Fred’s Last Dance . . .


1957 was pretty much the end of the road for the classic MGM musical.  Gene Kelly made his last MGM musical Les Girls.  And Fred Astaire headlined his last MGM musical,  Silk Stockings, from the hit 1955 Broadway show of the same title.  Both, coincidently, scored by Cole Porter, his last stage, and film works.  Regardless of their artistic merits, both films were financial duds, adding further nails into the coffin of the era of the classic movie musical.

Silk Stockings began life as a story by Melchior Lengyel – or what (from what I can understand) was a three-sentence story idea, concocted at a Hollywood pool party story conference.  The story goes that MGM was looking for a suitable comedy vehicle for Greta Garbo.  (Who thinks Greta Garbo and comedy in a single connected thought?)

“Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all.” – Melchior Lengyel.

This became Ninotchka (1939) directed by Ernst Lubitsch, scripted by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett – “Garbo Laughs” – one of the great films of 1939, the “greatest year in American film.”  Lengyel gets an Oscar nomination for best screen story.  The film becomes an acknowledged classic.

Come the 1950s, it is decided that this would make for a great Broadway musical – George S. Kaufman book, Cole Porter score – what a concept.  (“Suggested by” the story by Melchior Lengyel is how the play and film are both billed – Wilder & Brackett get no credit, even if ideas are lifted whole from their screenplay.)  I won’t do a list of the differences between the original film and the stage story, the basic concept remains the same.

Arthur Freed has MGM buy the rights to the play as a vehicle to reunite Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse – The Band Wagon (1953) was a major success.  (Well, it lost money too, but sold a lot of tickets and was a critical success. Musicals cost a lot of money . . . )  Now back at MGM where it began – the story idea to screenplay/film to Broadway musical to Hollywood musical.

In this iteration, an American film producer (Fred) hires a Russian composer to score his next film, a musical version of “War and Peace.”  Three Commissars are sent to bring the composer back. Through Fred’s delaying tactics, the presence of American movie star Peggy Dayton (Janis Paige), and the magic of Paris, the three are soon seduced into the ways of the West.  Iron-willed Soviet Commissar Ninotchka (Cyd) is dispatched to bring all four back to Mother Russia.  Fred and Cyd meet . . .

Some random Silk Stockings thoughts:

Silk Stockings was shot in CinemaScope – a 2.35 : 1 ratio.  Until I was able to watch it on the Warner Archive blu-ray, I had never had the opportunity to view it in “scope.”

Director Rouben Mamoulian rather famously hated the format: “The worst shape ever devised.” Based on how the actors are staged in this, he certainly did not care to know how to use it. Mamoulian pretty much sticks the actor(s) grouped center stage with not much of visual interest on either side.

Cyd Charisse as Ninotchka Yoschenko 001
Close-ups like this . . .
and dance sequences like this.

There’s lots of empty space in a lot of the scenes, the film could easily fit into a 1.85 or 1.66 format.  No major studio was filming in the standard 1.37 in 1957.

In “Stereophonic Sound”, Cole Porter tweaks the new(er) tech advances the movie industry was pursuing to keep butts in seats and away from the television.  Porter added an extra verse for Fred commenting on a current trend of using ballet dancers in film musicals.  A fun, if not classic Porter tune, but Janis Paige and Fred are great together.

Silk Stockings succeeds mostly in the isolated bursts of the choreography of Eugene Loring and Hermes Pan.  The songs are good, but the added emphasis on dance creates most of the memorable bits.

That Cyd Charisse is not Garbo is no surprise (no one was Garbo, except Garbo).  And she doesn’t sing her own songs (that would be Carol Richards.)  Cyd was a dancer, and it is in the dance where she is fully illuminated – in particular here in her solo dance to the title tune (an ode to bourgeois decadence?) “Silk Stockings.”

The Hays Office was scandalized that Cyd at one point was shown, for a few seconds, only wearing she silk camisole.  Eugene Loring / Rouben Mamoulian had her dart behind a chair to add on another garment.  I guess that it satisfied the censor, but it makes it all rather more risque by drawing attention to it.  No matter, Cyd’s performance here is a highlight of the film.

Question: What is Peter Lorre doing in this movie?  That one of the great, and most iconic of screen actors is reduced to more or less a stooge, as one of the three Commissars (Jules Munshin and Joseph Buloff are the other two) is disconcerting.

three commisars
“Siberia” – a paean to the wonders of banishment to . . .

Lorre does fine.  He gives it his all.   I just find it sad to see him reduced to such a limited and ill-defined role.  I suppose his addiction to morphine (originally prescribed for chronic gallbladder ailments), the associated weight gain, and lack of opportunity may have contributed.  Any number of other actors could have played the part.  But then we wouldn’t have Peter Lorre singing and dancing in a musical comedy.

Silk Stockings is rather an oddity in film adaptations of Cole Porter stage musicals – it contains almost all of the songs from the original production.  Studios had a habit of buying rights to Broadway musicals and then dropping most of the music/ songs and sometimes substituting with songs that had no connection with the original.  In SS, all but two of the songs were retained (although the title tune is only an instrumental for a Cyd Charisse dance) – and Cole Porter wrote two new tunes and added a verse to another.

The Cole Porter score is plenty tuneful, but I think it contains only one true classic: “All Of You,” and I am particularly taken with this Ella Fitzgerald version – sorry Fred.

Silk Stockings is a kind of cavalcade of last / finals.

George S. Kaufman: this was the last Broadway production for the great playwright (He co-wrote the script with his wife Leueen MacGrath, and was the play’s director before he left in a huff  – or was it a minute and a huff – after a disastrous preview.  He was replaced as the playwright by a slightly younger legend, Abe Burrows.)

This was last completed film of Rouben Mamoulian, noted theater director and early sound cinema innovator.  In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mamoulian was rightly famous for his moving camera  In 1956 he was not in particular demand.  In fact, Arthur Freed had to talk MGM into hiring him.  Although smoothly directed, any visual-stylish innovations must have been left at the door for Silk Stockings.  The dance sequences were staged by Eugene Loring and Hermes Pan.   Mamoulian was later fired from his last two film assignments – Porgy and Bess (replaced by Otto Preminger) and Cleopatra (by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.)

Cyd Charisse was all of 35 years old in 1957, but this was her last MGM musical. It was her last film musical period.  She continued to perform for decades on stage and in nightclubs, in an occasional film and television role – but never in any film musical.

Silk Stockings was Cole Porter’s last Broadway show.  He wrote songs for the films High Society (1956) and Les Girls (1957) and then did his final film work with Silk Stockings.  One of the two new songs that Porter wrote was directly for Fred Astaire: “The Ritz Roll & Rock”, a fun but thoroughly out of touch pronouncement that Rock & Roll was “dead.”  But Fred shows that he still had the moves.

Fred Astaire had announced his “retirement” several times before, but this is Fred’s last dance.  “The Ritz Roll & Rock” number was the last sequence shot for the film, and it is his goodbye to all of that – top hat, tails and his place in the classic Hollywood musical.  He announced his retirement from film musicals just a few days after filming for Silk Stockings has completed.  There were television specials and film acting appearances but no more Fred Astaire musicals. (Yes, I know, Finian’s Rainbow (1968) – but that’s a different kettle of fish.)

Arthur Freed would produce two more musicals Gigi (1958) and Bells Are Ringing (1960) – the former winning all kinds of awards, including the Best Picture Oscar, the latter sinking like a stone and the final nail in the Freed Unit at MGM.  (Bells Are Ringing is a terrific movie by the way, that it bombed financially is just an unfortunate sign that times had changed.)

Movie musicals would continue to be made of course and are still occasionally being made – but the classical era of the movie musical pretty much ended in 1957.

Now my feelings about Silk Stockings are rather mixed.  It is thoroughly professionally performed and produced, but seems to lack the spark to give it life.  Some very good sequences, but an overall lack of . . .  I tend to want to blame the director, Rouben Mamoulian.  Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, or Charles Waters, or even George Sidney would have given the proceedings a better energy and certainly used the widescreen to a better effect.  But Freed got the director he wanted and the critics at the time praised the film rather highly.

Oh well, just my rambling ruminations.

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