peggy argues that Boroff is “too square” whereas Canfield [Astaire] counters that he will “lend prestige to the picture”, just as presumably the inclusion of concert music lent prestige to the MGM musicals.

But it’s 1957, and the arrival of rock and roll has just rendered the whole discussion obsolete. So this is the moment. Fred Astaire’s last on-screen dance number, in a song specially written for the film version of Silk Stockings, which tries, completely unsuccessfully, to co-opt rock and roll for the film musical.

The whole film seems to be online here. If you want to know more about the film, Alan Vanneman has a sardonic narrative reading at the Bright Lights blog.

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