Can you picture Alfred Hitchcock singing and dancing?
In A FINE ROMANCE, Geoffrey Block’s excellent new book from Oxford University Press, he mentions that director Rouben Mamoulian actually considered Hitch for the role of a Communist commissar in the film version of SILK STOCKINGS.
Of course, that discussion took place sometime after the early 1950s when producers Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin thought that the 1939 film NINOTCHKA would make a good musical. Pitting a Soviet citizen against an American one –with an outcome favorable to Broadway audiences – would be ideal during the Red Scare that Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI) was waging at the time.
As Block reports, Feuer and Martin asked Frank Loesser, who’d provided the score to their first two hits WHERE’S CHARLEY? and GUYS AND DOLLS, to do this one. Loesser, though, was understandably busy with his three-act musical that was requiring more than three dozen songs: THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. So, the producers turned to the composer-lyricist from CAN-CAN, their third hit: Cole Porter.
No wonder that Porter, who’d written five shows that were solely or partly set in Paris (including one literally called Paris), would be drawn to a property that would almost exclusively be set there. One can imagine him watching the original film and hearing Ninotchka, after a setback, say, “Well, that means another two weeks in Paris,” only to hear one of her comrades respond most insincerely, “Too bad we have to waste all that time.”
Can’t you hear Porter excitedly exclaim, “There’s our opening number!” And indeed, it turned out to be just that when the show debuted at the Imperial Theatre on Feb. 24, 1955: “Too bad … we can’t go back to Moscow,” sang the comrades, not meaning a word of it.
Similarly speaking, later, when Ninotchka is back in the Soviet Union, mourning the oppression that she now feels after the freedom she’d found in France, her friend observes that “All you have to do is wear a pair of silk stockings and they suspect you of a counter-revolution.”
And that may well be when Porter yelled out, “That’s our title!” To be fair, the exclamation could have come from book writers George S. Kaufman and his collaborator (and second wife) Leueen MacGrath (but probably not from Abe Burrows, who only later succeeded them).
Block deftly shows the differences between NINOTCHKA’s leading man and a very different one in SILK STOCKINGS. The film has Count Leon d’Algout in love and in league with a Russian countess who’d fled the Soviet Union after the Revolution. He’s an opportunist who’ll try to regain her jewels, now in the hands of the Soviets.
The musical transformed the Count into Steve Canfield (Don Ameche), an American film producer who has hired Soviet composer Peter Boroff to score his new picture. Considering that the music man’s masterwork is “Ode to a Tractor,” he wouldn’t seem ideal for the job.
However, Steve’s picture is a musical version of WAR AND PEACE. That was a good joke at the time, when no one could have imagined that at least some of Tolstoy’s 1869 masterpiece would morph into a genuine Broadway musical in 2016.
The creators may have dropped the stolen-jewels plot because it was a well-worn Broadway musical trope by 1955. Block informs us that thirty years earlier, not one but two musicals used it in a mere 36-day span: FLORIDA GIRLS starring the Ritz Brothers on Nov. 2, 1925, and the much-better known THE COCOANUTS starring the much-better regarded Marx Brothers on Dec. 8 of that year.
However, a more likely reason for having the plot involve a movie musical was to get more Cole Porter into the show.
Why the Soviets would even allow Boroff to go to Paris isn’t explained. However, the government obviously has second thoughts, for it sends to France that trio who Block not inaccurately dubs “the three stooges.”
They’re to keep Boroff in line, but Paris and its pleasures seduce them all. Now the government sends the absolutely no-nonsense and humorless Ninotchka who’ll get everything back on track again.
Silk stockings are one item that changes Ninotchka from an all-business, sensible-suited Soviet envoy to a woman who comes to appreciate Parisian fashion. In the original film, however, it’s a hat that does the trick.
(We doubt, though, that the change was made because someone working on the musical asked, “Does anyone still wear a hat?”)
Instead of the countess, the musical has Gretchen Wyler playing, as Block describes her, “an attractive, non-intellectual, ex-swimming film star.” The inspiration was obviously Esther Williams, a now-forgotten three-time swimming champion who swam her way to Hollywood success in many a pool. The films Million Dollar Mermaid and Dangerous When Wet attest to that.
Block’s most fun fact is that although Wyler’s character was named Janice Dayton, she became Peggy Dayton in the film, because Janis Paige was playing her.
When Boroff is reluctant to Americanize his musical, Dayton is there to vamp him. So, we almost have the two-couple structure that Rodgers and Hammerstein embraced – almost, for nothing comes of the Dayton-Boroff alliance, except for some good songs for the swim star.
Just as the staid Sarah Brown in GUYS AND DOLLS loosens up just before a scandal immediately brings her back to her original conservative mindset, so too does Ninotchka in SILK STOCKINGS. She’s appalled when she hears how Steve has Americanized (read: crass) her beloved Russian music. Although Sarah stays resolute, Ninotchka can’t. Moral of the story: American values emerge victorious over Soviet ones. Has any musical ever been more in the right place at the right time than SILK STOCKINGS in the mid-‘50s?
Block reminds us that Greta Garbo was the original Ninotchka, allowing the ad campaign to claim “Garbo laughs!” It happens after Count Leon, who’s been boring her, falls off a chair and lands on his tush. That sends her into hysterics.
This scene wasn’t used in the musical, which wouldn’t be the last time that a famous Garbo-ism would be dropped when one of her films was musicalized. Her “I want to be alone” in GRAND HOTEL is nowhere to be found in the excellent 1989 musical.
On Broadway, Ninotchka was played by Hildegarde Neff. (Knef, really, but Feuer and Martin thought American audiences would find the surname odd.) Block smartly observes that her “singing voice credibly resembles what Garbo might have sounded like had she been asked to sing.” Listen to the cast album and you’ll probably agree.
What’s amazing is Block’s information that even though NINOTCHKA required seven screenwriters, the film still became a classic; imdb.com’s commentators have aggregately given it a strong 7.8 rating. SILK STOCKINGS gets one point fewer – 6.8 – but Block makes a fine case for it and relates that Ariana DeBose believes that SILK STOCKINGS is her favorite film musical.
Still, Block concedes that the film doesn’t offer much of the song “Josephine,” filmed in its nearly five-minute entirety, but eventually shaved to less than a minute and a half. On the cast album, though, Wyler does every bit of it.
She also shines in a Porter song that established that mid-‘50s films – now in competition with free TV – had to rely on “glorious Technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope and” – here’s the song title – “Stereophonic Sound” to seduce audiences into attending. Block sagely points out that the eventual SILK STOCKINGS movie indeed did have breathtaking CinemaScope and stereophonic sound but drew the line at Technicolor; the film was produced by M-G-M, which had its own patented process known as Metrocolor.
Block points out that “Stereophonic Sound” suffered from Hollywood censors. Allusions to Marilyn Monroe’s gluteus maximus and a mention of her belle poitrine were blue-penciled long before the musical met the cameras. Here too on the cast album, Wyler will inform you of what was first and foremost on Porter’s unexpurgated mind.
As for “All of You,” the show’s hit song, Block notes that it wasn’t censored, despite Steve’s telling Ninotchka that “I’d like to make a tour of you,” specifically citing “the east, west north and the south of you.” Before filming started in late 1956, such esteemed pop singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme and Sammy Davis, Jr. had recorded the song; because few if any listeners complained, the censors might have felt that they wouldn’t do so now.
If you have any doubts that Block takes his assignment seriously, you’ll extinguish them when you read such observations that “All of You” has “pervasive monosyllabic simplicity” for “63 out of its 68 words” are single-syllable ones. Now that’s observation at its best.
Although Block appreciates the “dark F minor for the first eight measures of ‘Without Love,’” he fully admits that time has passed by the song’s why-do-I-think-I’m-nothing-without-a-man point of view. Yet Block quotes George Eells, Porter’s biographer, who’d related that “Without Love” was “the number that Cole considered the best in the show.” You be the judge.
The film denies audiences every word of the title song which, on Broadway, was a mournful loss-of-love ballad for Steve; Ninotchka left Paris without leaving him a letter that she was returning home but left the hosiery she no longer wanted. In the film, however, “Silk Stockings” is simply an instrumental to which Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse) dances while lovingly caressing her newest purchase.
This is one chapter of eight that deals with Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers. There’s also an exhaustively researched list of “Stage musicals based on films” from the last half of the 20th century; Block even includes the much-underrated FIELDS OF AMBROSIA. Following the list are some fascinating footnotes on FANNY, MY FAIR LADY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES among others.
Block concludes the SILK STOCKINGS chapter with “The hyped phrase ‘Read the book, see the movie’ has been replaced with a new reality: ‘See the movie, see the musical.’”
Sure, but don’t forget the original cast album.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.