A Cold War commentary on Soviet-American relations, Rouben Mamoulian's Silk Stockings also develops the theme of an individual's emotional awakening and lightly satirizes the popular entertainment of the 1950's. Based on the film Ninotchka (1939) by way of the 1955 stage play Silk Stockings, the film not only serves as a showcase for the dancing of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, but also reflects the political, social, and cultural values of the times. Politically, the film captures the stereotypes of Communist and capitalist ideologies that pervaded much of American culture. Socially, Silk Stockings celebrates an American view of warm femininity contrasted with the cold, brusque manner attributed to Russian women: Culturally, it reacts to the trend in motion pictures toward extravaganza and to a new musical form, rock and roll. Throughout, the musical numbers choreographed by Hermes Pan and Eugene Loring effectively provide continuity in plot, underscore the film's thematic import, and graphically portray the awakening experience.
Although the film mirrors American values, the setting is elegant Paris, whose luxuriant decadence provides an antithesis to bleak Soviet life. During a concert tour in the French city, acclaimed Soviet composer-pianist Peter Ilyitch Boroff (Wim Sonneveld) is persuaded by American film producer Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire) to write the music for his new film, supposedly a version of War and Peace. This production will inaugurate the serious film career of Peggy Dayton (Janis Paige), already well-known to moviegoers as "America's swimming sweetheart." The Soviet government, upset by Boron impending defection, sends -Brankov (Peter Lorre), Bibinski (Jules Munshin), and Ivanov (Joseph Buloff) to effect his return to Moscow. But Canfield introduces the three to the pleasures of wine, women, and song in capitalistic Paris, and they forget their mission. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Vassili Markovitch (George Tobias) has become Minister of Culture in one of the characteristically abrupt changes in regime said to define Soviet politics. Refle-cting the hypocrisy of the Communist system, the minister's businesslike exterior is belied by his less than businesslike interest in one of the ballerinas under his charge. But now he faces the task of sending someone to retrieve the wayward Boroff and the three errant emissaries. The assignment falls to Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse), who appears before him in the drab garb of Soviet officialdom named Yoshenko, spouting Communist and antiindividualist rhetoric and exhibiting an impressive portfolio of credentials.
After Yoshenko arrives in Paris, Canfield tries to convince her by means of a falsified affidavit that Boroff s father was a French traveling salesman, thus making Boroff a French citizen. A day's tour of Paris with Canfield makes no dent in the comrade's severity. Although Canfield emphasizes the romantic beauty of Paris, she is interested only in mills and factories. However, later that evening in his hotel room, Canfield introduces Comrade Yoshenko to emotional warmth. Though she asserts that love is merely a chemical reaction, Canfield proves her wrong with the concrete illustrations of dance, kiss, and the song "All of You." Under his spell, Comrade Yoshenko begins to awaken and to doff Soviet impersonality and conformity for Western individuality. She becomes Ninotchka.
The activities of the couple. are interrupted by the intrusion of Peggy Dayton, who reveals Canfield's plan to have Boroff compose music for his film. Her Soviet dignity and pride offended, Ninotchka leaves. Canfield then convinces Peggy to use her considerable charms to enlist Boroff himself in their caUse; that is, to allow his music to be converted into tunes appropriate for the hit parade. For Canfield's plan is not to produce a version of War and Peace at all, but a spicy account of the life of Josephine in "glorious technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope, and stereophonic sound"—features of the Hollywood spectacular which earlier provided a rousing, satiric musical number for Canfield and Peggy.
The next morning, Ninotchka is so starry-eyed from Canfield's dancing, singing, and kissing that she cannot seriously deal with the matter which has brought her to Paris. As her three colleagues discuss Boroff with her, she dreamily picks at the typewriter. Her hair, softened into waves which contrast with the austere style of the previous day, signals the feminizing process inherent in her awakening experience.
In the meantime, Peggy has lured Boroff to her fashion designer's, where she seduces him by modeling the latest undergarments. Her song, "Satin and Silk," expounds the power of such feminine clothing to make a woman feel alluring and attractive. Peggy's song and its effect on Boroff testify to the power of feminine wiles.
This scene is effectively juxtaposed with one in Ninotchka's room. Having called off a meeting with Boroff, she draws the curtains, turns Lenin's photograph face down, and exchanges her dark stockings for ones made from Parisian silk—garments she had sneered at upon her arrival in Paris. In a sensuous dance, she casts off her uniform for the Western accouterments she has secreted around her suite: delicate underwear, a bracelet, earrings, perfume, high-heeled slippers, and an evening gown. Her metamorphosis com¬plete; she is ready for a night on the town with Canfield. She now represents the 1950's feminine concept, in contrast to her dowdy and severe appearance upon arriving in Paris. Returning at two o'clock in the morning after drinking much champagne, Ninotchka is even more starry-eyed. When she slips into a tipsy sleep, Canfield chastely lays her on a couch and leaves.
The next day at the movie studio where they have gone to watch the filming of Canfield's' movie, Steve proposes marriage to Ninotchka, singing that they are "Fated to Be Mated." Although she yearns to accept, she fears the repressive Soviet government will prevent it. On the set itself the expected serious treatment of War and Peace turns out to be a travesty. Peggy, playing a sultry Josephine, performs Boroff's "Ode to a Tractor" in the style of American popular music. The Soviets, Ninotchka included, view this as an affront to their culture and return to Moscow
In one of the film's few technical lapses, we find ourselves without transition in Russia about a year later. The Soviets meet for a reunion in Ninotchka's portion of a somber flat shared with several others. Soviet life is depicted as void of luxury, privacy, pleasure, and beauty. Ninotchka receives a letter from Canfield, completely censored except for the salutation and closing. Boroff reveals that he has adopted a new musical style and performs "The Red Blues." The other occupants of Ninotchka's flat join the singing and dancing to express their dissatisfaction with Soviet life.
When Brankov, Bibinski, and Ivanov are sent to Paris again, an anonymous letter informs the Minister of Culture that they have again been taken in by the city's decadence. Ninotchka must go once more to bring them home to Russia. When she arrives at the hotel in Paris, she is struck by the Soviet motif in the decor. Her three comrades, dressed in Western clothing, insist that she see the show at the cafe. The production features Steve Canfield dancing and singing "The Ritz Roll and Rock," a piece written especially for the film by Cole Porter to comment on a brash new musical genre. In their office afterwards, the three Russians tell Ninotchka that they have bought the cafe and do not intend to return to Moscow. She also learns that the anonymous letter was sent by Canfield, who had finally decided it was the only way that he could get her out of Russia. He announces his intention to marry her, and the film ends with "Too Bad," the same song with which it began.
Silk Stockings was the last show which Cole Porter wrote for the stage, the last film directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and the last musical film in which Fred Astaire appeared as leading man. Contemporary critical response varied from the opinion that the story line was too ponderous for musical comedy treatment to rhapsodies over the dancing of Astaire and Charisse. The dancing is, indeed, the film's strongest point. Whether it be an expression of the sexual chemistry between the two principals, a manifestation of the frivolity of gay Paris, or merely a showcase for the talented cast, the dancing 'in Silk Stockings makes the film a worthwhile experience even in an age when the values of the 1950's seem peculiarly foreign.