Take the best male dancer ever to hoof it in Hollywood (Fred Astaire) and my personal favorite female dancer (Cyd Charisse), add in the music of the best writer of popular songs (Cole Porter) and the choreography of Hermes Pan (and don’t you just love that name?—real last name, Panagiotopoulos), and how can you go wrong? Well, you can’t, though it isn’t quite as good as the film it is a musical remake of, Ernst Lubitsch’s brilliant Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. Except for the disastrous Finian’s Rainbow, this was Fred’s last musical film, even though he hasn’t slowed down a single step. Cyd wouldn’t be doing much dancing after this, either. Actually, nobody in Hollywood would ever dance as much as they used to, as this was near the end of the vogue for big musicals featuring solo dancers.
It’s a little ironic that, in their other collaboration, The Bandwagon, four years earlier, much was made of the differences in their ages. Cyd’s character worried that Fred was too old for her. Here, nothing is made of the May-December element of their romance. This movie contains three terrific dances between Cyd and Fred, and my single favorite solo female dance performance, when Ninotchka transforms herself from the dowdy commissar to … well, to Cyd Charisse. Before that she is very good with her deadpan delivery. Fred kisses her and she says, without changing expression, “That was relaxing.” Soviet romance!
Once more I observe that Cyd was just about the only female dancer of her time to dance in flats instead of high heels. Partly it was because she was better at ballet style than tap, though there are two boisterous numbers here where she shows she can tap in flats almost as well as my favorite lady tappers, Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell. The other reason was, I think, that at 5’7½ ”, she would have been taller in heels than both Astaire (5’9”) and Gene Kelly (5’7”). And that’s good, because I think flats freed her to do the moves that showed off those incredible legs.
Jules Munshin, George Tobias, and Peter Lorre are there for comic relief, and Janis Paige is more of a distraction than anything else. (This was pretty much her last movie, though afterward she did a lot of television. And she’s still alive!) I’d have preferred more Cyd and Fred. Near the end Porter and Astaire try their hand at a sort of rock and roll song and dance, and though Fred is game enough, it’s clear that neither man is really comfortable with it.