Last year, I wrote a paper on the unproduced Arthur Freed musicals—that is, the films that the Freed unit had started or planned to make, but, for various reasons, never actually finished or, in many cases, even began to film. Of course, the Freed unit was famous for some of the most iconic movie musicals in history: Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, On the Town, Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, and so on and so on. But not every potential idea was a winner, and that became especially apparent in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the golden age of the Hollywood musical—that Freed had helped create—was coming to an end. Instead, the industry would start moving towards rock ‘n’ roll films, family-friendly fare, and remakes of big Broadway epics.
That is all to say that I spent a good portion of last year thinking about how and why the Freed unit ultimately wasn’t able to adapt to these changing norms in their final years, and that this put my first-time viewing of Silk Stockings at TCMFF into a very particular perspective. Silk Stockings came out in 1957, near the end of the Freed unit’s lifespan; the last film Freed produced was The Light in the Piazza in 1962, though he would continue to try to get films made throughout the 1960s.
Silk Stockings is a remake of Ninotchka (1939), which of course starred Greta Garbo as the tight-laced Soviet envoy sent to retrieve her bumbling compatriots from glitzy Paris. Silk Stockings plays relatively close to the original story, even directly borrowing a few moments here and there. To accommodate the musical numbers, though, the jewelry sale has now been replaced with the standard “putting on a show” narrative; Fred Astaire plays a musical producer intent on using the talents of a Russian pianist. The Cold War setting could allow them be a bit more pointed in their criticisms of Soviet culture, though the depiction of Russia is fairly cartoonish so nothing lands very heavily.
The main thing that prevents me from fully enjoying Silk Stockings is how pointedly old-fashioned it feels—and I mean, even more so than decades-older movies. The most obvious incident for me occurs in the song “Stereophonic Sound,” featuring Astaire alongside the scene-stealing Janis Paige. It’s a rousing, catchy Cole Porter tune, with some fun dancing and cheeky technical tricks. However, the gist of the song is that audiences don’t care about stories or stars anymore—they’re only interested in technologies like “glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope,” and the titular stereophonic sound. While that may have been the reality (or at least, felt like the reality to industry insiders), it still comes off as a patronizing scold to the audience who is, you know, currently watching the movie. Many of the earlier Freed musicals did draw on a sense of nostalgia for the past, but in this case, knowing that not being able to adapt to those changes would soon bring their downfall also makes it a little too painful to enjoy.
Of course, Silk Stockings was indeed filmed in Cinemascope (though in Eastman Color, not Technicolor). But, as the song seems to suggest, the Cinemascope framing often seems like a forced afterthought here, rather than an integral creative component used to enhance the film. A few of the dance sequences make good use of the wide screen, especially the very fun “Red Blues,” which is a big, acrobatic ensemble number choreographed by Eugene Loring. But the Astaire solo dances and many of the partner dances didn’t seem to be staged with Cinemascope in mind—the camera often struggles to keep both head and feet in frame, while both sides of the frame are distractingly bare.
Could this be an intentional statement about how love makes you feel like you’re the only people in the room and nothing else matters? I suppose. I’ll even give you Charisse’s lovely “Silk Stockings” ballet, in which she can only truly transform from the dowdy browns of her Soviet uniform into the soft pinks of Parisian lingerie when she is completely alone. This scene still probably didn’t need to be in Cinemascope, but there’s at least an argument there. But otherwise, these super-wide, super-empty frames come off as a bit amateurish and really emphasize the fakeness of the sets, even though I’m guessing the decision was made by some executive wanting to maximize their return.
Astaire also sadly often looked out of place in this film, which would be his final starring role. Although, on the surface, his role as the “charming playboy bachelor that the girl can’t help but fall in love” with seems in line with the roles that made him famous. But he’s pushing 60 here, playing against a looking-way-younger-than-35 Charisse, and I’m starting to feel like I need a little more explanation. “The Ritz Roll and Rock” number also juxtaposes the classically tuxedoed Astaire with rock-and-roll riffs and teenaged back up dancers; again, the film is making a very slight effort to appeal to the new youth crowd, without fully investing in the prospect, and it comes off as inauthentic.
I do enjoy the film overall though, even if parts it’s a bit depressing in its industrial context. Peter Lorre of all people is hysterical and fully committed as one of the three Russian comrades. Pre-transformation Charisse is also very funny, with her clipped speech and perfect posture, to the point that I kind of wished she never had to change. It felt more like she was changing for the sake of the narrative romance than through any true character development of her own.
This film does hold the distinction of being the only MGM musical to have a character interject “bourgeois propaganda!” into a song (as Charisse does in “Paris Loves Lovers”), as well as refer to a burlesque dancer’s G-string (as Paige does in “Satin and Silk”).