Silk Stockings (1957)

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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.

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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.

3.5/5 Stars

NOTE: My entry in The FRED & GINGER BLOGATHON !

 

Something’s Got to Give (1962)

e3ac1-somethings-got-to-giveWell, this is a first for me, if my memory serves me right. I have yet to do a write up for a film without having a rating to go with it. Something’s Got to Give eventually and now it has.

I honestly was surprised that this “film” even existed. I knew about Marilyn Monroe’s last film project which ultimately was unfinished thanks to her tragic death. I assumed the project was ditched and never thought about again. I certainly did not give it a second thought then. Then, quite by accident I came upon it in all its 37 minutes of glory. Apparently others had given it a second glance and we have them to thank for this unfinished addition to Montroe’s filmography.

It looks like production quality with a few missing parts and quite the cliffhanger ending. We do not even quite know the extent of the cliff yet.
However, it was an interesting look at Marilyn Monroe in her final days. You also had a fun cast of handpicked players including Dean Martin, Cyd Charisse, Phil Silvers and Wally Cox. Not to mention one of Hollywood’s prominent directors in George Cukor. It seems likes all the makings for a light ’60s romantic comedy.

This certainly was not going to be a masterpiece (It was actually a remake of My Favorite Wife (1940) and was given a face lift for Move Over Darling). That’s okay. It is a interesting piece of history in its own way.

Rating: N/A

The Band Wagon (1953)

4c8bf-the_band_wagon_posterGoing into this film I must admit that despite hearing good things, I had zero expectations. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by this Minnelli musical because it was a deft and often beautiful production. Channeling the same vein as Singin’ in the Rain and The Red Shoes, this film is a spectacle in its own right. You have headliners Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse matched nicely. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray act as wonderful comic relief as the wedded playwrights, who also do some song and dance. Finally, there is Jack Buchanan, as the stereotypical theater maestro Jeffrey Cordova.

It all begins with Tony Hunter (Astaire) a washed up has-been who is headed to New York for some relaxation. There is little fanfare during his arrival except coming from his friends the Martons, who have a new production for him to star in. They get the famed Cordova on board and next comes an up and coming choreographer and his girlfriend, who is none other than the young starlet Gabrielle Gerard (Charisse)

Following an initial misunderstanding, the leads finally clear up their differences and push forward to make The Band Wagon the smash hit it is destined to be. However, Cordova has turned it into a modern-day Faust and when opening night comes the after party is more like a wake.

All the players seem strangely nonchalant and then the idea hits! Make The Band Wagon over again and take it on the road. Everyone in the cast from the bottom up is excited for the second chance with Hunter at the helm. All that is except choreographer Paul Byrd.

Despite Paul’s departure, Gaby is still enthusiastic and they turn the Band Wagon into the production that the Martons had envisioned from the beginning. Tony is a success once again, and he receives a round of rousing cheers from his new family. Gaby speaks for all of them (and herself) when she says they love him and believe that the show will go forever.

I immensely enjoyed many of the numbers including: “Shine Your Shoes,” with the camera following Astaire as he frolics around at an arcade with a shoeshine man. The extras, the exquisite set, and Astaire himself all culminate in an often comical and always upbeat number that is great fun to watch. Then, of course, there is the ever memorable “That’s Entertainment,” which even spawned a series of musical documentaries, and for good reason. The words and melody are quite a catchy ode to the stage. Perhaps the most beautiful sequence in the film involves Astaire and Charisse in “Dancing in the Dark” where they positively glide through Central Park together in perfect cadence. They move not as individuals but as a poetic unit in motion. It is fitting that it was their first dance together in the film.

For never seeing Cyd Charisse in another film (except briefly in Singin’ in the Rain), I must say that I really did enjoy her performance opposite the always likable Fred Astaire. Furthermore, I am in complete agreement with her character, “I don’t think a dancer should smoke,” it’s bad for the lungs.

The cameo of Ava Garner was an odd surprise (especially due to her resemblance to Charisse). Furthermore, I never thought it could exist, but this film proved me wrong. There is such a thing as a film-noir musical! That’s The Band Wagon for you folks! That’s Entertainment!

4.5/5 Stars

 

Review: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

f7d3a-singin_rain I always seem to get goosebumps during Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number, because each time I see and hear it, there is still a new magic to it every time. You see when I was young, before I knew all the classics, first and foremost, I knew this gem of a film. It is such a wonderful buildup to that moment with such personal favorites as “Make em’ Laugh” and “Moses Supposes.” Then you have the always popular “Good Morning” with not only Kelly but Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds performing. Great stuff! There’s tireless choreography that goes into many of those sequences but it comes off so effortlessly and it brings us into the moment. There those wonderful, brief instances when you lose yourself in the music, the magic, and so on.

As the story goes, the three friends save the failing “Dueling Cavalier” by losing the simple “talkie” gimmick and making it a musical by dubbing the squeaky-voiced Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen). Cathy (Reynolds) no longer is a bit player, and she gains the acknowledgment that she deserves. Then Don Lockwood (Kelly) gets the girl who burst out of a cake. Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) is along for the ride staying with Don through thick and through thin, even calling him a cab when necessary. He’s a true friend in a million.

Although Kelly had a career with other high points (arguably never as high as this one), I am always slightly saddened that O’Connor and Reynolds never reached another apex like this in their subsequent careers. But they were both so great here, we must simply cherish this film for what it is.

Even to this day, the film holds up, and that is a tribute to the writing of Betty Comden and Adolph Green highlighting the infant Hollywood and the advent of talkies. In the same breath, it’s both a satire of the movie star culture and still a love letter to that same cottage industry. The only film with a similar dissection of Hollywood’s Golden Age is another 50s classic in Sunset Boulevard. The big difference is that Wilder’s film is chock full of drama and darkness. Singin’ in the Rain will always and forever be a light, fun musical with a lot of laughs.  It is constantly quotable whether it is “dignity, always dignity” or “I CAN’T stand it!”

Jean Hagen is always the butt of everyone’s jokes, but she is indeed very funny with the most annoying voice in the history of cinema (She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. Triple threat). You also have other fine performers like Millard Mitchell as studio head R.F., and then appearances by Cyd Charisse and Rita Moreno who made a name for themselves as dancers in the ensuing years. And is it just me or does Donald O’Connor remind others of Danny Kaye? He not only cracks the jokes, but he is a wonderful all-around performer. Although O’Connor was undoubtedly a better dancer.

All in all, this is a timeless classic and it will undoubtedly keep that title for as long as people watch movies. Now I hope it starts pouring buckets of rain so I can go outside and stomp around in the puddles. I will let you know if I come down with pneumonia. But until that happens I’ll enjoy every minute of it. I entreat you to do the same.

5/5 Stars