28 June 2008 | EUyeshima
A Most Fitting Tribute to Charisse's Terpsichorean Talents
With the passing of Cyd Charisse last week at age 86, it's worth seeking out what is probably her finest work on celluloid. As an actress, she was bland. As a singer, she was dubbed (this time by the sonorous-sounding Carole Richards). But as a dancer, she was extraordinary. Along with Vera-Ellen, the ballet-trained Charisse was in the top echelon of the female dancers MGM showcased during the studio's golden years of which this film is one of its final stops. The clearest evidence of this claim can be found in the title tune when she dances with beauty and precision elegantly changing from her drab street clothes into silk and satin. It's a remarkable number, no small feat since her co-star is Fred Astaire. Directed by early musical maven Rouben Mamoulian in what turned out to be his last film, the movie also marks Astaire's swan song as a musical comedy leading man. Symbolically, he smashes his top hat at the end of his final solo number, "The Ritz Roll and Rock". The wear barely shows in his dancing where he pulls off some of his most acrobatic numbers, but other than the professionalism of the two leads, the inspiration seems sadly missing.
The film is a partial remake of Ernst Lubitsch's 1939 classic comedy, "Ninotchka" - in fact, some scenes are repeated verbatim - although certain elements have been altered to accommodate Cole Porter's musical score. This musical translation first showed up on Broadway two years earlier, but further revisions have obviously been made to tailor the story to the dancing talents of the leads. Charisse has the unenviable task of stepping into Greta Garbo's shoes as top Soviet envoy Ninotchka Yoschenko, who is sent to Paris to retrieve three lesser envoys swept up by the City of Lights. They had already botched their mission to lure famous Russian composer Peter Boroff back to the mother country. At the same time, American movie producer Steve Canfield wants Boroff to score his next picture, a musical bowdlerization of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" starring comically curvaceous Peggy Dayton, a parody of an Esther Williams-style swimming star whose been in the pool too long. As Dayton uses her feminine wiles to entice Boroff, Canfield tries to seduce Ninotchka, a far frostier proposition though the eventual thawing is inevitable. Porter's music has that effect or so we are led to believe.
Playing another variation on the worldly photographer he played in the same year's "Funny Face", Astaire is still at the top of his game, but his dance numbers are less elegant and appear markedly shorter than usual here. Charisse cannot compare to the legendary Garbo when it comes to line readings as a stoic communist. However, her dancing truly transcends not only the title tune but also "The Red Blues", an impressive ensemble number showcasing Charisse in a variety of dance styles, and the two duets with Astaire to "All of You" - the first a romantic defrosting of Ninotchka and the second a jauntier, rhythmic pas-de-deux. I wish the rest of the film was as good, but sadly, the energy wavers and the pacing flags during its 117-minute running time. The rest of the cast is serviceable, in particular, Janis Paige on familiar ground as Peggy (nicely paired with Astaire on the energetically cynical "Stereophonic Sound") and George Tobias as the deadpan Soviet commissar. Peter Lorre ("M") and Jules Munshin (Ozzie in "On the Town") show up as two of the bumbling envoys. The 2003 DVD has some interesting extras beginning with a ten-minute featurette featuring a 2003 interview with the still-elegant Charisse in "Cole Porter in Hollywood: Satin and Silk". Because of the Porter tie-in, there is also a 1934 Bob Hope short, "Paree, Paree", a silly musical comedy with Hope wooing singer Dorothy Stone. Also included is the original theatrical trailer, as well as "Poet and Peasant Overture" with Alfred Wallenstein conducting the MGM symphony orchestra playing the Franz Von Suppe piece as an overture to the movie.