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13 January 2019

Silk Stockings

USA: 1957

Director: Rouben Marmoulian                               114 Minutes

 Cert. U                    

This shifty producer has tricked a famous Soviet composer into providing the score for his latest project. Consequently, Soviet authorities assign three commissars to repatriate the composer; when they succumb to the pleasures of Paris and delay their mission, the stern and beautiful Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse) is dispatched to bring them all back — unless, of course, Paris works its magic on her, too.

Best remembered for his early sound films, including the musicals Applause and Love Me Tonight, the director Rouben Mamoulian (1898-1987) had a notable theatrical career, staging the original Broadway productions of Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma! and Carousel, among others. His most canny strategy in directing the movie, which would be his swan song, was to treat Silk Stockings as a dance musical. He uses the wide screen and a generally static camera to frame Mr. Astaire’s agile footwork and Ms. Charisse’s majestic leg extensions.                                               

Musically, the movie is front-loaded. Paris Loves Lovers is charming, and Stereophonic Sound which Mr. Astaire performs with Janis Paige, the original lead in the Broadway production of The Pajama Game, is effectively brassy. Mr. Astaire serenades Ms. Charisse with All of You (explaining that his feelings are “not a passing fancy or a fancy pass”).

Silk Stockings has been criticized for its reactionary politics, sexual and otherwise. But if Western consumption triumphs over Soviet ideals, and Ninotchka becomes “a real woman,” capitalist victory is not cost-free. Ninotchka’s personhood is diminished, even as the composer’s work is vulgarized. (Perhaps Mr. Astaire’s is as well: is his final number, The Ritz Roll and Rock, a misguided attempt to be “with it.”? He announced his retirement after the movie was finished.) Upbeat as it is, Silk Stockings has an underlying melancholy. The fondness with which it sends up Russian culture is striking, perhaps more today than in 1957.


J.Hoberman  The New York Times


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