Sorry, folks, but this is the last dance
Silk Stockings was the last dance, the last musical for both Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, and, along with Gene Kelly’s Les Girls, absolutely the last of the old Hollywood musicals. Fortunately for us, Fred and Cyd went out on a high note — not exactly high C, maybe, but well above middle.
The virtues of Silk Stockings are many: a consistently serviceable, if not precisely fabulous, score by Cole Porter, and Fred, whose declining vocal ability I’ve been complaining about in the past several reviews, is in much better voice than in the past. More importantly, we get two very nice dances from Fred and Cyd — one “romantic” and the other “happy” — and two very nice solos from Cyd. Furthermore, there’s the basic Ninotchka plot, which is well above average for a musical. No, we don’t have Garbo, or Lubitsch, or Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder’s script, and we do miss them a little, but we can’t have everything — or, at least, we seldom do.1 And let’s also give two thumbs up — way up, as the saying goes — to the magnificent body of Cyd Charisse, which, even in Ninotchkaesque garb, never fails to make its presence known, and felt.
Despite being a product of MGM — the quintessential Hollywood studio — Silk Stockings has an intriguing “New York” air to it — “intriguing,” in this case, not necessarily being synonymous with “good.” What we get — at least, what we seem to get, because I can’t be bothered to do any original research here — is much closer to a Broadway musical than a Hollywood musical — lots and lots of rapid-fire, wise-guy wisecracks that the studios usually edited out on behalf of the flyover folks, who tend to be a little slow on the uptake. If only the gags were actually, you know, funny!
Another thing that reminds us of New York rather than Hollywood is the cast. One thing that can generally be said about Fred Astaire films is that they tend to be pretty WASPy.2 But because many of the characters in Silk Stockings are Russian, and because many of them in the film are played by Russian Jews — well, you sort of get the feeling that the MGM studio has been taken over by the Ritz Brothers. At times, you can almost smell the chicken soup.
And the third thing that reminds us of New York is that the script rather persistently makes cracks at the expense of Hollywood itself, definitely not Manhattan’s favorite town back in the day. Broadway legend George S. Kauffman did the original script for the Broadway version of Silk Stockings (his last play), with some substantial reworking by somewhat younger Broadway legend Abe Burrows, updating Ninotchka, which was not altogether a bad idea. The Lubitsch touch could be a little heavy on the schlag at times, and this was 1955, after all.
The plot of the original Ninotchka turns on a fabulous cache of jewels, originally the property of a supremely elegant “White Russian,”3 the “Grand Duchess Swana,” played with an absolutely straight face by the supremely elegant Ina Claire. Now the Soviets have them and want to sell them, and the duchess will agree not to contest the sale under one condition: that Ninotchka return to Russia, allowing the countess to continue to enjoy the company of her beloved Count d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), whose head has been seriously turned by the bewitching comrade.
Well, White Russians might have been the last word in decadence back in the day, but for New Yorkers in the fifties, the last word in decadence was “HOLLYWOOD”! The Broadway show Silk Stockings took dead aim at Hollywood “vulgarity,” and, remarkably, most of the jokes stayed in the film as well.
Silk Stockings begins with a shot of Paris rawly waking,4 followed by shots of Fred stylishly walking, in brown suede shoes, no less, passing copies of newspapers conveniently informing us in English that Fred is Steve Canfield, a top Hollywood producer out to sign noted Soviet composer Peter Ilyitch Boroff to compose the score for his next big film.5 Fred arrives backstage, where Peter Ilyitch is taking bows at the conclusion of his latest smash piano recital. Between bows, he tells Fred, with increasing agitation, that Soviets are tired of his reluctance to return from the decadent West and have sent three commissars to bring him home. Fred tries to reassure him, but the dude grows increasingly hysterical, until an even greater nightmare intrudes: no more applause! What? That’s it? They don’t appreciate art?
Fred accompanies Boroff to his elegant hotel, where they collide with the three commissars, Brankov, Bibinski, and Ivanov (Peter Lorre,6 Jules Munshin, and Joseph Buloff). Things could get ugly, but Fred, ever the fixer, conveniently avoids disaster by moving the conversation into an elegant drawing room and bringing in three elegant bimbos (Barrie Chase, Tybee Afra, and Betty Uitti) to help things along. Fred, sensing the boys are warming to the Parisian lifestyle, explains to them that it would be a great propaganda coup for Boroff’s music to appear in an American film, though, of course they’ll have to stay on to supervise things. And, anyway, Fred has a Frenchman who will swear he’s Boroff’s father, making Boroff a French citizen, and no one can force a Frenchman to leave France, can they?
No one needs much persuading to stay in Paris, and the Russian trio quickly breaks into the “wonderfully galumphing”7 “Too bad, we can’t go back to Moscow,” belting it out with such fervor, via dubbing, that we might as well be serenaded by the Red Army Chorus. The heartfelt refrain, “Hai! Hai! Hai!” quickly transforms itself into “Cha! Cha! Cha!” and the girls go into action, both as solos and as partners for Fred. Barrie, Fred’s favorite, presumably, since she appeared in two TV specials with him in 1958 and 1959, goes last and also gets to wear a split skirt, which she exploits rather brazenly, spreading her legs as she sits on a table, waiting her turn to dance with Fred, and showing a lot of inner thigh, a long-standing Hays Office no-no.8
But if the boys are happy, Moscow isn’t, and so Cyd, slim ‘n’ severe as a Soviet pencil, arrives to find out why the boys haven’t brought Boroff back home. When Fred meets Cyd, well, this is one seduction he’s going to enjoy. To warm things up, Fred encourages Cyd to relax and enjoy herself, serenading her with the near-classic “Paris Loves Lovers,” with Cyd, dubbed by Carol Richards, countering his bourgeois romanticism by chanting “Capitalistic,” “Materialistic,” “should be atheistic” in response. This chick’s a regular Molotov in skirts! To soften her up, Fred agrees to give Cyd a tour of industrial Paris — steel mills, waterworks, etc. — starting at 6:30 AM!
Yeah, communists are tough, but now Fred has a real problem to handle: a movie star! His leading lady, Peggy Dayton (Janis Paige9), is newly arrived from Hollywood and ready to meet the European press. Peggy is a parody, more or less, of the brassy, “vulgar” movie star, though it’s the parody rather than the target that comes off as vulgar, in my eyes. The bit includes some remarkably direct, and cheap, shots at MGM’s own swimming/singing star Esther Williams, a good sport presumably, whose 1955 disaster Jupiter’s Darling had taken a lot of the air out of the MGM musical machine.10 At the press conference, Fred explains that Peggy is hanging up her swimsuit following “Neptune’s Mother,” because her doctor told her all the water in her ears was affecting her hearing, and, throughout the picture, Janis obligingly imitates knocking the water out of her ears.11
In the course of the interview, Fred reveals why he needs Boroff to score his picture. It’s based on a little book by that fellow Tolstoy. You know, War and Peace! That’s all!12 What does Peggy think of Leo? “We’re just good friends,” a running gag in this and other pictures, including, as I remember, A Hard Day’s Night.
Peggy Dayton, Boroff, and Tolstoy? Sounds like we’ve got a picture! But not yet! These are modern times, and you’ve got to have, well, you’ve got to have “Stereophonic Sound,” Cole Porter’s not that overwhelming take on Hollywood’s frenzied flood of technological gimmicks intended to get the public out of its living rooms and back into the movie houses, a frenzy that, by 1957, was starting to look pretty desperate.
Unfortunately, the number is pretty desperate too, both as sung and as danced by Fred and Janis, with lots of heavy-handed mugging to match the heavy-handed lyrics,13 lots of echo to let us know we’re listening to stereophonic sound, and lots of writhing from the pair to show us how hard it is for dancers to fill up that wide, wide screen.
Once that’s over, Fred goes on his AM date with Cyd, bringing her back to his suite, where they continue their ideological debate. Cyd debunks Fred’s talk of love with the barely melodic “It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All,” an aggressively unsentimental take on the urge to merge with a splurge — a take that probably corresponded very closely with Porter’s own. Fred responds with “All of You,” whose suggestive lyrics — “I’d love to take a tour of you, the eyes, the arms, the mouth of you, the north, the east, the west, and the south of you” — prompted the Hays Office to demand that Fred sing them in a “non-suggestive manner,” though the groping gesture he makes with his right hand while singing about “the south of you” seems to be going in the wrong direction.
Fred demands to know if Cyd ever feels like doing something just for the fun of it, illustrating his argument, of course, with a few steps. When she refuses to respond, he eventually brings her to her feet. She stands very erect but motionless while Fred confronts her, trying to figure out how to motivate her into movement. The dance that follows, choreographed by Hermes Pan, was surely inspired by the classic “Night and Day” number from The Gay Divorcee, which set the standard for Fred’s romantic dances. To my mind, this is the best of Fred’s late romantic dances, but it’s a long way from “Night and Day.” Fred doesn’t project the desire, nor Cyd the resistance, that gave the original dance its power.
The orchestration is quite placid, without the melodramatic alterations between fortissimo and pianissimo typical of the great dances with Ginger, and this is reflected in the dance as well. We can’t help noticing that Fred doesn’t kick nearly as high as Cyd, nor does he even try to point his toes, and the heel click he gives us early on looks like something out of vaudeville, a long way indeed from the cabriolets14 he unleashed for us in the “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number from Follow the Fleet.
Yet it’s quite good, less artsy than the famous “Dancing in the Dark” number from The Band Wagon, which is, to my mind, too balletic, reducing Fred to the role of Cyd’s lifter. (Cyd also carries the symbolic burden of wearing a white dress in that one.) If “All of You” doesn’t hit the heights, it has a consistent forward motion and a pleasing variety, taking frequent advantage of Cyd’s ability to transform her glorious body into a single gesture, without making the dance all about her. There’s a very nice touch at the end, where they first shift from dancing to walking and then briefly resume their role as dancers, gliding elegantly to the floor.
In the meantime, Peggy Dayton has her own romance in gear, with Boroff — mostly an excuse to give her another number, “Satin and Silk,” whose “girls are slutty” lyrics remind us of another exercise in misogyny from Cole Porter, “Always True to You Dear, in My Fashion,” from Kiss Me, Kate (the melody sounds similar as well).
Much, much better, and really the high point of the movie, is Cyd’s solo piece, “Silk Stockings,” a bit of a striptease (and what’s wrong with that?) as she sheds her sensible soviet clothes and gives way to romance, achieving that emotional/erotic transformation that non-dancing Audrey Hepburn was not able to achieve in the “How Long Has This Been Going On?” number from Funny Face. The choreography, by Eugene Loring, is quite balletic but, remarkably, avoids the artsyness that was the plague of film ballet. As I’ve said before, Cyd generally seems most confident and relaxed in her “bad girl” roles, but here she’s not afraid to be serious, and she achieves that without affectation or strain. And it’s a very feminine number, since it’s about the symbolism and magic of clothes, and the magic and acceptance of desire.
With Cyd’s consciousness now fully expanded, we’re ready for the point of it all — supposedly — the incorporation of Boroff’s music into Fred’s latest extravaganza. Everyone assembles on the set to watch the filming of the first big production number, “Josephine,” featuring Peggy Dayton, of course, as Jo. Fortunately, before the cameras start rolling we get another number from Fred and Cyd, the upbeat “Fated to Be Mated,” the kids frolicking about and Cyd taking advantage of her now-freed spirit to show off her legs.15 Again, Pan’s choreography makes us feel we’re watching “classic Fred” even though Cyd is doing most of the dancing.16
But when the cameras do start rolling, things fall apart, as they must, or otherwise we got no plot. On Broadway, “Josephine” was basically a striptease. If we’re going to be offensive, let’s have some fun while we’re at it! According to John Mueller in Astaire Dancing, the studio shot both a long and a short striptease, and then cut the hell out of the short one, so that, sadly, we don’t get much show.Peggy barely gets her gloves off before the Reds are up in arms. What Fred has done to Boroff’s music, it’s an insult to the Russian people and the glorious Soviet Union! And so off they go, to Moscow, if they’re lucky. Brankov, Bibinski, and Ivanov consider the alternative in another clever song-and-dance-man number, “Siberia,” a performance limited by the fact that they can’t sing or dance. Dubbing takes care of the first problem, but, as for the second, Hollywood once again tries to make us believe that it’s funny to watch people who can’t dance prove that they can’t dance — though in fact it isn’t.
Fortunately, they draw Moscow instead of the Gulag. Ninotchka, Brankov, Bibinski, and Ivanov sit around in their crowded room, dreaming of the old days. Then Boroff shows up, and he’s got a new tune! You know that jazz stuff we hated? Well, it’s great! And so we get “The Red Blues,” a frenetic production number typical of fifties Hollywood musicals, with lots of young lads a-leaping and people rushing hither and thither. Fortunately, once you get past the leaping lads, the dance is all about Cyd, with a lot more technique than substance — the number ends, naturally, with Cyd whipping off a series of virtuoso turns directly toward the audience — but Cyd in high gear, even if she isn’t going anywhere, is still a lot of fun.
Well, fun’s fun, but we’ve got to get back to Paris. In the next scene, that happens. Thanks to Ninotchka’s generous report, Brankov, Bibinski, and Ivanov are entrusted with another mission to Paris, to sell films, and it appears they’ve been misbehaving. Ninotchka is sent to track them down, which she does, apparently with the help of a curiously well-informed cab driver, who takes her to a nightclub they’ve opened.
The boys, now thoroughly bourgeois, dressed in tuxes and puffing on big, fat cigars, welcome Ninotchka into their wood-paneled back room. Without much explanation, they usher her to a table. We’ll talk later! The show’s about to start!
By this point, we in the audience have some questions as well, like, “Cyd has had two solos. When does Fred get a solo?” Well, be careful what you wish for. It is both fitting and painful, I guess, that Fred Astaire’s very last number on film is an awkward and embarrassing acknowledgment that his day was over, “The Ritz Roll and Rock.” It was Fred himself, apparently, who came up with the idea that Cole should write a parody of this rock and roll stuff that was so popular with the kids.17The number begins as a deliberate parody of the “Top Hat” number in Top Hat, with Fred in top hat, white tie, and tails, and descends rapidly. The lyrics treat us to a dose of adult wishful thinking — “rock and roll is dead and gone” — and then explain that “the smart set” has revived the corpse for its own purposes. What follows is, basically, Fred Astaire doing everything you wouldn’t want Fred Astaire to do — that is, acting like an ass. The number ends, all too fittingly, with Fred lying on the floor, a grimace of despair on his face, smashing his fist down on his top hat. Fred Astaire is dead!
This concludes my long march through Fred Astaire’s dancing films. I’ve skipped his first, Dancing Lady, in which he only appears as a dancer in a specialty number, and his last, Finian’s Rainbow, which is supposed to be terrible. Astaire’s career is a testimony, not only to his greatness as a dancer and a choreographer, but his remarkable tenacity as a performer. He had to be in the public eye, and he had to appear at his best. The vagaries of the star system ensured that Fred would often be working with partners with no formal technique, most notably Ginger Rogers, with whom he performed his greatest dances. There were many uncertain moments in Astaire’s career — he was “old” when he started in the early thirties and in the mid-forties he seemed to be in danger of becoming Bing Crosby’s sidekick — but even in his late fifties he managed to hold a position as a leading Hollywood star.
Throughout the world, dance is the universal metaphor for the primal physical joy of being young and alive, movement with no ulterior motive or goal, but simply the outer expression of inner delight. But that inner joy, seen from the outside, is likely to appear as nothing more than an awkward stumbling, the clumsy, thrashing body a mere burden, or even a humiliation and a parody of the spirit within. But when a great dancer dances, when Fred Astaire dances, the body becomes the spirit, defines the spirit, creates the spirit, and sets it free. Each movement, each step, is a gesture, a gesture that speaks of freedom and completeness rather than constraint, and, though complete within itself, takes its place as a part of a greater gesture. Most of Fred’s most successful dances are “simple” dances, dances about the joy of being alive, but his greatest dances — “Night and Day,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Never Gonna Dance,” and “One For My Baby” — go beyond celebration and give us emotional movement and transformation as well. These are rare gifts.
In an interview, Barrie Chase said that before each performance, Fred would say “Now, don’t be nervous. But don’t make any mistakes.” And she also said, “The great thing about Fred was, in the middle of things, if you were really in it, really moving with the music, he would lean over, just a little, and he would say ‘Now you’re dancing!'”
All of Fred’s dancing films, except for the two weakest, Yolanda and the Thief and Let’s Dance, are now available on DVD. Links to my previous reviews are provided below. My review of Joseph Epstein’s Fred Astaire provides some additional overall comments on Fred’s career.
Flying Down to Rio
The Gay Divorcee
Follow the Fleet
Shall We Dance?
A Damsel in Distress
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
Broadway Melody of 1940
You’ll Never Get Rich
You Were Never Lovelier
The Sky’s the Limit
The Barkleys of Broadway
Three Little Words
The Belle of New York
The Band Wagon
Daddy Long Legs
- It’s a little shocking that Ninotchka is only available in a seriously plain-Jane DVD, with no extras whatsoever. Not only that, Word can’t even spell “Ninotchka”! What’s up with that? And this for the woman who was once easily the most famous actress in the world, worshipped almost to the point of hysteria by her admirers. James Thurber wrote a very James Thurberish story, “The Breaking Up of the Winships,” whose plot is set in motion when Mr. Winship tells Mrs. Winship that he thinks Donald Duck is better than Greta and refuses to back down. Today, if you search for “Greta G” on IMDB, you’ll get Greta Gerwig. Sic transit gloria mundi, eh, motherfucker? [↩]
- A Jewish tailor does turn up in Swing Time, a film that also has jokes about Cossacks and picket lines. [↩]
- White Russians were émigré Russian aristocrats who supposedly spent their time eating caviar, drinking champagne, and mourning the Romanovs. My favorite Fred ‘n’ Ginger film, the not terribly well-known Roberta (1934), is largely about White Russians, though neither Fred nor Ginger is one. [↩]
- Actually, it’s dusk (and then suddenly close to midnight), but I can never resist a gratuitous literary reference, and Hollywood can seldom resist a sunset. [↩]
- The paper is the Paris American, a newspaper that, as far as I can tell, never existed. It was surely inspired by the international edition of the New York Herald Tribune, known to every film buff, pretty much, as the paper hawked by Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle. [↩]
- I’m not sure why the suits wanted Lorre, but they did. In 1953 he was fit and funny in the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart/Jennifer Jones/Gina Lollabrigida/Robert Morley/Truman Capote cult classic Beat the Devil, but four years later he looks ready to keel over. Morphine addiction has a way of creeping up on you. Somehow, Lorre kept working through 1964, last appearing in Jerry Lewis’ The Patsy. [↩]
- John Mueller’s superb phrase in his superb Astaire Dancing. John mourns the fact that the lyrics are nowhere available. Well, now they are, from the Broadway show version, which features a reprise that doesn’t appear in the picture. [↩]
- Things get so frantic that Fred’s hair is actually mussed, something that, by my count, has only happened twice before, once when he fell off a bicycle in Carefree and once when he was drunk in The Sky’s the Limit (maybe in Holiday Inn as well, when he’d also been drinking). [↩]
- Paige, a serious trouper on Broadway, in nightclubs, and TV as well as Hollywood, had easily her most visible role as Peggy Dayton in Silk Stockings, but I can’t say that I enjoyed her performance very much. The script encourages us to look down on her as vulgar and shallow, and it’s difficult for an actress to overcome that. In an intriguing coincidence, Paige appeared in a 1958 TV version of Roberta, playing Ginger Rogers’ “Sharwenka” character, which is sadly not available on home video. The broadcast was a trip down memory lane for Bob Hope, who had appeared in the 1933 stage version as “Huck Haines” (Fred’s role in the 1934 film). The cast also included Anna Maria Alberghetti as “Stephanie” (Irene Dunne in the 1934 film) and Howard Keel, who had appeared in the 1952 Hollywood remake of Roberta, Lovely to Look At. [↩]
- I was a kid, going to matinees when Esther was big. I used to see the previews and wonder how the hell anyone could enjoy such mannered crap. Swimming pools with flames coming out of them! Whoever saw such a thing? The IMDB has some funny reviews of Jupiter’s Darling, based on a 1927 anti-war Broadway play by Robert Sherwood having fun with Hannibal’s invasion of Rome and featuring, in addition to Esther, pastel elephants. Is that gay enough for you, dude? [↩]
- Last month, SNL star and head writer Seth Meyers reused this gag on “Weekend Update.” Remarkably enough, it still isn’t funny. [↩]
- War and Peace had been filmed a year earlier, by Paramount, not MGM. Four versions are now available on DVD, all of them made for TV mini-series except the 1956 film. I haven’t seen any of them, but both the Russian (1967) and the BBC (1974) versions have gotten quite a bit of praise on the web. [↩]
- Cole was a lot better at making fun of “modern times” when he was still young enough to enjoy them. Back in 1934, Porter made solo recordings of both “You’re the Top” and “Anything Goes,” his appropriately brittle singing voice elegantly navigating the numerous tricky rhymes. Both songs are full of topical allusions, many of which are now thoroughly obscure. Who is Lady Mandl? Or Anna Sten? Curiously, or not, Mae West is the only person to get a shout-out in both songs. [↩]
- When you perform a cabriolet (if you can), you leap sideways into the air and scissor your legs. [↩]
- Eagle-eyed observers have noted that at the end of the dance Cyd is wearing culottes, to avoid showing too much leg, whereas earlier in the high-kicking lifts she’s got to be wearing a skirt so we can see her legs. John Mueller finds it all a bit “vulgar,” which strikes me as being over-sensitive. [↩]
- Still, Fred is doing most of the lifting. Supposedly, he was a bit worried about hefting Cyd’s 112 pounds, but he came through like a trouper. [↩]
- 1956 was pretty much the year of Elvis Presley in U.S. popular culture. He released “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first single for a national record company, in January 1956, and his singles dominated the charts for the entire year. In August, when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, the program had an audience share of 83 percent. The 2012 Super Bowl attracted a 71 percent audience share. In 1957, when Silk Stockings was made, rock and roll exploded, with Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry all storming the charts, along with the King. [↩]