Thursday, May 19, 2011

Silk Stockings (1957)

As a follow up to the pairing of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Bandwagon (1953), Silk Stockings is a monumental disappointment. The musicals of the early 50's had reached a pinnacle of innovation and slick professionalism that was never to be seen again. What followed was not so much a decline as a wall forever imprisoning the magical world of fantasy and dance in the past, in a time where television had not yet bled the cinema of much of its mystique. True, there were moments of greatness to follow--Gigi (1958), Oklahoma! (1955), and The Sound of Music (1965)--but there was also the tragically flawed Brigadoon (1954), which even the exquisite ballet of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse can't save from its own mediocrity. Like Brigadoon, Silk Stockings promises its audience an escape from the humdrum into a world of exotic romance, and utterly fails to deliver the goods.

Even in the most unremarkable of films, however, there often lurk hidden treasures, a quick glimpse of the extraordinary talent of its under-challenged cast or crew. In the case of Silk Stockings, there's a gold mine buried in the center, a decadent five-minute strip tease that makes the whole two hour plus fiasco worth sitting through. Sure, 58-year old Fred Astaire throws himself at the young Russian beauty like a lecherous old man, and then ages himself another ten years with a rock-inspired tap/breakdance to "The Ritz Roll and Rock." Sure, the film's secondary female lead, Janis Paige, is never for a moment convincing in the part of Hollywood's aquatic leading lady, although she does manage a convincing impression of many of Esther Williams' facial expressions (incidentally, not a particularly complimentary achievement). But then, there's also that thing Cyd Charisse does with her stockings.

Charisse plays Nina "Ninotchka" Yoschenko, a tightly buttoned up Soviet officer sent to Paris to--well, never mind why. After resisting the unbelievably forward advances of American movie producer Steve Canfield (Astaire), she happens to touch his tie, and asks him what it's made of. He tells her it's made of silk, naturally. "Silk should be used for parachutes," she retorts in prompt Soviet assurance. Her hand lingers a moment too long, though, and you suddenly know that all of Steve's attempts to lure her with the wasteful charms of Parisian decadence are finally paying off.

Soon, we find her alone in her hotel suite. She closes the curtains. She answers a phone call, and postpones a meeting she'd been trying to schedule since her arrival. She turns down a picture of Lenin on the table. She crouches on the floor, and slides her hand gingerly under the chair cushion, retrieving a pair of silk stockings. She pulls them out with exaggerated slowness, wallowing in the sensual pleasures she has denied herself for too long. She lets the fabric run over her hands; she holds them and looks at the world through their softness.

What follows may very well be the sexiest ballet sequence in any Hays-governed film. The only real competition I can think of also features Charisse, in a specialty number in Deep in my Heart, another generally uninteresting film that rewards viewers who go the distance in spite of its flaws. Both sequences are the work of choreographer Eugene Loring, who must have given the Hays office staff an ulcer or two in his time. While we never see more of Ninotchka's body than any modest one piece bathing suit would reveal, the movements and actions that accompany her dance are so intensely erotic as to make us forget how little skin she actually shows, as she slips out of her horribly unbecoming gray dress and into every sumptuous item of lingerie a woman (or a man) could dream of, darting behind curtains and chairs. She glides about the apartment in a sensuous adagio, claiming her shameful purchases from all sorts of unlikely hiding places. Her earrings are inside a typewriter, a bracelet is behind her briefcase, a hat inside a ceramic urn, a lacy petticoat in the bookcase, and a corset on top of the wardrobe.

The scene is lovingly photographed in a series of long, slow tracking shots, which follow Ninotchka's movements through the apartment and in and out of closets, sinking to the floor with her as she crouches to retrieve her shoes from a lower drawer. The set design only heightens the appeal of the scene. The apartment is cast in shades of periwinkle, lavender, and white, with no two items quite the same hue. The variegated tones of the same basic colors give a richness and depth to the tightly-controlled color pallet, making the room itself as luxuriant as the stockings that sparked this indulgent display. The textures themselves show an equal richness, in the brocade upholstery, the sheer curtains, plush carpet, polished wood floor, and gilt-embellished painted wood furniture. An array of mirrors reveals the room from every angle, and give even more half-missed glimpses of Ninotchka inside a closet.

This is quite clearly not a sexual display or public exhibition, but a private, intimate moment of sensual rapture. Nothing else in the film has anything like this level of appeal, and I don't mean simply that Ninotchka is otherwise fully dressed. The remainder of the film requires of Charisse that she act, perform songs (her voice was dubbed), and dance--a little--but only this one segment shows an awareness of the power of dance to communicate a character's deepest and most personal emotions, feelings which the character may consciously choose to keep hidden, but the body always reveals.


  1. Whoa! Dig it... I think you nailed the crux of why these later musicals were so anemic. There's a kind of fatalism about them, and don't forget, since they were using cinemascope to try and lure the crowds back from TV - they presumed the screen would be huge so they relied a lot on panoramic medium shots to immerse the viewer, since fast cuts and close-ups could nauseate the front row viewers by sheer size. As a result these films look like they're playing in your neighbor's window. Anyway, good work.

    Fred Astaire creeps me out. I love Cyd, though. PARTY GIRL!!!

  2. Beautifully, and accurately written tribute. I've loved what I've always affectionately called Charisse's 'slip' dance for a number of years, seemingly without never knowing why until now. It's like Ninotchka finally finds her voice as she slips in- and out- of all the pieces of underwear in her room. Especially fine is the moment she twirls into that see-thru petticoat and begins doing full-out pirouettes and attitudes revealing her 20 years of ballet training. A rapturous sequence done by a rapturous babe.

  3. Yeah, totally. There's so little to like about the movie as a whole--especially when comparing it with Lubitsch's Ninotchka--but that dance is just breathtaking.