Silk Stockings (1957)

In Soviet Russia, Stockings Wear You!

I’m rather disappointed with the latter era MGM musicals. High Society, Les Girls, Gigi; as one of the numbers in Gigi sums it up: “It’s a bore!” Silk Stockings is one of the better ones, not perfect but it shows this now increasingly outdated style of musical could still be glorious, despite their lack of economic viability from the rise of television. Whereas High Society came off to me as an unneeded remake of The Philadelphia Story, Silk Stockings manages to hold its own and not come off as a cheap remake Ninotchka, which was released prior to the cold war in 1939 (and not doing much good for American-Soviet relations). Silk Stockings was made right during the cold war and towards the end of the McCarthy years. It’s interesting seeing the story of love overcoming ideology retold from the cold war perspective in this critique of communism just like Ninotchka before it favours the gayety and decadence of the west to the rigid and gray world of the Soviet Union. While Silk Stockings may be moving denouncing communism it does paint a positive picture of Russian arts. The movie, however, is self-aware its propaganda, with the film being made within the film described as “The iron curtain dissolved by music” and Astaire gleefully proclaiming the film within a film as “what propaganda!”

The influence of the director Rouben Mamoulian is one of the aspects which helps elevate Silk Stockings. Mamoulian was one of the most innovative directors of the 1930’s, whose credits include the ground-breaking musicals Applause and Love Me Tonight. Although this was 1957 and his final film, he was an innovator of the genre and his handsome direction is apparent throughout the film. The musical numbers take full advantage of the Cinemascope frame, such as the number ‘We Can’t Go Back to Russia’ which features multiple people dancing at once in a long, unbroken shot. While Fred Astaire is dancing, Peter Lorre might be doing something amusing in the background. The dancing on display in the film is not Astaire’s most accomplished but is entertaining none the less. Mamoulian never worked with Ninotchka director Ernst Lubitsch, although Love Me Tonight did feature Lubitsch elements, as well as regular Lubitsch stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. Elements of the famous Lubitsch Touch are present throughout Silk Stockings; for example, when the Soviet commissar has just finished his first encounter with Ninotchka and is surprised to discover she is a woman, his secretary then bursts into the room to tell him this very fact, very much a Lubitsch inspired gag.

Cyd Charisse succeeds in holding her own, not merely doing an imitation of Greta Garbo; showing that she was an underrated actress as well as a great dancer. Plus it simply a pleasure seeing Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse reunited again after The Band Wagon. Astaire could have conceivably played Melvyn Douglas’ role back in 1939 (I often wish the man could have done more non-musical comedic roles) so his casting does work; plus I’ve always championed Astaire’s for his unsung comic abilities. The casting of Peter Lorre as one of the three operatives is a brilliant decision, while Janis Page is also very entertaining as the uncultured actress Peggy Dayton.

The film’s selection of songs written by Cole Porter are very good. ‘Stereophonic Sound’ is a satire on the habits of moviegoers more concerned with a film’s technical aspects over the content of the film itself, while Cyd Charrise’s solo dance number captures the decadence of capitalism in the form of dance. The ‘Ritz Roll n’ Rock’ reflects the changing musical landscape from jazz to rock n’roll and appropriately so as this marked Astaire’s retirement from musicals, in the final number of the film dressed in his trademark top hat, white tie, and tails; what a send-off! Although my favourite number in the film is Astaire and Charisse dancing on a film set in ‘All You Dance’, simply beautiful. The big flaw I have with Silk Stockings, however, is the length; at the two hours the movie is too long and some trimming could have gone a long way. With thirty minutes chopped out, Silk Stockings could go from a good movie to a great one.

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Funny Face (1957)

Astaire at His Bes…Worst

It disappoints me that for many people Funny Face will be their only encounter with Fred Astaire due to the fact that it is an Audrey Hepburn film. I first watched Funny Face for the Hepburn factor (unfamiliar at the time with Fred Astaire) and was left unimpressed with the film. Later on, I became infatuated with Astaire thanks to his partnership with Ginger Rogers and other films such as The Bandwagon. Due to this, I revisited Funny Face in the hope that I would appreciate it more; unfortunately, the opposite happened. Boy is this movie a waste of talent:

First and foremost, dancing, or should I say the lack of it. When I watch a Fred Astaire musical I expect to be memorised by his dancing moves. Yet every time a musical number began in Funny Face, Astaire does nothing. There are times when I expect him to bust a move but nothing happens. Eventfully when he does start dancing, the choreography is about as basic as it gets.

Secondly, comedy. I’ve always thought Fred Astaire is very undervalued as a comedic actor. In the films, he did with Ginger Rogers his timing and ability to come up with a witty comeback to everything is right up there with the likes of Groucho Marx. Typically in these films, he would be playing off high society snobs and in Funny Face, these same snobs exist, but Astaire is now one of them! Whenever a character in this film is being superficial or snobbish, Astaire just stands there and does nothing! In the past, he would have been all Groucho Marx on them.

Next, chemistry. Being a huge fan of both these stars, perhaps just seeing them together could help elevate the film above its flaws? Nope! Astaire and Hepburn have no chemistry at all. While Hepburn does fair better in this film than Astaire, having one musical number which I quite liked, The Basal Metabolism. But that’s enough lavishing praise on this movie.

Finally, the plot. Granted many musicals have silly plots, that’s part of their charm. But the plot in Funny Face goes beyond silly, it’s flat out insulting. Well ignoring the fact that in the reality of the film, Audrey Hepburn is considered unattractive, they take an intellectual girl who works at a bookstore and turns her into a superficial model. Also, why can’t Audrey just call the police and tell them that the bookstore she works at was trespassed, used for unauthorised photography and vandalised, oh never mind, the plot just sucks. Also, I’m so sick of Paris being used as a setting for romantic comedies. Choose a different city!

If this is the only Fred Astaire film you’ve seen, please I beg of you, watch the films he did with Ginger Rogers or The Bandwagon in order to see what he is really like.

12 Angry Men (1957)

…and Justice for All

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I don’t think I can bestow a higher statement of praise on a film than to call it a life changing experience. 12 Angry Men influenced me not to believe everything I hear, instead to question things and ultimately turning me into a more skeptical person; there is more to life than meets the eye (or ear). It’s one of few films which helped shape who I am as a person.  When watching it I constantly visualise the details in my head of the events and locations of the murder case described in the film. I enjoy never knowing what really happened; did the kid commit murder or not? It’s up for the viewer to decide.

12 Angry Men is a movie which is hard to write a review for; I wouldn’t be surprised if I come back to add more since I find myself watching 12 Angry Men at least once a year. With layer upon layer upon layer, this is a movie I could talk about hours, and always finding new aspects to discuss on each viewing. Ah the joy of an engrossing, wordy, civil debate. As the exposition reveals more details of the case I am left saying in the words of Milhouse Van Houten, “Tell me more!” 12 Angry Men is like Pringles, once you pop you just can’t stop, stop watching that is.

Every time I watch 12 Angry Men I find myself focusing in on a different character. I’d have to watch the 12 times in order to fully explore every character, all representative of personalities we’re likely to encounter in real life’; I’m sure I’ve encountered each one at some point in my life. This is a movie which needed a cast comprised of character actors (aside from Henry Fonda) in order to create such personalities. The characters are believable without being two dimensional stereotypes. Not all of them leave prejudice at the door; it’s more obvious with some than others. Not all of them really take much interest in the case or have much pride being part of a jury and even treating it as a bit of a joke at times; even the judge at the beginning doesn’t to be very enthusiastic about the case at hand. They also have different levels of levels of confidence and surety in their opinions.

12 Angry Men also provides an insight into avoiding group conflict. Like with a jury or a classroom full of people, this large variety of personalities are unlikely to converge elsewhere in a small space for a period of time in which they have to communicate with each other, such as what John Hughes would explore with his teen detention drama in 1985 with The Breakfast Club. You really get a sense of who likes who and who doesn’t as the heat beats down in that claustrophobic space. Director Sidney Lumet made the cast spend time with each other before filming and it certainly helped. I don’t feel like I’m watching actors, I feel like I’m watching a group of everyday people in a jury. As not all US states at the time opened their doors to having women present in juries; the film is not 12 Angry Men and Women. I imagine the feminine point of few would have influenced the examination of the proceedings; just think of Grace Kelly’s female instincts from Rear Window.

 

The cast:

Juror #1 (Martin Balsam):

The Jury Foreman. He doesn’t express any opinion or reasons for changing his vote, taking a neutral stance like a media presenter.

Juror #2 (John Fiedler):

Nerdy and socially awkward, reminds me of Rick Moranis. I find it interesting that he is placed sitting beside Lee J. Cobb’s juror #3 as the two are polar opposites. He finds it difficult to articulate an opinion at first but grows confidence and later stands up to the other jurors.

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb):

Lee J. Cobb is my favourite of the cast, in my view being the most interesting complex character with the biggest ark as the opinionated and brash Juror #3; ultimately stealing the show. He seems fair and rational at first until we gradually discover he wants to boy on trial found guilty for personal reasons. His breakdown at the end is a highlight in a film full of awe inspiring performances. His angry outburst to Fonda that he’ll kill him followed by Fonda’s response of “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”, is surely one of the greatest zingers in cinema history.

Juror #4 (E. G. Marshall):

A cold hearted individual which is reflected by his wearing of a jacket throughout the whole 90 minutes despite the heat. A bit of a ‘know it all’ which makes it all the more interesting when he is proven wrong. Also the movies and stars mentioned during his cross examination by Fonda are not real.

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman):

Comes from a slum background although his appearance doesn’t suggest this. He votes guilty on two occasions despite the boy on trail coming from his same background.

Juror #6 (Edward Binns):

The most normal juror, doesn’t stand out – a very regular John Doe. He doesn’t have anything to add when asked for his opinion, just repeating points which have already been made in an unsure manner.

Juror #7 (Jack Warden):

Clearly doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t care about the case and even bullies and tries to intimidate other jurors. He has no respect for the grounds with his gum chewing and litter throwing and although he never outright says he wants to leave and go to the ball game which he has tickets for, but it’s painfully obvious from the beginning.

Juror #8/ Davis (Henry Fonda):

The outsider of the jury. A man who is brave enough to stand up to the collective and going against popular opinion, even when the rest of them get frustrated with him. Fonda like in many of his movies is a beacon of truth and justice here, but he doesn’t come off as unbelievable saintly – even with his wearing of a white suit. The scene in which he puts his knife in the table is a gasping moment if there ever was one.

Juror #9/ McCardle (Joseph Sweeney):

The most elderly member of the jury. Juror #1 states he should be respected because of that, and I believe this is deserved because of his knowledge and his confidence in Juror #8.

Juror #10 (Ed Begley):

The most obviously bigoted member of the jury and thus ultimately doesn’t prove to be a huge help to the proceedings with his prejudiced rants or his hypocrisy in defending the woman’s statement despite her also being “one of them” too. At one point he even suggests telling a funny story he heard rather than discussing the case and eventually gets expelled from the table for his prejudiced views.

Juror #11 (George Voskovec):

An immigrant who takes more pride in the democratic system than any of the American members of the Jury and defending it such as when Juror #10 demands that Juror #5 reveals his voting choice. Likewise I love his statement to Juror #2 in response to what side he is on: “I don’t believe I have to be loyal to one side or the other, I’m simply asking questions”.

Juror #12 (Robert Webber):

I get the impression he represents 1950’s conformity with his appearance, looking like a character from  a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy with his very 50’s glasses and hair. He goes along with the crowd, even changing his vote more than once.

Is Jury Duty really this incredible in the real world? At the end of the film I wonder if the jurors are aware that they’ve just experienced probably the most incredible 90 minutes of their lives.