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Silk Stockings (1957), the well-regarded musical remake of the 1939 Lubitsch classic Ninotchka, is a bizarre footnote in cinema history, as it's a picture known more for its "lasts" than "firsts." It was the last movie Fred Astaire made at MGM as well as the last time he appeared with Cyd Charisse (they had previously both been in Ziegfeld Follies (1946) and teamed in The Band Wagon, 1953). It was the last movie directed by the prestigious Rouben Mamoulian, and the last MGM musical made entirely at Culver City in the 1950s - generally acknowledged as the genre's Golden Age.
On a more upbeat note, Silk Stockings did contain a first - for the brilliant producer Arthur Freed. It launched his independent production unit at the studio; no longer was he merely a higher echelon employee. From here on, Freed had a 25% profit participation deal with the studio with whom he helped define and even re-write the rules for the motion picture musical. That Silk Stockings turned out as memorable as it is remains a miracle, particularly to those intimately involved with the picture.
Silk Stockings was a Broadway smash that even its producers had little faith in. An updated version of the original movie that starred Greta Garbo (in her first comedy), the play, although directed and co-written by George S. Kaufman, tread in perilous political waters, appearing at the height of the Cold War. Yet, with a cast led by Don Ameche and Hildergarde Kneff, the stage remake garnered great word of mouth in previews and swept the New York critics and audiences off their highbrow feet. Most of the credit went to the man who wrote its witty score - Cole Porter. The songs, including the sensual "All of You", quickly became one of Porter's most popular creations and is still a standard today. But there were liberties taken with the original storyline of Ninotchka and one of the changes included jettisoning the character of Parisian gigolo Count Leon, the man who's hired to charm the Kremlin emissaries. In the play, he became an American film producer, negotiating for the services of an avant-garde composer.
Arthur Freed, who had helped back the play, decided that it would indeed make an excellent debut piece for his new production unit and set to work preparing it at the same time he was in pre-production on Gigi (1958). In addition, he loaned most of his old unit to Paramount emigre Roger Edens, who was in the process of preparing Funny Face (1957) with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Meanwhile, Charisse and Astaire were pegged for the leads in Silk Stockings, with Peter Lorre, Jules Munshin and Joseph Buloff as the three Moscow-ites converted to the pleasures of capitalism.
The choice of Rouben Mamoulian as director was another matter entirely and set the MGM executives into a tailspin. Mamoulian still had the studio smarting over his lavish musical remake of Ah, Wilderness! (1935). Released in 1948 as Summer Holiday, the Technicolor songfest went over budget and over schedule and died a quick death at the box office. Astaire, who had threatened retirement no less than three times, also voiced reservations about working with Mamoulian; in addition, he saw problems about the relationship between his character, now called Steve Canfield and Ninotchka, which he viewed as an uncomfortable May-December affair. A meeting with Mamoulian, wherein the director concurrently charmed the star while laying out his filmic interpretation successfully cured the dancer of any doubts - in that area.
Astaire still had qualms regarding Leonard Spigelgass' first draft and the Porter score, which he felt needed at least two more numbers. Freed agreed and writer Leonard Gershe, who was already getting raves for his solo work on Funny Face (which was still in post-production), was brought in to work on the Silk Stockings script. Veteran scribe Harry Kurnitz, a favorite of Howard Hawks, also came on board to spice up the dialogue and eliminate some of the grimmer aspects of the narrative (Ninotchka's military past where she regales her shocked listeners with tales of bayoneting her enemies in the stomach).
Astaire himself was elected to discuss the score with Cole Porter, and was alarmed by the composer's utter boredom with the matter. Porter, who once he finished a show considered it ancient history, was more interested in previewing his recently penned tunes for Les Girls (1957, an MGM musical being shot by George Cukor) for Astaire. Nevertheless, the songwriter perked up when an increasingly nervous Astaire asked about two additional numbers for the movie. Wanting to be "up to date," Astaire prevailed upon the composer to create something fresh and contemporary. The result, "Ritz Roll and Roll," which climaxed the picture, perfectly brought Astaire into the late 1950s doo-wop era while still kidding the star's "deco" roots. Porter's other contribution to the movie was "Fated to be Mated," which rapidly became another standard in his spectacular catalogue.
Meanwhile, Cyd Charisse, without whom there would be no Silk Stockings, was faced with problems of her own. As Fred Astaire stated in his biography, Steps in Time, the actress (whose singing voice was dubbed by Carol Richards in the film) "had no easy task following Garbo in that part but she did it beautifully, carrying a slight accent all through the piece. Her solo dances were outstanding. We had plenty of dances together, too, and they did not miss. That Cyd! When you've danced with her you stay danced with." Choreographer Eugene Loring revealed (in The World of Entertainment), that Charisse was "not a powerhouse, she just looks that way. In the 'Red Blues,' for instance, she looks like a dynamo. She has bursts of energy, not for long, and then she gives up. I had planned the shooting so that the tough stuff came in the morning when she was energetic and I'd do the easy scenes in the afternoon. So we had to shoot out of sequence." As for Charisse, she recalled the film in her dual memoir with her husband Tony Martin, The Two of Us: "One thing I'll always remember about Silk Stockings. On the day we began shooting, I went to my dressing room and there was a fabulous gift from Fred. He had sent me a cage full of the most beautiful finches, white ones with red beaks, representing the red theme of the movie. [Peter] Lorre was already a good friend of ours. He and Tony had worked together in Casbah (1948) some years before. We had often visited him and his wife, the nurse he married when she helped him lick his drug problem in Europe. But, during the shooting of Silk Stockings, he was having troubles again. He was using pills in alarming numbers. It was very sad to watch his decline. We all knew he was very sick even then."
One of the most fondly remembered moments in Silk Stockings is "Stereophonic Sound," Porter's hilarious take on the then on-going Hollywood battle against television with the luring of audiences back to the theaters through numerous audio and visual processes. In a case of Life imitating Art, Astaire, an astute observer of technology (he was an ardent 3-D still photographer) made Freed aware of his preferences. Almost mimicking Porter's lyrics, Astaire inquired of his producer, "Incidentally - are you using VistaVision or CinemaScope? " hinting that "Cinemascope "sends" me more than VV." Freed concurred, and Silk Stockings was exquisitely shot in CinemaScope and Eastman Color...and stereophonic sound.
For all of the studio's many concerns about the production, Mamoulian brought Silk Stockings in on time and on budget. It practically followed Funny Face into New York's famed Radio City Music Hall in the mid-summer of 1957, playing for two months before opening nationally. Crossing the age barriers, the movie became a huge hit with both older crowds and teenage audiences, grossing nearly 4 million dollars domestically (far surpassing its $1.9 million production cost). Perhaps The New York Times' Bosley Crowther said it best when he stated that "There should be legislation requiring that Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse appear together in a musical picture at least once every two years (S)omebody should declare a holiday"
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay: Leonard Gershe, Abe Burrows, Leonard Spigelgass
Art Direction: Randall Duell, William Horning
Cinematography: Robert J. Bronner
Editing: Harold Kress
Music: Cole Porter, Andre Previn
Cast: Fred Astaire (Steve Canfield), Cyd Charisse (Ninotchka), Janis Paige (Peggy Dainton), Peter Lorre (Brankov), George Tobias (Vassili Markovitch), Jules Munshin (Bibinski), Joseph Buloff (Ivanov).
C-118m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Mel Neuhaus