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DVD SAVANT

Silk Stockings


Silk Stockings
Warner Home Video
1957 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 117 min. / Street Date April 22, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Janis Paige, Peter Lorre, George Tobias, Jules Munshin, Joseph Buloff, Wim Sonneveld
Cinematography Robert Bronner
Art Direction Randall Duell, William A. Horning
Film Editor Harold F. Kress
Original Music Cole Porter
Written by Abe Burrows, Leonard Gershe, George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath, and Leonard Spigelgass
Produced by Arthur Freed
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Warner's DVD of Silk Stockings is an almost perfect rendering of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse's last MGM musical. Savant knows how popular this title is ... but can't work up much enthusiasm for the film itself (Heresy! Heresy!). I'll report my differences with the movie, explain why it looks better than ever on DVD, and move on.

Synopsis:

American movie producer Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire) lines up star Peggy Dayton (Janis Page) for his bowdlerization of War and Peace to be filmed in Paris. He also snags Russian composer Peter Boroff (Wim Sonneveld) to handle the score, which causes an uproar in Moscow. Bumbling emissaries Brankov, Bibinski and Ivanov (Peter Lorre, Jules Munshin and Joseph Buloff), sent to retrieve the composer, are quickly seduced by Canfield's tricks, but the Russkies follow them with a hard-nosed Commie troubleshooter, Nina Yoshenka (Cyd Charisse) who attempts to wrap things up quickly. The frigid comrade is a tough nut to crack, but Canfield has his charm and the romantic allure of Paris on his side.

Les Girls may have been representative of the MGM musical on the downslide, but Silk Stockings is the end of the line. The Broadway musical sidestepped the obvious intention to remake Lubitsch's classic Ninotchka by returning to the original play. When turned back into a musical movie, it comes off as just a lacklustre retread of the Garbo classic.

Les Girls attempted to be something different, but Silk Stockings is tired in all departments. The production is cheap, and when compared to other musical attempts at using CinemaScope, the picture is downright ugly. Whether directed by Rouben Mamoulian or the choreographer, these have to be the least exciting dance numbers I've seen in an MGM show, and that's even when Charisse and Astaire are on-screen performing their smooth moves.

The notion of Fred Astaire being 'too old' for this show is foolishness, for he was just as charming even ten years later, but poor Cyd Charisse was never cut out to carry a romantic lead without a lot of production distraction - when she's not dancing her legs off, she simply hasn't the needed presence or magnetism. There's no need to compare her with Garbo, as she never begins to perform the role. She's always beautiful to look at, but her every line reading falls painfully flat.  1

The reworking of the 1930s satire of Stalinist repression and purges also falters. The edgy comedy of Ninotchka was daring in 1939, making light of purges where presumably tens of thousands were being liquidated yearly. Lubitsch (and his writers, including Billy Wilder) was playing very progressive games with Black Comedy that later turned a weird corner in To Be or Not to Be. Silk Stockings flattens the satire into cheap Cold War sneering, using jokes two decades old. The 'cute' defecting ministers don't work at all, not even Peter Lorre.  2  Billy Wilder would take the same concept and push it over the edge four years later in One, Two Three, by satirically trashing the Russians and the West at the same time. In Silk Stockings, the jibes at consumerist American values - movies that turn classics into Kitsch, cheap celebrity hype, etc., never make a point.

The picture's only real reference seems to be the demise of the Hollywood studios. Like Les Girls' whining about Marlon Brando, Silk Stockings has one musical number that pretends that movies are going down the tubes because of widescreens and stereo sound. And Astaire barely survives a parody of Rock 'n Roll that unnecessarily becomes defensive, as if the New Music were a fad, and the great songwriting and melodies of Cole Porter would prevail.

The Cole Porter score has fewer zingers than usual. All of You is the standout, but is diminished by the dull direction. There has to be a reason why the irrepressibly adventurous Rouben Mamoulian did such undistinguished work here - budget & time constraints, who knows. But Silk Stockings looks more like it was filmed by Edward L. Cahn, than by the great innovator of the talkies.

Now, Savant has to get defensive as well, as Silk Stockings is one of MGM's better-selling musicals and a widely beloved movie. So if you haven't seen the picture, don't necessarily write it off because of my rantings. You might like it - millions do.


Warners' DVD of Silk Stockings will certainly charm fans of the picture, even those who already have it on tape or laserdisc. The Pan-Scan of this title was an abomination, and the laser was sickly-colored and grainy. The picture recovers a pleasing color palate with this sparkling transfer, and the music also sounds way better, remixed in 5.1.

Producer Peter Fitzgerald brings Cyd Charisse back to host his featurette on this Cole Porter Collection title, and she does well reciting facts about a show she made almost 50 years ago. Barrie Chase is pointed out in the chorus line - she became a major Astaire dance partner for a number of television specials. Also included are two short subjects, a 1934 Cole Porter musical featurette called Paree, Paree, and one of those ponderous MGM Orchestra monstrosities, The Poet and Peasant Overture. The disc is encoded with a French track in mono, and subs in English, French and Spanish. The snapper cover art is very attractive.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: featurette Cole Porter in Hollywood: Satin and Silk, two musical short subjects, trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: May 3, 2003


Footnotes:

1. It must be the Russian accent, or the role, because even though Charisse is also no acting ace in The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather, she comes off like a champ in those pictures.
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2. Reviewers always praise Peter Lorre, even though he's completely useless here. Perhaps, as their minds wander, his presence reminds them of other good movies. Lorre is better in Irwin Allen's star-wasting movies, even Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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