Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Temptations of Silk Stockings

This post is part of Russia in Classic Film hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently and sponsored by Flicker Alley. To check out all of the wonderful posts, click here.

Of the two films* Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse made together, Silk Stockings (1957) is by far the superior. This belief may be in the minority, but I stand by it. (You can read more about my unpopular opinion about their other movie, The Band Wagon, here.) Like Band Wagon, we are treated to beautifully choreographed dances showcasing Astaire and Charisse, who actually star this time around. However, there is much more to Silk Stockings by way of plot and subject matter.

*Three if you count Astaire and Charisse's brief appearance together in Ziegfeld Follies (1946),  an ensemble piece featuring performances from over a dozen stars.

"I've never known anyone to resist enjoyment the way you do." ~Steve to Ninotchka
The primary focus of Silk Stockings is the ideological difference between the capitalistic West and communist Russia represented respectively by main characters Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire) and Ninotchka Yoshenka (Cyd Charisse). Where Steve parties all night, sleeps in, and rents extravagant hotel suites, Ninotchka works hard, wakes up early, and lives simply. Where Western culture celebrates the frivolous, Russian culture appreciates the useful. Pleasure and entertainment are a way of life in the West. The film even takes a self-depreciating jab at itself with a diva-ish swimming star (played by Janis Page) and a song ("Stereophonic Sound") about all the gimmicks added to movies "to get the public to attend the picture show." On the other hand, Russians view pleasure as a sign of selfishness, and art as a means to publicize communist culture. Finally, the characters' clothing visually symbolize their core differences. The American and Parisian women dress in gorgeous gowns of satin and silk while Ninotchka's dress is simple, made of a drab olive material. Charisse's outfits may be missing the razzle dazzle of her flashy Band Wagon costumes, but her dances have more meat to them. In her first dance with Astaire, the audience sees a gradual shift in her character's pro-communist attitude. By next dance, which is rather sensual for the time, the metamorphosis is complete.

In addition to Ninotchka, most of the Russian characters in Silk Stockings wish to escape from their oppressive society. The three commissars (Peter Lorre, Jules Munshin, Joseph Buloff), who are sent to return a stray Russian composer, rejoice at the thought of a prolonged stay in Paris, dancing and singing "Too Bad (We Can't Go Back to Moscow)"--the highlight of which is Peter Lorre doing Russian kicks between a table and chair. If seeing the oft serious actor behave in such a comedic manner doesn't put a smile on your face, I don't know what will! 
Peter Lorre dances..kind of... Source
Even the new commissar in Russia seems to understand the boys' unwillingness to come home. He wistfully tells
Ninotchka about his experience in Paris: "I got very close to the French people. In fact, they deported me three times." The sentiment reaches a crescendo with the "Red Blues" dance number, in which Russian workers secretly dance to jazz and lament their dreary lifestyles. 

If they are so unhappy, what keeps them there? One only has to remember the numerous asides throughout the film: if any of the Russians defect, death--either their own or their relatives'--awaits them. Of course, there is always Siberia as the three commissars explain in a song of the same name. Cole Porter's witty lyrics illustrate the undesirability of that option: "When it's cocktail time/it will be so nice/just to know you'll not have to phone for ice." 
"But this is an American picture. You're liable to have Napolean win." ~Ninotchka
Ninotchka's words are a bit of an exaggeration, but she makes a keen observation--Hollywood has been known to embellish history. Silk Stockings itself would have been prime material for some doctoring given the political climate in which it was made. It was filmed during the height of the Cold War and just as McCarthyism was losing steam, although the musical production on which the film is based opened in 1955 when Senator McCarthy still had a stronghold on the entertainment industry. (For those not familiar, McCarthy's hunt for supporters of Communism resulted in end of numerous careers in the arts. The evidence used against individuals was often flimsy at best.) Whether or not this played into the portrayal of the cultural differences is hard to say. Both sides--Western Europe's bourgeoisie and Russia's proletarians--seem to be extreme versions of themselves in Silk Stockings. Capitalism wins, but it also triumphed in the original version, 1939's Ninotchka (starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas)*, which was made a decade prior to the Cold War and twenty years before the McCarthy era. The self-righteous face of capitalism, Steve, does not go unscathed. Towards the end of the movie, Ninotchka calls out Steve's inability to accept her values: 
It's always your opinion. It's what you want and what you think. Everything I do is wrong. And everything you do is right. You leave me nothing of my own.
While the writers do not adequately resolve the issue, I appreciate that the inequity has been noted. There has to be a little give. We need to meet in the middle. Democrats and Republicans take note. 

*This is one of the few cases where the remake is just  as good as the original. I encourage you to check it out if you haven't already. 

"For the past five years, I have been assigned to the job of rectifying the mistakes of foolish commissars." ~Ninotchka
In addition to cultural relations, Silk Stockings also briefly touches upon the inequality between men and women in the workplace. Because Ninotchka is a woman, the male Russian commissar casually glances at her credentials and doubts her ability to take on a complicated mission. She points out that his opinion is based on her gender and that she is more than qualified. He finally concurs and when she leaves, he comments to his mistress that Ninotchka is not a woman. This is symptomatic of a general attitude that women who take their job seriously are somehow unnatural. 

What is natural--or so the film tries to tell us--is the overactive male libido. Whether European, American, or Russian, all the men are chasing skirts in this film.  (Interestingly enough, there are several extramarital affairs occurring, but the movie does not play these up due to censorship. Listen to the dialogue carefully to see what I mean.) Additionally the lyrics of Porter's "Satin and Silk" tell men, "If she's wearing silk and satin/she's for petting and patting" and "If a woman was born a prude/she can reverse her attitude/if she's wearing silk and satin." Does this sound like 'she's asking for it' to anyone else? Yikes!  

Silk Stockings came to fruition at a unique time in history. It is squeezed between the McCarthy era and the Cold War, between a movie-going and TV-watching public, between the censored studio system and independent film making. As a result, Silk Stockings is a treasure trove of 1950s ideologies and attitudes across cultures and genders, from the workplace to the boudoir. And to top it off, you get Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse!

Atkinson, Brooklyn.  "Silk Stockings: Satire on the Soviet." New York Times 25 Feb. 1955. Web. 7 March 2015.

Shaw, Tony. Hollywood's Cold War. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007. Web.


  1. "When it's cocktail time/it will be so nice/just to know you'll not have to phone for ice." You can't beat Cole Porter lyrics. This is the rare remake that stands well on its own. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

  2. I've been curious about this film as the political climate had undertaken such a dramatic shift between the original and the remake. Thanks so much for the insightful review!

    1. I have watched Ninotchka many times over the years, but not recently. I really need to go back and rewatch Ninotchka and Silk Stockings side by side to catch the nuances (if there are any). Going by memory, I didn't the feel that there was a drastic change in the overall message in terms of Western European and Russian relations. The main difference, of course, was Silk Stockings was a musical, the Russians were trying to get a composer back instead of selling jewels, and Steve was an American in Europe (that seems to be a 1950s theme, doesn't it?). All in all a solid movie like the original.
      Thank you for hosting such a terrific blogathon!

  3. Bravo! Your post is terrific! I loved how you mentioned the subtle themes of male/female inequality, Red Scare and extramarital affairs.
    Also, I'll never forget Peter Lorre dancing: one of the best things in the picutre ;)

    1. Thank you so much! I'm really proud of this one. ;-) I also enjoyed your post on this film.

  4. An interesting take on inequality, and Astaire and Lorre dancing? I have to check this out. Thanks!

    1. Yes--you must see Lorre dancing. He is hilarious! (in a good way) Thank you for stopping by!


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