A musical remake of Ninotchka: After three bumbling Soviet agents fail in their mission to retrieve a straying Soviet composer from Paris, the beautiful, ultra-serious Ninotchka is sent to ... See full summary »
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William A. Seiter
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A musical remake of Ninotchka: After three bumbling Soviet agents fail in their mission to retrieve a straying Soviet composer from Paris, the beautiful, ultra-serious Ninotchka is sent to complete their mission and to retrieve them. She starts out condemning the decadent West, but gradually falls under its spell, with the help of Steve Canfield, an American movie producer. Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
When the first commissar of art gets sacked, there's a yellow lamp hanging over his desk (he actually walks behind it) and then when Markovitch answers his phone, the lamp magically disappears and is replaced by Vera. See more »
Very few of the classic 1950s musicals were original stories. Most of them were musical adaptations of novels, stage plays or, increasingly, the previous generations' non-musical pictures. The quality of these often had little bearing on that of the original. The musical A Star is Born is for example considerably better than the original. But they could also be vastly worse than their predecessors after the rigours of plot rehash, singer-dancer casting and the conventions of a new era.
The 1939 movie Ninotchka could only really have worked with Greta Garbo it was built around her persona. Silk Stockings does not and could not have Garbo. Cyd Charisse is not a terrible actress, and even does a decent caricature of a steely soviet officer, speaking without moving a single other muscle in her face. Garbo on the other hand managed to get across the same idea without even such a trick as freezing up her face. She had something likable and beguiling about her even before her grim exterior was broken down. Charisse on the other hand succeeds only in presenting Ninotchka as totally robotic. That may be to her credit but it does not benefit the movie. Her transformation does not seem as plausible as Garbo's, and she is not especially human even after it.
And this really seems to feed into all the other problems with Silk Stockings. With the Cold War and the McCarthy scare as a backdrop, there was no way the movie could be remotely equivocal about communism. As such the original story has lost a lot of its complexity, and a tone that was once playful now seems belligerent. Many of the lines seem unnecessarily dumbed-down (compare for example the language used by Garbo commenting on a fancy hat to the equivalent of Charisse and the stockings). There is a new subplot about a Russian composer having his music distorted for a screen musical, and there are a lot of attacks on ostentatious movie-making. But this is as simplistic as the politics, never going further than disdainfully listing the ills of modern Hollywood, as in the song "Stereophonic Sound".
Presumably the studio didn't grasp the irony of these sentiments in a picture that was itself shot in Technicolor and cinemascope. Director Rouben Mamoulian probably did, apparently describing the new aspect ratio as "the stupidest shape I've ever seen". For a director usually at his most brilliant and inventive in the musical genre, his work is decidedly lacklustre here. The irony cannot have been lost on poor old Fred Astaire either, who is not at all well-served by 'scope. Either his feet are cut off at the bottom of the frame, or he seems lost amid all the other business on screen. It's a shame this was to be his last top-hat-and-tails performance. It's not exactly a noble send-off.
There is one nice feature of Silk Stockings, and that is a sweet little performance by Peter Lorre. He's at his best here, all pent-up as if on the edge of a maniacal outburst. But the fact that this is the only laudable thing to say about the picture shows how generally dire the rest of it is. The Cole Porter songs are far from his best; weak rehashes of material from his earlier musicals. The second great irony about Silk Stockings is that, despite its waxing lyrical about the magic of true romance as opposed to bland analysis, the romance in the picture feels completely flat. It lacks all of the original movie's warmth and passion, not just in the love story but also in, say, the friendship between Ninotchka and the trio of Russian comrades. All in all, this is an atrocious movie.
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