Thursday, July 14, 2016

SILK STOCKINGS: Blu-ray (MGM 1957) Warner Archive Collection

When Rouben Mamoulian’s Silk Stockings (1957) had its premiere, noted New York film critic, Bosley Crowthers declared congress ought to pass a law mandating Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse costar in at least one movie musical per annum; forgivable hyperbole and, at least in retrospect, tinged with a distinct note of regret. For Silk Stockings would mark the last of their on screen partnerships (the first, and only other, occasion being 1953’s The Band Wagon.) To watch Astaire and Charisse perform their sublime pas deux in Silk Stockings is to be magically teleported to a fantastic realm of surreal perfectionism; Astaire – having already begun to enter his emeritus years as the undisputed grand old man of the dance, but as lithe and debonair as ever, and Charisse – a luscious, leggy instrument of Terpsichorean precision. Silk Stockings is a supreme achievement among MGM musicals – and that is saying much for a studio that prided itself on the mark of excellence in all things; but particularly in musical entertainment.  Rouben Mamoulian’s grasp of the Cinemascope screen reveals a confident, well-seasoned master craftsman. When his camera moves to re-frame the action, it is with purpose and visual distinction; adding to the already impossibly lush production values a la Randall Duell and William A. Horning’s art direction, and Hugh Hunt and Edwin B. Willis’ production design; also Helen Rose’s sumptuous costuming, Robert J. Bronner’s luminous cinematography and – of course – the bountiful overflow of Cole Porter score – his last and, arguably, one of his very best.
Silk Stockings – the movie – is, of course, based on Silk Stockings – the Broadway show; more directly derived from Melchior Lengyel’s Ninotchka, and running a very close parallel to the 1939 Garbo classic it inspired. In the mid to late 1950’s a novel idea occurred at MGM: to remake some of their most beloved comedies from the 1930’s into big-budgeted movie musicals. While the formula proved immensely popular and of sound judgment on projects like High Society (1956) (a remake of The Philadelphia Story 1940) and Silk Stockings, it all but tanked when David Miller attempted to painfully update George Cukor’s 1939 masterpiece, The Women as The Opposite Sex (1956). Herein, Mamoulian is dealing with Ernest Lubitsch’s frothy romance, about special envoy, Nina Yaschenko, dispatched by the Soviet government to retrieve three wayward comrades swayed by the capitalist decadence of Paris. Ninotchka was a considerable effort, arguably an enduring masterpiece, and, quite simply one of Garbo’s most beloved movies; readily reissued by MGM throughout the 1940’s. To musicalize it for the post-war fifties must have seemed either sacrilege or suicide.
Yet, despite the fact musicals had already become risky business at the box office by the mid-1950’s (thanks to changing audience tastes and the advent of television), herein MGM could breathe a noted sigh of relief because all of the groundwork had already been done for them; the material tested with a successful run on Broadway, a book initially written by George S. Kaufman and his wife, Leueen MacGrath, then almost entirely rewritten by Abe Burrows.  Weighing in at $370,000, Silk Stockings was one of Broadway's most lavishly appointed musicals; Cole Porter’s contributions catapulting it to instantly hummable popularity. In Hollywood, producer, Arthur Freed – MGM’s eminence gris in the musical genre – heavily campaigned for Silk Stockings to be bought on his behalf. But by 1956, Freed no longer called the shots; the ousting of L.B. Mayer in favor of Dore Schary, and, the inconceivable down-scaling of Metro’s ‘star system’ resulting in a decidedly streamlined spate of projects that, nevertheless, still knew how to put on the dog…or in Silk Stocking’s case: the Ritz, Roll and Rock. In his heyday, Freed would have merely snapped his fingers to acquire the property lock, stock and barrel. But in the fifties he was repeatedly denied the blank check to go after such high profile Broadway goodies as Lady in the Dark, Oklahoma! and The King and I; all eventually turned into movies by rival companies.
Remarkably, Silk Stockings bears none of the scars from MGM’s slow, sad decline behind the scenes. Rouben Mamoulian’s direction is assured and effective; screenwriters, Leonard(s) Gershe and Spigelgass ironing out the wrinkles in the Broadway original with more strict adherence to the 1939 Cukor classic. In fact, in directly comparing Ninotchka with Silk Stockings today, one almost expects for the 1939 comedy to burst into Porter’s superb score; its absence queerly felt. And Silk Stockings is immeasurably blessed to have Astaire and Charisse as it’s sparring partners; Astaire’s smug sage wisdom peppered in glib repartee, melting the glacial Charisse’s hard-bitten communist sensibilities into that pliable putty from which the very best movie musical magic is wrought; in essence, the pair utterly ‘fated to be mated’. Astaire’s tenure in movie musicals was frequently problematic in these later years, perhaps because his co-stars continued to get younger and younger while the inevitable wheel of time predictably turned in the opposite direction for Astaire. Thus, the May/December relationships that proved so transformative and acceptable in movies like Daddy Long Legs (1955) or Funny Face (1957) have gradually become less probable when viewed today. Despite this ageism, Astaire’s spotless talent and impeccable craftsmanship have kept both his reputation and that of the aforementioned movies thrillingly alive. It is his level of sheer and oft confounding artistry that equally buoys Silk Stockings; also, Cyd Charisse’s ability to convey a stature and grace that, more than any other co-star since Ginger Rogers matches Astaire’s impossible confidence and quality.
Silk Stockings is also noteworthy for the formidable comedic presence of the scrumptious Janis Paige as scatterbrained sensualist, Peggy Dayton (a sort of Esther Williams knockoff with little brain but considerable cleavage). There is an old saying in Hollywood; that it takes a supremely intelligent individual to play an absolute idiot. Peggy Dayton is a quirky minx indeed; Paige, exuding juicy sex appeal while seducing the stodgy Russian composer, Peter Ilyitch Boroff  (Wim Sonneveld) as she sings and strips down to her skivvies for Porter’s ‘Silk and Satin’; rambunctiously amusing, as she cavorts, swings and drags herself all over the screen, along with Astaire in the hilarious ‘Stereophonic Sound’ (a rich spoof of the widescreen revolution and its lamentable absence of screen intimacy), and downright sidesplitting, when she arrives on set to shoot ‘Josephine’ – a campy rockabilly riotously bastardizing and emasculating the intellectual élan of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Finally, Silk Stockings has a trio of merry Andrews in comedians, Jules Munshin, Joseph Buloff and Peter Lorre (cast respectively as Russian commissars, Bibinski, Ivanov and Brankov). Sent to Paris by the U.S.S.R’s newly appointed Commissar of Art; Vassili Markovitch (George Tobias), Bibinski, Brankov and Ivanov are almost immediately seduced by the bevy of beauties brought in by American film producer, Steve Canfield (Astaire).  It doesn’t take much to sway their judgment; Canfield permitted to commission Boroff to write a score for his latest picture – a loose (as it turns out – very loose) adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, slated to star America’s mermaid, Peggy Dayton in her first non-swimming picture. After a stalemate of considerable months, Markovitch sends hardline communist, Special Envoy Ninotchka ‘Nina’ Yoschenko to Paris to retrieve this foursome without delay.
In Cukor’s original, Garbo played Ninotchka with a sterile sternness, her glycerin façade shot in close-up, capable of conveying a fascinating subtext of corruptible influences until the moment her character’s hardline soviet ideology implodes under the romantic idealism of co-star, Melvyn Douglas. Cyd Charisse is not entirely up to this challenge; lacking Garbo’s austerity, yet queerly aloof tenderness. Moreover, the horizontal expanses of the Cinemascope screen betray her ability to convey any emotions in anything more substantial than a medium two shot. Ah, but how Charisse moves within this rectangular frame, even when she walks – a supple twisting of the limbs to express what the face cannot. When Charisse's Nina allows her mask of faux propriety to slip, wrapping supple arms and legs around Astaire for the decadent ‘All of You’, or slipping out of her commi-gray traveling suit to encase those sensational hind quarters in pure silk for her solo striptease, and finally, giving everything over in drape beige flannel to the wild abandonment of ‘The Red Blues’ – a complete betrayal of her communist principles, Charisse emits a kilowatt stardust that instantly sears itself into our collective memory. She is – in a word – delectable.
Less impressive – though no less delightful – are Astaire’s dance routines in this movie. In a fairly awkward attempt to get the movie off to its musical start, Steve Canfield entangles the Russian commissars with some showgirls from the Folies Bergeres; Fifi (Tybee Afra), Gabrielle (Barrie Chase – with whom Astaire would later dance in his anthology TV series: An Evening with Fred Astaire), Suzette (Betty Uitti) and Vera (Belita). Everyone, except Steve, gets drunk, performing Porter’s ‘Too Bad’; Astaire remaining above the revelry while indulging in a few tame pivots and pirouettes.  Steve is introduced to Nina with whom he immediately becomes smitten. Asked by Charisse’s brutally deadpan commissar, “Are you flirting with me?” to which Astaire’s Steve – with a devilish twinkle in his eye admits, “Absolutely, no question about it”, he is immediately admonished for his wandering eye with “Suppress it!” But it’s no use. Steve’s hooked. It’s a ‘chemical reaction, that’s all.’  Steve manages to serenade his beloved with ‘Paris Loves Lovers’ before departing for his press conference with Peggy Dayton. It is important to note Cole Porter’s magnificent score does not immediately lend itself to the Astaire style; the magic in any Porter tune derived from his carefully crafted double entendre set to music, leaving very little room for the big and showy Astaire routine.  ‘Stereophonic Sound’ has Astaire and Janis Paige dragging themselves and one another across a boardroom table, swinging from chandeliers and crawling around on the floor. It is a handsomely clever spoof of what in the world is wrong with Cinemascope. But again, it leaves Astaire holding the bag. He doesn’t dance as much as he moves effortlessly and on gossamer wings; his very movements musical.
Ah, but then Steve gets Nina alone in his hotel suite, employing the pleasures of Paris to lure her into a moment of forgetful seduction. ‘All of You’ is one of the best production numbers Astaire has ever committed to film; assuaging from chair to couch to table and eventually floor with the statuesque Charisse wrapped around his pencil-thin body. Much has been made of Astaire’s antiseptic ‘sex appeal’. Yet, with Charisse, Astaire becomes the envy of every man in the room, the liquidity of their combined movements creating a spellbinding unison of bodies in motion. Sometime later, Nina begins to realize Paris is not the evil den of capitalist inequity she has been brainwashed into believing during her propagandized education. As her icy resolve begins to melt, she becomes kinder to Bibinski, Brankov and Ivanov; affording them a thousand Francs to spend for a night on the town, at the last minute recoiling from her philanthropy by adding “Bring back five hundred.” In the meantime, Steve is feverishly working to have Boroff’s Visa and birth certificate forged by the hotel’s porter (Peter Camlin), lying to Nina that Boroff is half French and therefore not under the Soviet’s autocratic authority to return to Moscow any time soon. Boroff is swayed by Peggy Dayton to adapt Tchaikovsky’s Ode d’attraction for Steve’s mangled interpretation of War and Peace. Daydreaming that his expertise in composition will translate somehow into a meaningful sexual liaison with Peggy, Boroff writes the score for Canfield’s movie.
Later, Astaire cuts loose with Charisse again in ‘Fated to Be Mated’; a high-spirited pas deux altering both mood and tempo repeatedly as the pair pass from one movie set to the next on the back lot, incorporating virtually every prop at their disposal to swing around one another until at last they become passionately locked in each other’s arms. Their romance is moving at a heady pace; Steve growing to love Nina seemingly by the moment. Alas, their plans for marriage are thwarted when Steve gathers Nina, Boroff, Bibinski, Brankov and Ivanov to witness the first day’s shooting of his War and Peace; more ‘war’ than ‘peace’ as it turns out: Peggy emerging from behind closed doors in tight-fitting and glittery peddle-pushers and a tiara, warbling ‘Josephine’; a tantalizing wreckage of Boroff’s symphonic work. Insulted by what she perceives as Steve’s absolute betrayal of her affections - and Russian culture - Nina immediately elects to go back to the U.S.S.R.; taking Boroff and the other commissars with her. While Bibinski, Brankov and Ivanov lament the lack of freedom – and other luxuries – in cheery ‘Siberia’ – Steve can only think about Nina; making valiant attempts to encourage the French consulate to allow him access to her in Russia. He is repeatedly denied. Meanwhile, Nina is reunited with Boroff, Bibinski, Brankov and Ivanov inside a communal housing project; defying the hard-nosed edicts of state sanctioned reflection and study to break into spontaneous dance, inspired by Boroff’s latest composition – the decadent ‘Red Blues’. Nina receives a letter from Steve; its entire contents blacked out by the state’s censorship bureau. Boroff and Brankov temporarily fuss over who should be allowed to have their memories of Peggy Dayton; with Boroff still clearly in love with her. Time passes. The three commissars are sent back to Paris on another goodwill tour; again, falling prey to the pleasures of the city of light. And again, Nina is sent to retrieve them, forewarning this time she will be unable to stop their likely to be severe censuring upon their return home. When the trio informs her they have no intention of ever leaving France again, Nina makes plans to depart at once. Instead, she is encouraged to stay for Steve’s floor show at the restaurant they collectively own.   
Silk Stockings ends with an awkward Astaire misfire: ‘The Ritz, Roll and Rock’; meant to update the master’s trademarked top hat, white tie and tails and bring his inimitable elegance into the era of hip-swiveling rock and roll. Alas, the two worlds are irreconcilable and Astaire spends most of his time looking uncomfortable as he crawls around the floor with a dazzling array of silken-garbed socialites and debutantes who writhe as though they were succumbing to a collective epileptic seizure.  The tune is, to be sure, full of mirth and astute social commentary (always the best combination in a Cole Porter song), and Astaire acquits himself rather nicely of the lyric. But the staging of the orchestral portion that follows can hardly be classified as dance – and certainly unlike any other in Astaire’s memorable repertoire. Nina is momentarily stirred to rekindle her love for Steve, the pair cordially meeting backstage under the pretext Steve is engaged to be married. When Steve informs Nina he intends to marry her, she willingly tears up her return plane ticket to Moscow. Bibinski, Brankov and Ivanov inaugurate their happy reunion with a reprise of ‘Too Bad’.
Silk Stockings is joyous entertainment; lavishly appointed and memorably concocted. By 1957, producer, Arthur Freed was winding down his career at MGM. Musicals were no longer fashionable or bankable. And MGM, once known for creating the biggest and brightest in the business, had passed on adapting such noteworthy properties as The King and I, and South Pacific. Arguably, Freed had grown tired of the constant struggle with the new regime in the front office to green light his projects. Under Mayer’s reign, he had enjoyed complete autonomy to pursue whatever properties his heart desired. Without Mayer, he was beholding to Dore Schary who neither understood nor appreciated movie musicals. Freed would get the last word on elegance when his Gigi swept the 1958 Academy Awards.  But only four years later, the Freed Unit at MGM would be retired for good. In many ways, Silk Stockings is a reminder of Freed’s illustrious tenure at the studio during a period when anything was still possible and Freed was yet the man who could collect, employ and delegate the lion’s share in Metro’s formidable resources to making his dreams come true. Silk Stockings is blessed with Freed’s light touch; also by director Rouben Mamoulian’s unapologetic old-fashion ersatz European way with the material. Despite Cole Porter’s razz-a-matazz, in some ways, Silk Stockings almost feels more like a Sigmund Romberg operetta than a Broadway to Hollywood hybrid; Mamoulian indulging in his frothy mixture of screwball comedy and melodic schmaltz tinged in Porter’s one-off sarcasm.  For a time, movie musicals of this ilk were arguably a dime a dozen. But Silk Stockings has retained its illusive charm ever since. Arguably, it was always a ‘period piece’; hence, it really hasn’t aged. And Astaire and Charisse are undeniably ageless. When all is said and done, we are likely fated to be mated with Silk Stockings for a very long time. Too bad….too bad…too good to be true! Ya! Ya! Ya!
Rouben Moumalian infamously lamented Cinemascope as “the worst shape ever devised”, but you would never guess it from his exquisite compositions herein, collaborating with cinematographer, Robert J. Bronner to fill every inch of the vast anamorphic frame with something always interesting to look at.  A few things worth considering when viewing this newly remastered Blu-ray: first, it is a brand new scan commissioned by the Warner Archive (WAC), the first to explore the original camera negative at 4K resolution. The results should be phenomenal – right? Well…let us say they are impressive; infinitely more satisfying than any previous DVD and/or digital broadcast. The real issue here is Cinemascope and Eastmancolor – both, utterly notorious for their shortcomings; early Cinemascope lenses producing residual image softness, Eastmancolor, causing yellow layer failure, resulting in premature color fading and enhanced image graininess.  Now, the technological wizards at WAC have given Silk Stockings a monumental restoration/preservation effort on Blu-ray – period. However, those expecting razor-sharp imagery with mind-boggling oodles of fine detail will be sorely disappointed. That said, Silk Stockings has never looked better on home video. It is highly unlikely, given its production history and circumstances, it can look any better than this Blu-ray.
The major plus here is color correction. While flesh tones lean slightly too prominently toward piggy pink, on the whole we are treated to some gorgeous hues throughout. Janis Paige’s green dress during ‘Stereophonic Sound’ as example, is a lush sparkling emerald; her flaming henna hair, really something to see. This transfer has some issues with black levels; Astaire’s tuxedo occasionally shimmering in tonal navy blue. It’s all about level of expectation, folks. Yes, we would have hoped for a ‘perfect’ transfer. But WAC has given us a transfer as ‘perfect’ as it can be under some formidable compromises and circumstances beyond everyone’s control. They have spent their time and money correctly to bring a very problematic OCN to hi-def with much better than anticipated results.  The original stereo mix has been given a new 5.1 DTS upgrade with very impressive results. Extras have been ported over from the DVD, also given a 1080p upgrade in image quality. We get the truncated ‘making of’ hosted by Cyd Charisse, Paree, Paree – a 20 min. 1934 Vitaphone short featuring songs by Cole Porter and 1955’s Poet and Peasant Overture, also in full 1080p, showcasing MGM’s Symphony Orchestra in Metrocolor, Cinemascope and stereo. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Silk Stockings is one of Fred Astaire’s quintessential classy classics. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf. This presentation is not perfect. But it is admirable and solid and for that we give thanks and the Warner Archive some top marks indeed.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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