Now that we’re back for another edition of “Original Vs. Remake,” let’s take a look at the 1939 comedy Ninotchka and its 1957 musical remake, Silk Stockings. Since the two plots have enough differences, I’ll just borrow the two plot descriptions from each of the individual reviews.
Ninotchka: Three Russian commissars (Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach) come to Paris with the intention of selling jewelry that had once belonged to the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). However, Swana is living in Paris, and she learns about the jewels through a former Russian nobleman working at the hotel the commissars are staying at. She sends her lover, Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), to delay the sale of the jewelry in the hope that she can reclaim it. Leon helps introduce the commissars to some of the pleasures of Paris and capitalism, but special envoy Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, or Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is sent to to take over the case. Leon accidentally meets her on the street, and is instantly smitten (although at first neither realizes who the other is). Once she overhears his telephone call with one of the commissars, they realize who they are with. Leon still likes her, and keeps trying to go out with her, which becomes easier after he is able to make her laugh and loosen up. Swana sees all this going on, and jealously takes advantage of Ninotchka when Ninotchka comes back to her hotel room drunk and leaves the safe containing the jewels open. Swana agrees to relinquish her rights to the jewelry if Ninotchka would immediately return to Russia, which she reluctantly agrees to do. (Length: one hour, fifty-two minutes)
Silk Stockings: Movie producer Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire) wants Russian composer Peter Boroff’s (Wim Sonneveld) music for his new movie, and tries to help him stay in Paris. The Russian government is displeased with this, and sends three commissars (Jules Munshin, Peter Lorre and Joseph Buloff) to bring him back. When Steve distracts them with wine, women and song, special envoy Nina Yoschenko (Cyd Charisse) is sent to try again. She proves to be more resilient, but as the attraction between the two develops, even she manages to loosen, and Steve proposes to her. However, when Nina, Peter and the three commissars hear how Peter’s music has been changed for the movie, they are all offended and they all return to Russia. (Length: one hour, fifty-eight minutes)
This is another instance where it’s not really worth noting the similarities. With Silk Stockings being a remake of Ninotchka (with a Broadway musical in between the two film versions), there is definitely some similar dialogue. We do get George Tobias in both movies, although he plays different parts in each movie (and neither are very long). But really, not much else beyond the very basic story is the same.
So let’s get some of those obligatory surface differences out of the way. First, Ninotchka = comedy, Silk Stockings = musical. Secondly, outside of the leading lady’s character having the same first name (and nickname), none of the characters share names between the two movies. Thirdly, Ninotchka had the Russians coming to sell some jewelry to buy food for the Russian people, with the sale being delayed by the original owner and her lover. Silk Stockings has the Russians coming after a Russian composer who is seeking asylum and providing music for a movie producer, who is trying to prevent him being taken back to Russia.
There are certainly some differences in characterization, but the three commissars do seem to be a bit more vivid. In Ninotchka, when we first meet them, they are already showing signs of wanting to enjoy some of the benefits of staying in a capitalistic society. Instead of staying in the hotel their government had already arranged for, they are arguing themselves into a better and classier hotel, and decide to go with the royal suite, at least partly because it has a safe for them to store the jewels in. In Silk Stockings, since they are coming after Boroff the composer, it’s up to Fred’s Steve Canfield to distract them with the glitz and glamour, almost like a devil who knows how to tempt some of the people he has to deal with and keep them from their mission.
Another major difference, to me, is how the two movies treat the Russians. While Ninotchka is intended as a comedy and a satire of communism, the Russians are not being portrayed in a completely negative light. Sure, the three commissars want to enjoy the benefits of capitalism away from their own country and we see some of the problems of communism itself (including the reference to the then-recent mass trials that resulted in “fewer and better Russians”), but the fact remains that they are in Paris to sell the jewelry to buy more food for their people. Which really puts the Grand Duchess Swana in a bad light, as she just wants her jewels and doesn’t really seem to care at all what happens to the Russian people. And, to a degree, Melvyn Douglas’s Count Leon comes around to the idea of communism, at most, being frustrated with the Russian government for denying him a visa to come and see Ninotchka when she goes back to Russia. Silk Stockings goes a different route, not portraying them as well. In between them trying to force composer Peter Boroff to return (and the three commissars), the political philosophy is never embraced by Fred Astaire’s Steve Canfield (which in some respects injects a bit of sexism and American disregard for other cultures into the story, considering it is used as this story’s excuse to separate the two lovers and have her return to Russia of her own free will). Personally, I suspect this change was partly due to how society changed between the two movies, in between the start of the Cold War and the anti-communist feelings that had swept the country.
As to which movie I prefer? Silk Stockings. It’s been the version of the story that I’ve seen the most (and for many more years). While I do think Greta Garbo was the better actress (both overall and in this role), I still can’t deny that, for me, Fred Astaire brings a magic of his own, that I have enjoyed for a number of years. Not to mention my opinion that I much prefer watching Cyd’s Ninotchka transformation between Fred dancing with her to “All Of You” and Cyd’s solo dance to the title tune as she changes from her drab outfit into a dress. The music by Cole Porter is catchy, the dancing is fun to watch, and it’s just overall easier to sit down and watch Silk Stockings. I can’t deny there are some things that require either seeing Ninotchka or at least some knowledge of what the Soviet Union was like, such as the one guy who passes through Ninotchka’s living area (in Ninotchka, we are given the explanation that he is the type that you can never tell whether he is just going to the washroom or to the secret police, and that explanation is absent when he walks through during the “Red Blues” number in Silk Stockings). But, while I do prefer Silk Stockings, Ninotchka is no slouch, either, and I would definitely recommend both movies highly!
My Rating: 9/10
My Rating: 10/10
The Winner (in my opinion): Silk Stockings