Saturday, February 2, 2008

SILK STOCKINGS: ASTAIRE AND CHARISSE AND THE LAST GASPS OF LEO

silkposter

Once Arthur Freed's musical unit closed up shop at MGM, the studio itself went more or less in the tank. Indeed the finish of the Freed era in the late 1950's more or less conincided with the "end of history" for MGM--not that the studio went out of business (though given the movies they made in the sixties one might have wished it had). No, it was more that the kind of filmmaking we think of when we hear those three letters uttered in that particular order became a thing of history, dead as the dinosaurs. "MGM" meant a gold standard of craft, a plush wedding of material and performers. MGM movies--musical or not--were luxury items, weighty and both there to please you as well as being pleased with themselves.


The last musicals made at MGM are a strange lot. "Gigi" was a big hit and won Oscars, though I find it impossible to watch and I don't think I'm alone; the film appears to have no reputation whatsoever today (the icky plot is a big reason but the film itself is just too dull to be believed). When "Les Girls" misfired it was curtains Gene Kelly--unbelievable that Kelly was rendered obsolete a mere five years after "Singing In The Rain". But as the lion gasped it's last roars (or roared it's last gasps I suppose) there emerged "Silk Stockings", starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Based on a Broadway musical hit of the early fifties which in turn was based on the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch/Greta Garbo non-musical classic "Ninotchka", "Silk Stockings" was directed by the masterful and famously edgy Rouben Mamoulian, who quit more films than he directed. (This turned out to be his last credit, though he lived another thirty years and walked off several more movies including "Porgy And Bess" and "Cleopatra"). Alas, "Silk Stockings" did nothing to revive MGM's interest in keeping the Freed Unit alive--the movie was greeted with condescending and hostile notices and is barely acknowleged in most histories of musical movies. Its reputation at the time seems over the years not to have improved, making it critically beyond rehabilitation (the dated USSR Commies Vs. Good-hearted Capitalist plot doesn't help).


Which is a shame. Because "Silk Stockings" is, I think, a perfect musical, filled with humor, excellent dance numbers (choreographed by Astaire favorite Hermes Pan but shot by the control-freak Mamoulian who did not suffer second-units lightly), a funny and tender mix of late Cole Porter songs and some real electricity between the 56 year old Astaire and the 36 year old Charisse. Most of the negative criticism at the time of the films release usually centered on the fact that Charisse is no Garbo. But who cares with gams like that? Charisse was simply the best dancer MGM had after the reign of Eleanor Powell (see 1/18 and 1/19 posts) but she was, in her own way, a more daunting figure than Powell. Ballet trained Charisse was an all-around virtuoso who impressed both Astaire and Kelly more than any of their other partners--Astaire says in his autobiography that when one "danced with Cyd you stayed danced with". Charisse, by the way, is alive and well and still married to singer Tony Martin who is--get this--ninety-six years old and recently performed a one man show in New York at Feinstein's At The Regency.


Below is "Red Blues", a thrillingly staged number that builds wonderfully well and needs to be seen in its entirety to be truly appreciated (the number neatly divides into two sections and the first half is chopped off in the MGM compilation "That's Dancing"). The first comedic section is amusing and adroitly accomplished--the premise is that they're all in the Soviet Union and not allowed to be singing this "crazy chazz moozik." (Also check out Jules Munshins ill-advised "splits" and how he's carried off). But when Charisse authoritatively taps the piano three times at the halfway point, the number shifts into high gear and seriously kicks. Mamoulian makes fine use of the set, using all four walls and turning around several times (i.e. making complete camera reversals) to keep the staging energized rather than lining things up "flat" (which is what Charles Walters or George Sidney probably would have done). After that I've posted the marvelously sensuous "All Of You" number, featuring Astaire and Charisse and one of the best late Cole Porter ballads. "Silk Stockings" certainly deserves to be seen in its entirety--Mamoulian's touch is deft throughout and Janis Paige is superb comic relief as well. Perhaps this will wet the appetite of some reader who stumbles across this entry to search it out on DVD. If it's on DVD...






2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I understand where you are comning from, but can I take exception to your comments that it was 'curtains, Gene Kelly' and that he was 'rendered obsolete' when the Freed unit no longer functioned? He had more than 10 wonderfully productive years with the unit at MGM during which time he revolutionised the movie musical, but nothing lasts forever. Gene knew the score, and continued to work right until the end of his life, adapting to straight roles, directing, producing, stage and TV work when the Golden Age of the musicals ended. It wasn't easy but he always put his heart and soul into every project, even if it was unworthy of his talents.
It has never been 'curtains' for Gene, although he died on February 2nd 1996. So long as there is a need for love, joy and dreams in this sad world, his particular brand of magic will never be obsolete. I would say he has as many dedicated fans now as he did back then when Leo was king of the jungle. Just take a look at my website if you don't believe me! It is crammed with quotes about him from every age and generation, from both famous and 'ordinary' people. www.freewebs.com/geneius Auntsuzy

Raymond De Felitta said...

Hm. I take it your a Kelly fan. So am I--I consider him one of Hollywood's few true auteurs--a man capable of spearheading an entire movie, starring in, conceiving, choreographing, directing/co-directing and putting his imprimateur on every frame. Fortunately he was given the ability to work on this level by Freed (and Mayer) at MGM--an unusual amount of control for a star but then Kelly was an unusual figure (see my "Cover GIrl" posts from a couple of months ago). Alas, after the dissolution of the Freed Unit Kelly was never again given this latitude to create on the level he had shown he was up to. While it's indisputable that he continued working as a straight actor and "for hire" director (and he was never publicly anything but accepting and philsophical about the end of the musical era) it still strikes me as unfortunate; much like Orson Welles, Kelly had more to give us but was robbed--by fate, by timing--of the opportunity. I wish there were ten more "Singin' In The Rains" and "It's Always Fair Weathers" ...but I'll take what's there.