Aug 24, 2016

On Blu-ray: Astaire and Charisse Bid Farewell to the Big Musical in Silk Stockings (1957)

It's 1957 and the era of big musicals is ending, but Silk Stockings doesn't feel like a dying gasp. It is a slick, colorful and expertly executed production. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, it isn't likely to top the favorites list of many musical fans, but with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the leads, you can always expect to be impressed.

Based on the story of the 1939 comedy romance Ninotchka, which became famous as the production in which Garbo let out a highly uncharacteristic belly laugh, it stars Charisse as a serious-minded Russian envoy out to bring home a countryman and composer, Fred Astaire as an American musical producer who woos her and wants to hire that very composer and Janis Paige as a water-logged swimming film star looking to diversify her filmography. As one of a trio of Russian commissars who are seduced by Parisian life, Peter Lorre makes his musical debut and seems to have the time of his life doing so.

Director Rouben Mamoulian set the course for the modern film musical with innovative early sound efforts like Applause (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932) and later made the charming Summer Holiday (1948) during the genre's colorful heyday. Stockings was his last completed film and evidence that if he'd been given the right materials and autonomy, he might have made a few more classics. As it is, this was not a bad way to go.

While the scenes between numbers can be trying (they all could have been half as long and gotten the point across), the dances are deservedly classic, polished, energetic and the perfect showcase for its impeccably rehearsed stars. Everyone is perfectly lit, arranged and garbed; it's almost as oppressive as it is delightful.

The Cole Porter songs have their cute moments, but with the exception of the dynamic Stereophonic Sound, they don't zing like the best of his work. 

It also doesn't help that Charisse's habit of saying lines like she learned them phonetically is made further awkward by the Russian accent. So much of what she says is identical to the Ninotchka (1939) script that you can't help but pine for Garbo's take on those clever quips.

None of this is truly bad, in fact it's all quite lovely, as if the baseline standard of quality for a Charisse and Astaire flick extends to the MGM musical. At its best though, this is a dance film and that is what makes it magical. There's some charm to be found in the early numbers, but things really get hot when these two masters of screen dancing pair up for All of You and Fated to be Mated. They are like sleek, limber animals together, effortlessly sophisticated, and beautifully in tune with each other. Charisse is also expressive and moving in a solo where she reveals she has given in to the beauties of French fashion.

Seen through modern eyes, it's a bit depressing to watch Charisse abandon her earnest interest in public works for more traditional femininity. Couldn't she keep the slinky hose and continue to visit power plants? But this is mid-century America, so the athletic prowess of her dancing in the final showstopper Red Blues will have to suffice as a reminder that she is still one powerful lady under all that silk and satin.

The film's image is clean, with more softness and grain than I've tended to see on the Warner Archive Blu-rays. Even with an impeccable, brightly-colored production like this one, I prefer that lighter touch when it comes to high definition.

Special features on the disc include the short Cole Porter In Hollywood: Satin and Silk, hosted by Charisse in her later years, a theatrical trailer for the film and two musical shorts featuring the tunes of Porter: Paree, Paree and The Poet and the Peasant Overture.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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