A sad disappointment of a film. Any project that combines the talents of Cole Porter, Rouben Mamoulian, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse ought to be something wonderful and stylish. Instead, it is a jocose, vulgar wreck. When Cole Porter et al. reworked Philadelphia Story and Taming of the Shrew, they managed to retain the spirit of the originals and to create something that stands up in its own right – fine songs, great dancing, good performances. Maybe the art of Lubitsch is more intractable.
The script did not help. It seems that George S. Kaufman’s book for the stage version did not make much use of the three rogue commissars so we have to blame Leonard Gershe and Leonard Spigelgass for what went wrong. Instead of the rapier of Billy Wilder we get a plastic dagger. For example, the second time that Ninotchka is sent to sort out the commissars, it is because they have entered a dance contest and won it with a cha-cha-cha. I think that the version in Ninotchka when they throw a carpet out of a window and complain that it doesn’t fly is about one million times more amusing. Not least since this particular cha-cha-cha would have been danced by Jules Munshin, Peter Lorre and Joseph Buloff! Who could possibly have seen fit to give them a prize?
In this film, Peter Lorre cuts a particularly sorry figure. For all his gifts, he was no physical comedian and it is painful to see him reduced to feeble clowning. He might well have been this kind of person in real life, but this does not mean that he could act that way on screen. He was M, der Verlorene, Joel Cairo, that guy in Casablanca….
Possibly the crux of the matter is that the script of Ninotchka has real emotional content. The plot has been constructed by a watchmaker. The commissars have to stay in the Royal Suite at the Grand Hotel because it is the only room with a safe big enough to hold the jewels they have extorted. We feel the sense of betrayal when the White Russians manage to rob the safe while Ninotchka is on the razzle with Melvyn Douglas. In Silk Stockings, the plot motive is simply deranged. Why would an American film producer commission a Russian composer to write music for an adaptation of “War and Peace” in which a Hollywood mermaid à la Esther Williams will star? Strange things happened in Hollywood but they need to meet the standards of probable possibility to make a film about them. It is an idea worthy of The Producers rather than a bittersweet romantic comedy. And then, to have the moment of betrayal triggered by a scene in which the Russians hear their adored music arranged as a swinging dance number! It is just too stupid to carry any emotional punch.
Cole Porter, for all his legendary refinement, was no enemy of vulgarity – he did write Mexican Hayride after all, and held stars such as Bobby Clark and Ethel Merman in high regard – but it is hard to see why he went along with this. Then again, it is a very weak score: only “All of You” has achieved any life outside the musical. Fred Astaire also seems out of place – hard though it is to imagine. It is strange that he is not involved in the best dance sequences in the film – Charisse’s elegant solo where she dresses in finery to the strains of “Silk Stockings”, and the athletic, rumbustious “Red Blues”. Dance styles had changed by 1957 and he was not getting any younger. The physicality of “Stereophonic Sound” or his duet with Charisse, “Fated to be Mated”, really do not suit his style. He also does an awkward jive take on his classic “Puttin’ on the Ritz” routine – “Ritz Roll and Rock”. It is well-documented how much Porter hated rock ‘n’ roll. His duet with Charisse to “All of You” feels like a pallid remake of their duet to “Dancing in the Dark”. There is no real chemistry between them this time.
And what was Mamoulian up to? He moves the camera gracefully. He introduces Fred Astaire in a sequence of foot-level shots – did anyone ever walk as distinctively as Astaire? He conjures a reasonable facsimile of Garbo out of Charisse but the script is so feeble that it is impossible for her to make us forget her predecessor in the role. What is really hard to accept is the terrifying vulgarity of Janis Paige’s performance as the Hollywood mermaid. She comes across as a blend of Ethel Merman and Martha Raye. In any other Astaire musical, she would have had a brief scene or two as comic relief: perhaps to make Ginger Rogers jealous. She slaps the side of her head repeatedly – apparently in an attempt to alleviate the deafness brought on by all the swimming she has done in Hollywood. They must have paid a lot for such a great gag! Her boisterous, stentorian performance of “Stereophonic Sound” threatens to shatter the screen. Her partner, Fred Astaire just looks ill-at-ease.
And then there is Jules. Sig Rumann at least had presence and authority, which made his slide into decadence amusing. Munshin was someone who aspired to be merely decadent – a man constantly striving to be no more than just tasteless.