In full disclosure, though I admire Ernst Lubitsch’s directorial eye and Billy Wilder’s trenchant wit, the Ninotchka (1939) premise alone never intrigued me. But as with all the great pictures, it’s not necessarily the main conceit but the execution of the story with its own unique digressions which matters most.
That’s why having screen goddess Greta Garbo paired with the two men mentioned above is of note. They ultimately created something delightful together. And as we draw the line all the way to Silk Stockings almost two decades later, the names attached are equally important.
We can probably start with Fred Astaire who was in a period in his career that constantly seemed to fluctuate between retirement and flurries of inspired activity. In this particular case, he would follow Silk Stockings out into the theaters with a second success in Funny Face (1957) pairing him with Audrey Hepburn for the first and only time.
Though he had his initial misgivings about the material and his director, Rouben Marmoulian proved to have quite the success with Silk Stockings, which would subsequently be his last effort in a generally underrated career. He took the successful stage play and transferred it to the screen, this collaboration even featured several more tunes from Cole Porter’s repertoire while writers such as Leonard Gershe (who had already penned Funny Face) and industry veteran Harry Kurnitz worked on the script.
Then, Cyd Charisse had the seemingly insurmountable task of inheriting the role owned by a larger-than-life star if there ever was one — Garbo herself. And yet maybe it’s a reflection of my own predilections in performers but I rather like Charisse in the part not because of the acting per se but for the moments where she’s able to shed the role and become the sentient ever dynamic being she is as a dancer.
The ball starts rolling when an American film producer, Steve Canfield (Astaire) tries to coax a brilliant Russian composer named Boroff (Wim Sonneveld) to compose the score for his next film. Simultaneously three of his countrymen have been enlisted as emissaries on Parisian soil to bring him back home before he gets polluted by capitalist dogma any further. The oafish louts are eclectic talents as diverse as Peter Lorre, Jules Munshin, and Joseph Buloff.
Of course, if you know anything of Ninochtka (1939) or retrospectively, Wilder’s similar One, Two, Three (1961) you’ll know that they too get seduced by the decadence of capitalism to humorous ends. It seems there is only one person who will not fail in her mission, that is Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse), an austere devotee of the party whose only interest is observing French trivialities on a purely academic basis while making sure her comrades remain diligent in their duties. She’s a tough case to crack. It’s bound to take time and yet at some point, Canfield gets to her with a little help from “The City of Lights.”
Janis Paige enters and wows the reporters and everyone else with a tornado of flirtatious vivacity captured in the number “Glorious Technicolor Stereophonic Sound.” Like It’s Always Fair Weather (1954) before it, the musical number manages a few jabs at the direction the industry was heading with the advent and subsequent cultural boom of television. And yet in his shrewdness, Astaire lobbied for the picture to be shot a very specific way and sure enough, it got made in Cinemascope and Eastmancolor with Stereophonic Sound.
After shedding her dour exterior, Cyd Charisse gets arguably her finest starring spot in any film, playing opposite Astaire again following The Band Wagon (1953) and despite the constraints of her character, she fairly rapidly transforms into the free-flowing, immaculately graceful spirit we know her to be.
Fittingly, Charisse earns the film’s most emblematic scene where she exquisitely dons her first pair of silk stockings along with an entire wardrobe as she goes through her ideological transformation which subsequently transforms her very movements with carefree ease. She brings it to life moment by moment so effortlessly. In “Fated to Be Mates,” Astaire and Charisse are featured together at their most lively as the leading man leads his partner in twirling carries and their dance devolves into a show verging on parkour and gymnastics.
Along with the amorous “All of You” to instigate his relationship with his repeatedly aloof leading lady, Astaire gets another contemporary showcase that simultaneously alludes to his rich legacy in the industry. “Ritz Roll and Rock” perfectly encapsulates this performer-extraordinaire who came out of a certain era and yet never seems outmoded even in the latest music craze.
He went out on top and continued to perform at that same level to the very end. Not every leading man can say that. Of course, the exclamation point at the end is the smashing of his top hat for all posterity. As we’ve all probably noted over the years, it’s a bit of a moniker for him and fittingly when he’s gone, it’s retired too. No one else deserves to wear the crown of the king.
NOTE: My entry in The FRED & GINGER BLOGATHON !