Rarely have movies lobbied more aggressively for a genre’s very existence than 1957’s Silk Stockings does. Ostensibly a big-screen adaptation of a Broadway show (itself a retooling of 1939’s Greta Garbo picture Ninotchka), this film served an additional purpose upon its release, whether the powers that be knew it or not. As one of the final productions from MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, it represented the closing chapter of a cinematic era, a period when frothy musical spectacles were a dominating force in Hollywood. Save for the odd success story, productions such as these were falling increasingly out of style, but Silk Stockings — be it through conscious effort or sheer happenstance — argues with every frame that they’ll always have relevance. Try it does indeed, cramming its CinemaScoped aspect ratio with glitzy costumes and elaborate dance numbers aplenty…though its zeal renders it blind to the various insensitivities and outdated narrative elements that ushered in the musical’s decline in popularity in the first place.
Peter Boroff (Wim Sonneveld), the pride of Russia’s modern composers, has done the unthinkable. Capitalism has swayed the man’s allegiances, with American movie producer Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire) securing his services. When word leaks that Boroff’s to work on a musical riff on “War & Peace,” the motherland is none too happy, as three operatives (Joseph Buloff, Peter Lorre, and Jules Munshin) are dispatched to get him back. But when the trio is too led astray by the west’s wine and women, Russia sends out the big guns in the form of Nina “Ninotchka” Yoschenko (Cyd Charisse). A seemingly humorless envoy who eats, sleeps, and breathes her country’s ways, Ninotchka puts up a mighty resistance when Steve tries to distract her with decadence. However, the more he attempts to stall for time and ensure that Boroff complete his work, the deeper he falls for the fetching agent, giving way to hope that romance might just be able to conquer cultural barriers after all.
It’s to be expected that Silk Stockings inhabit the same broad, exaggerated universe that musicals have called home for ages. Whereas Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka presented a wry and sophisticated comedy of manners and political discourse, director Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina) is pretty much gunning for the cheap seats here. No subtle strokes have been employed in the painting of these characters, regardless of which side of the Iron Curtain they claim. In spite of its simplistic streaks, though, Silk Stockings isn’t without its fair share of wit and amusing observational humor; the three agents’ near-immediate embrace of American indulgence is a hoot, as are some of the Borscht Belt-level jabs at those stern Russian ways (“Does this office have a copy of Who’s Still Who?”). Largely, however, this approach ends up sapping virtually all humanity out of the plot, preferring to pare down to the lowest common denominator a premise pleading for a cleverly complex touch. While the film endeavors to take both us overly-carefree Americans and them uptight Russkies to task for our behavior, the latter is who ends up fielding an almost unfair degree of guff throughout the story. This is a picture that dismisses its Russian players for getting upset that a part of their culture is being warped into a crass commercial enterprise, while scarcely (if at all) calling shenanigans on those doing the warping. As far as this is concerned, Ninotchka and her set are fuddy-duddies who need a Yankee to show them the way, no matter how awfully he treats them in the process.
Astaire was a truly wonderful and gifted performer who made something out of the most nothing parts, but Silk Stockings is among the truest tests his mettle ever faced. He tries like the devil to imbue Steve with his own charming persona, and while he slips into the role of sweet-talker with commendable ease, the script’s neglect to ground the character or call out his actions in any way leave him stranded as a condescending jerk for the entire film. Similarly, Charisse, despite displaying the style of dance moves that served her so well in Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, is tasked with a part devoid of the depth and weight that Garbo originally brought to the table. We’re afforded no glimpses into Ninotchka’s psyche, no motivation behind the stoicism that rattles even her superiors or why she starts buckling for Steve; she exists just to be fixed and wear pretty outfits, in a Cinderella story told from the perspective of a particularly leering Prince Charming. To be fair, however, when Silk Stockings does stick to surface-level entertainment, the results are often impressive, with the music infectious, the dancing beautifully choreographed, and the overall color scheme as lush as it gets. Plus, those periphery performers whose roles weren’t meant to be substantial to begin with have the best shots at making it to the final bows relatively unscathed. Lorre, Munshin, and Buloff are a blast to watch as the easily-led agents, George Tobias is amusing as Ninotchka’s squirmy kommissar, and Janis Paige hams it up as the leading lady in Steve’s new flicks and has a good time in the process.
With one of its songs devoted to seeing movies with the most bells and whistles possible, Silk Stockings is an unabashed ode to the superficial. There’s nothing wrong with lightness or joy in our cinematic diets, but this movie goes to show what happens when too much reality is excluded from the mix, how what might have been compelling characters and crises are trivialized in pursuit of promoting escapism at all costs. While the clouds are a great place for many a musical to pop their heads in for a spell, Silk Stockings is too lost in its delusions for any hope of a return to Earth to be in the cards.
(Silk Stockings is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.)