I have some beginnings and endings to talk about this week. One of the last of the great MGM musicals, and the beginning of a love affair. New blu-ray releases of more classics from the golden era from Warner Archive. Fred Astaire & Cyd Charisse in “Silk Stockings” (not to be confused with the 1990s cable series), and Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not.”
“Silk Stockings” is a 1957 MGM musical, one of the last of the studio’s famed musicals, and itself taken from a Broadway show based on the 1939 MGM film “Ninotchka.” With a score by Cole Porter, “Silk Stockings” was made at a time when the movie musical was becoming out of fashion with moviegoers. An event that would start an identity crises for MGM, who made their bread and butter on musicals.
This makes the second pairing of Charisse and Astaire on screen, having first appeared together in 1955’s “The Bandwagon”--one of my favorite MGM musicals. I should also point out this is the only time Fred Astaire and Peter Lorre ever appeared together in a movie--if that doesn’t make you want to see this, then I can’t help you. Peter Lorre does a dance in the film that simply must be seen. Like the 1939 film, “Silk Stockings” is about a Russian envoy sent to Paris to retrieve comrades who are trapped in the decadence of capitalism. This is a film of its time, but still most enjoyable to a 2016 audience.
“Silk Stockings” also contains an early example of meta thanks to the stage show having the song “Stereophonic Sound,” a commentary about all the things Hollywood was doing to fight TV, by going wider with the screens and the sound. Which is meta because “Silk Stockings” was filmed in CinemaScope and released in Stereophonic Sound. Because the film was shot with stereo in mind, elements still exist in the vault that allowed for a DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack to be created--which sounds amazing. The film looks good in HD, but not amazing. This is through no fault of Warner Archive, who commissioned a new 4K scan of the original camera negative.
The reasons are due to when “Silk Stockings” was shot. For one thing, the early CinemaScope lenses tended to distort parts of the background from time to time. “Silk Stockings” was filmed in “Metrocolor” which was just “MGM using Eastmancolor stock to make it sound like we have invented some amazing new process.” Unfortunately, this was the time when all Eastmancolor stock produced tended to age very poorly. Yellow layers of the film failing, films fading straight to a red hue, and excess grain are all problems films produced during this period on Eastmancolor stock have dealt with.
All this being said, the color is very solid, and the film does look better than the last time I saw it on TV. This is the best “Silk Stockings” is likely to look. WAC should be commended for not using digital grain reduction to manipulate the image. It’s a fine presentation of a film with less and stellar elements to work with. Plus, you got Fred, Cyd, and Peter? What’s not to love about that?
Speaking of love (Transition time!), one could say that modern sexualty on screen began with one infamous moment in 1944’s “To Have and Have Not.” Now, sexuality on the screen wasn’t new in 1944. Anyone who thinks classic Hollywood was “more sweet and innocent” than modern films clearly has never seen a pre-code movie. Films made before the Hayes Code of censorship was enforced. Go watch a copy of “Baby Face” with Barbara Stanwyck then get back to me with that “innocent jazz.”
The moment in question is a moment you may know if you’ve never even seen a frame of “To Have and Have Not.” When Lauren Bacall looks at Humphrey Bogart and says “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” “To Have and Have Not” was a steamy box office hit. It was not only Lauren Bacall’s debut film (talk about a heck of a way to make an entrance), but the debut of her love with Bogart as well. The two show a simply explosive chemistry together every time they’re on screen.
Directed by the great Howard Hawks, “To Have and Have Not” is based on the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, adapted by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner--keeping scant little of the original novel. The film also has elements that are rather close to another Bogart film, “Casablanca.” French Resistance Fighters? Check. A piano man? Check. A bar/cafe setting where everyone goes? Check. A mysterious fat man? Check. But what this film has that “Casablanca” doesn’t is Bogart & Bacall and their chemistry that loads every inch of the frame with sex appeal.
“To Have and Have Not” looks amazing on blu-ray, with a rich black and white image that is even more impressive when you learn the original negative to the film doesn’t exist. The best surviving element is a nitrate fine-grain master positive that lives at The Museum of Modern Art. With all the variables faced with bringing the film to the HD world, new preservation elements were made right alongside the HD scans.
In a strange way, blu-ray has become one of the best things to ever happen to classic film. Movies look amazing, and are getting preserved for future generations to boot. As someone whose addictions are movies, and loves film preservation too, what a time it is to be alive!