Posts Tagged ‘musicals’

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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Film moment #16: Grease (1978)

18 July 2017


I stumbled across Grease on TV this week, and didn’t realise until I started to watch it again how much I hated it as a film. There really is nothing there. It is an empty shell propped up by American High School film cliches inserted to connect a string of songs and dance sequences (some, admittedly, not too bad). It is an utterly cynical piece of film making.

First day of term? Check. Girlie pajama party? Check. Cheerleaders and sports jocks? Check. The diner? Check. High school dance? Drive-in cinema? Check. Check. Drag race? Of course. Last day of school. ZZZZZ. You get bored just typing the list, and I bet I’ve missed one. Not that it would matter.

And nothing in the writing. No flash, no flair, no wit, no irony, not even a complicit knowing moment with the audience where writer and audience can agree that what they’re watching is a piece of nostalgic tosh and get on with it. The plot, if that’s what it is, is utterly predictable story-by-numbers stuff.  (According to Wikipedia, the original stage musical was tougher.)

I mean, even that moment when bad girl Stockard Channing thinks she might be pregnant and suddenly everyone in the year knows, well, y’know, it turns out five minutes later she’s not and everything’s just fine. Flat, flat, flat. (Stockard Channing, who is a terrific actor, is wasted in Grease. Go find her in the admittedly obscure Sweet Revenge if you want to see her at her best.) And while I’m at it, “Thunder Road” as the name of the drag strip? Three years after Bruce Springsteen released Born to Run?

The only saving grace: at least John Travolta can dance and Olivia Newton John can sing.

But there’s a deeper story as well. By 1978, America had been buffeted by failure in the Vietnam war, the turmoil of the civil rights movement, Watergate, and the ’70s oil shock. The story in Grease airbrushes 20 years out of American history, harking back to an idealised moment before all that bad stuff happened. Idealised for some. For although late-’50s Rydell High School looks at first sight like anywhere in the USA, it’s not: it’s anywhere white in the USA. In other words, it’s part of the same rhetoric (“Make America great again”) that propelled Reagan into the White House by both pretending that the past 20 years never happened, and then ensuring that nothing like it ever happened again. (I could go further, and riff on how formally conservative films are also politically conservative, but not today.)

The rules here on the Film Moment series are supposed to be that no film is so bad that it doesn’t have one moment that’s worth watching. I’m supposed to mention that moment. I can barely bring myself to do it, but here’s Stockard Channing just after word gets out that she’s pregnant, an actor making something out of nothing. If you want to see John Travolta dance, go and watch Saturday Night Fever, altogether a richer, darker, and better film.

Film moment #15: Show Boat (1951)

15 July 2017


Race washes lightly through the 1951 second remake of the musical Show Boat without ever touching the sides. At the start happy black people leave their cotton bolls to run down to the jetty to greet the boat. The mixed-race Julia (Ava Gardner) is sent packing for her marriage to a white man, illegal in the state, which clears the stage, literally, for the romance of Howard Keel‘s Gaylord and Kathryn Grayson‘s Magnolia, and starts her own spiralling decline. And by way of a shadow from the 1936 version, Stevedore Joe, played here by the black baritone William Warfield, appears briefly to sing Ol’ Man River against the early morning light as the show boat readies to leave without Julia. The song–by some distance the best in the film–is reprised at the end. It’s colour, in effect, for the slightly breathless showbiz story that populates the rest of the film. 

I don’t want to make too much of this: Show Boat was always a light musical. The 1936 film reduced the role of Stevedore Joe from the stage version, and Paul Robeson, who made the song and the role famous both on stage and in the earlier film, was criticised in a review by one militant black magazine for using “his genius to appear in pictures and plays that tend to dishonour, mimic, discredit and abuse the cultural attainments of the Black Race.” The publicity material for that version described Stevedore Joe as a “lazy, easy-going husband.” (Robeson’s biographer, Martin Duberman, also notes that the dancer Bill Robinson wrote to Robeson’s wife Essie, “Tell Paul that we saw Show Boat twice: just to hear him sing and to get the new way of shelling peas.”)  

By 1951, Paul Robeson was effectively unavailable to sing the part. He had been blacklisted by Hollywood and the State Department had banned him for travel, because of his pro-Communist political activities. The mood in the country on race had changed as well, in ways that were good, bad and just plain ugly, pre-figuring the surge in civil rights activism a decade later. It made sense, in other words, to remove some of the more stereotypical elements from the story. 

What’s left–and this is the moment–is almost a film within a film, with a different mood and a much darker colour palette, as Warfield’s version of Jerome Kern’s fine song gives the film some air, and maybe a little context, as the river just keeps rolling along.