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 Silk Stockings is one of the better ones, not perfect but it shows this now increasingly outdated style of musical could still be glorious, despite their lack of economic viability from the rise of television.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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The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Old English Definition of Gay

I had a period in which I was infatuated with the greatness that is Fred Astaire & Ginger Rodgers. Prior to this I often heard of them but I was occupied with later film musical of the 50’s. When I checked them out for myself I got it, oh boy did I get it. When together dancing or not, Fred and Ginger are in a world of their own and everyone else ceases to exist. Just look as Night & Day (my favourite Astaire and Rodger’s number), what could be more spellbinding? The Gay Divorcee is my favourite Astaire & Rodgers picture. This was their first film together as leads and yet a feel it gets everything right and I consider it a much better film than Top Hat which itself I find overrated.

I find the humour of The Gay Divorcee is more creative than that of Top Hat. Take the sequence in which Astaire finds Rodger in London by near impossible luck, then the two engage in a car chase into the countryside (how often do you get a car chase in a 30’s musical), and then in a wacky races type moment he goes ahead or Rodgers and gets road closed sign out of nowhere in order to stop her. Astaire’s stalker attitude could come off as creepy but he is charming enough to get away with it, making these moments morbidly funny. This whole sequence is so surreal and plays like a live-action cartoon as if the filmmakers are making fun of the film’s own highly improbably mistaken identity plot. This is much more clever than the handling of the mistaken identity plot in Top Hat. I don’t mean to completely undo Top Hat, I think it’s a good movie, just whatever Top Hat did I can’t help but feel The Gay Divorcee did much better. I’ve always championed Astaire’s unsung abilities as a comedian. His timing and line delivery is easily on par with the likes of Cary Grant; I wish he could have appeared in some non-musical comedies. Ginger Rodgers usually had a female companion throughout the series and I think Alice Brady is the best of them all with her histrionics; the sound of her voice alone cracks me up.

The Gay Divorcee may have slipped through the recently instated production code. If not then it certainly feels like a pre-code film, with sexual tension throughout and an air of scandalousness to the whole thing.

Fred and Ginger, they were gods!

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.

Carefree (1938)

Freud & Ginger

On my first viewing of Carefree, I experienced something I never thought I would with Fred and Ginger, boredom. Initially I was expecting another spectacular musical showcase, however, the film is on a smaller scale (their shortest at only 80 minutes) than their previous outings and only contains a mere four musical numbers; making it more of a comedy with some singing and dancing than a full-fledged musical. With several movies behind them following a similar formula, if they were going to make another then they had to do something different or things would have become stale. I wished though that Fred Astaire could have done straight comedies during his career; Carefree is the closest thing to that.

None of the musical numbers in Carefree stand out as being among the best in the series. Fred Astaire’s number in which he plays golf while tap dancing sounds better on paper than it does in execution. I’m sure what he’s doing is no easy task yet it doesn’t look all that impressive to watch. The Yam, on the other hand, is a pretty standard number, but heck, it’s still Fred and Ginger dancing. I find the film’s most interest musical number is ‘I Used to be Color Blind’, the most experimental in the film, shot in slow motion and allowing the viewer to see Fred and Ginger’s grace in every detail.

For the only time in the series, Astaire plays a character who is not a dancer by profession, but rather a psychiatrist (although they do make sure to mention he once had aspirations of becoming a dancer). I don’t completely buy Astaire as a psychiatrist, but realism is not what these movies are about. Plus I’m sure the psychology on display here is of the “you are getting sleepy” variety as seen in movies. He doesn’t break his professional ethics though by pursuing his patient like his stalkerish attitude towards Ginger in other films in the series, instead, she wants him.

Carefree belongs to Ginger, playing a character whom has been put under hypnosis, giving her the opportunity to completely goof around in a childlike manner with big wide eyes, and it’s pretty funny stuff. How many movies do you get to see Ginger Rogers wielding a shotgun? Everyone needs at least one movie where they get to act stupid. The comedic assets of Ralph Bellamy and Jack Carson are big benefits to the film’s witty dialogue, where much of the film’s strength lies. Even if the dance numbers don’t fully exceed, as a screwball comedy, Carefree grows on me, of course, I am a sucker for these movies and the Astaire/Rodgers name, so good enough for me!

The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire 1953!

The Band Wagon is the film Fred Astaire’s career was culminating to: his best film in my view. Like Ninotchka with Greta Garbo or A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, this was the role he was born to play; one catered to his on-screen persona. Fred Astaire is Tony Hunter! An ageing hoofer who no longer is the star he once was. The Band Wagon contains little references to Astaire’s past: from Bill Bojangles Robinson to the opening credits feature an image of a top hat and cane, to the mentioning of a fictional movie “Swinging Down to Panama” perhaps a reference to Swing Time and Flying Down to Rio (although I do wish there could have been a little reference to Ginger Rogers herself in there).

The Band Wagon provides Astaire with some of the best musical numbers of his career. However, the film also allows him to showcase other avenues of his talent, such as his outburst scene over his dissatisfaction over rehearsals – a fine example of the acting prowess he possessed. While Ginger Rogers is obviously Astaire’s greatest partner Cyd Charisse is his most accomplished; could there be a more graceful figure?

Was I gullible that when I first watched The Band Wagon that the movie manipulated me into thinking the pretentious and egotistical stage director Jeffrey Cordova’s (Jack Buchanan) idea of a musical inspired by the Faust legend was a good idea? This isn’t the same old backstage musical plot; The Band Wagon is a thinking person’s musical. Likewise, Charisse’s Gabrielle Gerard has a mature subplot of her own involving her trying to deal with her dominating boyfriend and her feeling towards Tony; giving the film that extra mature edge.

Not only is there a great story, but there is also great comedy with a cast gels so well together. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray as a bickering couple and their hysterical fanboy reactions to meeting Tony Hunter, to Jack Buchanan’s over the top histrionics and his terrible ideas for a stage musical. My favourite moment in comedy in The Bandwagon is the scene in which Jeffrey Cordova manipulates Gabrielle’s boyfriend from being dead set against allowing her to be cast in his stage production to then begging him to allow her to be in the show. It’s like a Bugs Bunny-Yosemite Sam type moment but on a much more subtle level and made even more impressive by occurring in an uncut shot. Likewise, the sets in The Band Wagon have an astounding level of detail that scenes near the beginning of the film taking place on the street had me wondering where they sets or real-world locations.

Up until The Band Wagon, it was uncommon for a film musical to have a soundtrack entirely composed for it rather than having songs and compositions taken from other sources; which makes it all the more impressive that the entire soundtrack to The Bandwagon is superb. If I was to choose my three favourite musical numbers of all time, in terms of epic scope they would be The Broadway Melody Ballet from Singin’ In the Rain, The Lullaby of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935 and The Girl Hunt Ballet from The Band Wagon in all its 13-minute glory. Here noir meets musical, with Astaire at his most badass. His line delivery could be in an actual crime film itself, plus it inspired the music video for Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. There’s also the Shine on Your Shoes number, one which I could watch again and again just to look at all those gizmos in the background and the genuine reactions on people’s faces at seeing Fred Astaire dance; while That’s Entertainment has become a semi-official anthem for Hollywood. Oh and there’s the Triplets number; one of the weirdest musical numbers ever filmed and they’re actually dancing on their knees!

The early to mid-1950’s where a phenomenal period for the musical genre. Hollywood produced some of its finest musicals in these years before television brought this era of film musicals to an end. Films like The Band Wagon elevated the genre to new heights. A Fred Astaire musical which has everything and more!