When producer Arthur Freed wanted Rouben Mamoulian to direct one of MGM's last great musicals, the studio was understandably reticent; after Summer Holiday in 1948 ran over-budget and flopped, Mamoulian, once considered a major innovator during the 1930s, had several false starts and cleanups on several productions. It took a ridiculous nine years before the director of the first 3-strip Technicolor film (1935's "Becky Sharp") would make a complete feature film.
Though he detested the CinemaScope ratio, Mamoulian's visual acumen nevertheless prevailed in creating a marvelous musical that showcased the elegance of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse - their first onscreen teaming since "The Band Wagon," in 1953 - following the choreography with wide and medium shots, and lengthy takes with graceful camera movements. The dancing was the star of the film, and "Silk Stockings" makes for a sobering production, whereas more recent films heighten choreography through heavy editing and exotic camera angles.
Based on the stage play derived from the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch film "Ninotchka" (itself adapted from Melchior Lengyel's novel), "Silk Stockings" is beautifully transferred, with Robert Bronner's widescreen cinematography quite luminescent; the colours are pure Fifties, yet follow the kind of order-of-attention Mamoulian used in "Becky Sharp"(which he termed 'the logic of color').
The soundtrack has also been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, enveloping listeners. While hardly aggressive, the new mix balances the orchestral elements of Cole Porter's light songs (with arrangements by Andre Previn), and Porter's brilliantly satirical "Stereophonic Sound" - giddily performed by Astaire and Janis Paige - finally has some resonance when Paige croons the title with multi-channel processing. (See, the soundtrack album was released in mono and fake stereo!)
As with other entries in the Cole Porter series, the DVD includes an installment of "Cole Porter in Hollywood: Satin and Silk," with Charisse addressing the camera with basic production facts. Paige makes a brief appearance, and Charisse explains the importance of her dance solo for "Silk Stockings," arguably the film's highlight, where Ninotchka abandons her cold persona as her love for Paris and Astaire. It's a shame most of the film's participants have passed on, as the featurette is missing some impressions of producer Freed, and director Mamoulian (who was, incidentally, interviewed at length by TVO's Elwy Yost).
Though four years had passed since the first CinemaScope film, 1957 was about the time 20th Century Fox loosened its restrictions on 'suitable productions', and the format became more widespread at other studios. A recognizable brand name (which remains, along with VistaVision, one of the few widely recognizable terms in Porter's "Stereophonic Sound" to broader film fans), MGM bettered Fox early on with the included short "The Poet and Peasant Overture" composed by Franz Von Suppe, and a vintage 'scope short from 1954.
20th Century Fox's production of "How To Marry A Millionaire" was preceded by Alfred Newman conducting his overture from "Street Scene," and like "Millionaire," a certain fear of camera movement dominated the visual angles; for "Port," the musical performance begins with a 'flat' MGM logo in 1.33:1, and the familiar red Fox curtain appears in 2.35:1. Whereas the Fox prologue used extremely wide crane shots, the MGM short intercuts various angles - several held in closer view on key soloists - and conveys the size of the orchestra through more dynamic angles (including a very cool overhead shot) and tracking shots. Playing like the first IMAX film (which cut from a small 1.33:1 image to the full IMAX frame), "Poet" also makes good use of the surround channels, and it's nice to see such a rare promo piece make it's way to DVD.
Also of note is the oddity "Paree, Paree", a 1934 Vitaphone short featuring Bob Hope as a young lad with the hots for Dorothy Stone. Spying her from a nearby seat at a street coffee shop, Hope's advances are broken up with bizarre Busby Berkeley-styled dance numbers, involving zaftig frauleines creating various geometric patterns on the street and in a local shop. The whole piece ends at a race track, where love conquers all (including some mishandled winnings). Likely designed to test Hope's screen persona, the short is one of many little gems that studios produced when a nickel bought an entire afternoon at the local cinema palace.
This Warner Bros title is available separately or as part of a five-disc “Classic Musicals Collection – The Cole Porter Gift Set” which includes "Broadway Melody of 1940," "High Society," "Kiss Me Kate," "Les Girls," and "Silk Stockings."
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan