Although you’d never guess it to look at it, Rouben Mamoulian’s Silk Stockings (1957) is very much a twilight work. It would be Mamoulian’s last film, and Astaire’s last starring musical. It was made in the waning days of the Arthur Freed-produced MGM musicals. And it was one of the final films developed from a Cole Porter property. All that is mere backstory to the experience of the film, which is a musical version of the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch movie Ninotchka. Since by 1955 (when the Broadway version appeared), the idea of white Russian refugees trying to reclaim some jewels being sold by the Soviet government was impractical, the contested item was turned into a possibly defecting composer, Peter Illyich Boroff (played in the film by Wim Sonneveld), known for such classics as “Ode to a Tractor.” Otherwise, it’s essentially the same story, but with a sharper satirical edge — not only communism, but American pop culture and Hollywood are its targets. The Hollywood aspect transforms Astaire into a movie producer who is wooing Boroff to do the music for his film of War and Peace. Well, it’s sort of War and Peace, since it’s being reconfigured as a vehicle (non-swimming) for “America’s Swimming Sweetheart” Peggy Dayton (played by Janis Paige as terminally dumb with apparent water on the brain and a weakness for alcohol). The real appeal lies in the musical numbers — which are mostly top-notch — and the pairing of Astaire and his best non-Ginger partner, Cyd Charisse. A pure delight.
Although the film lacks the kind of innovations found in Mamoulian’s richest period—1929-1932—it’s clear that he hadn’t lost his penchant for a fluid style of filmmaking (the opening alone attests to this) and an eye for staging musical scenes so that the film itself became a kind of music. (And this, despite the fact that he hated making Silk Stockings in Cinemascope, which he called, “The worst shape ever devised.” Like many directors trained in the pre-widescreen era, the extra width was more an annoyance than anything. John Ford may have been the only filmmaker who really adapated to the shape.) The one thing the film did afford him the opportunity to expand his experiments with the use of color. There may be nothing quite as flashy as his use of color in Becky Sharp (1935) or Blood and Sand (1941), but the color coordination in Silk Stockings is one of the reasons that it stands out as unique in the realm of 1950s MGM musicals.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Silk Stockings Tuesday, March 19 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.