Posted by Moira Finnie on June 18, 2008
There she is. Elegant, strong, sexy and poetic all at the same time. The exquisite dancer without peer on film, one girl in the movies who never needed to say a word. She didn’t have to. Words were unnecessary.
She was Cyd Charisse, the consummate dancer whose grace and sensuality enhanced some of Hollywood’s greatest musicals, including Singin’ In the Rain and The Band Wagon. News came last night that she had died at 86 of a heart attack. But if you were awed by her regal mastery of movement on film, you thought immediately of that exquisite creature who enchanted and vamped the two best dancers in movies, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. That unique blend of erotic grace still beguiles us some sixty years after her first detectable appearance on film as an anonymous ballet dancer in the wartime drama Mission to Moscow (1943).
Born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas in 1921, (though some sources say 1922), she experienced what she described as “a slight case of polio, which resulted in an atrophied shoulder and me being very skinny. People were afraid to touch me. So in order to exercise my muscles and become part of the community again, I took dance lessons.” The daughter of a proud jeweller who was also a balletomane, by the time that she was six, Cyd, (who had been called “Sid” by her brother, who couldn’t pronounce “sis”; though the girl would change the spelling to something uniquely her own in Hollywood), had arrived in California and was already destined for the life of a professional dancer. Fortunately trained by a former dance partner of the consummate prima ballerina, Pavlova, Charisse soon began appearing internationally as a member of the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Adopting the name Felia Sidorova, as a member of the corps de ballet, she received a grounding in the discipline and grace of classical ballet that would be distinguish her work throughout her career.
Cyd had plenty of competition from her talented contemporaries: there was Ann Miller‘s remarkable tap-dancing, Leslie Caron‘s gamine ballet-trained charm and Vera-Ellen‘s blend of the two genres–all deserve to be cherished, but, for many of us, Cyd Charisse‘s presence was both more powerful and more mysteriously elusive. In the sizzling display of “Broadway Ballet” number in 1951′s Singin’ in the Rain and the gossamer, dream-like sequence with the veil in the same film, she embodied both profane and romantic ideals unforgettably, capturing our attention not just as a celluloid illusion of beauty, but as something unapologetically adult as well. Despite the then still powerful Hollywood censorship, because these dreams were presented through dance, much more was implied than could have been addressed in straight drama. In the demanding hands of Gene Kelly‘s sophisticated choreography, and the craftsmanship of the entire Freed unit, the full, iconic potential of this very talented dancer was first realized in this movie. Watch Charisse with any red-blooded American male even today. The effect is still electric.
The remarkable extension of Charisse’s legs on her healthy 5’7″ frame exhibited in the Broadway Ballet scene, was, she said, owed to her training in Russian ballet, though it was definitely influenced with more than a touch of artful burlesque as well. Of Mr. Kelly, the dancer later reflected that she’d found someone who understood how to utilize her extensive training on film more fully, commenting that “Gene was always interested in ballet, and he was more of a ballet partner. He was more of a physical dancer. He pulled you around and was strong enough to do lifts.”
Less memorable films of that same period, featuring some beautifully done work that is less well known, might also deserve a look to enjoy the consistency of her dancing as well. Among them are the odd, but interesting Fiesta (1947) and Deep In My Heart, (1954) a musical biography of composer Sigmund Romberg. In the latter movie, Cyd Charisse dances in one scene that reportedly caught the keen attention of the censors. According to Charisse, the production code enforcers climbed ladders to view her from above, making sure that she was adequately covered up throughout the sequence, which can be viewed below. In a rendition of “One Alone” danced with frequent MGM partner, the good actor and fine dancer James Mitchell, Charisse, (who was dubbed by vocalist Carole Richards, who would also sing for Charisse in Brigadoon, It’s Always Fair Weather and Silk Stockings), created a now little known, but transcendent moment. By the time of Party Girl (1957) the film world’s self-censorship was losing its grasp on the conscience and the distributors who were in competition with television for customers. Set in the 1920s and directed by the mercurial Nicholas Ray, MGM had no problems introducing this dazzling Vegas style routine for Charisse of a decidedly risqué nature, for its time:
A prime example of Cyd Charisse‘s discombobulating effect can also be seen in the first encounter of Fred Astaire‘s character with his co-star in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1952), sometimes regarded by aficionados as the pinnacle of movie musicals. Under choreographer Michael Kidd‘s guiding hand, her taut yet regal presence is showcased beautifully as she plays a ballerina learning to unbend enough to partner with Fred’s character, a down-at-his-heels movie star taking a shot at a Broadway musical. One of the loveliest and simply staged scenes in this or any musical film, set against the background of Central Park at night, follows the elegant couple through a casual pas de deux, dramatizing their tentative coming together with the sublimely lovely Dietz and Schwartz tune, “Dancing in the Dark”. As the music plays gently, the whole world seems to pause in a hush:
Later in the same movie, Cyd’s duality is again on display in the knock-out “Girl Hunt Ballet” that erupts near the end of the film. Fred Astaire’s description of Charisse in his autobiography as “beautiful dynamite” complemented the words of Betty Comden and Adolph Green‘s dialogue, when he says in this Mickey Spillane-like satire: “She came at me in sections, More curves than a scenic railway, She was bad, she was dangerous. She was my kind of woman.”
Reflecting on the privilege of working with Fred Astaire, Ms. Charisse commented that she found him a “perfect partner,” adding: “Fred moved like glass. Physically, it was easy to dance with him. ” Comparing Astaire and Kelly, she once mentioned that her husband of sixty years, the still active, 95 year old singer Tony Martin, could always tell which partner she was working with in a movie. “If I was black and blue,” she said, “it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.” Both men brought out her best.
As tastes changed, the great songwriters put down their pens and budgets got tighter later in the fifties, it would become more difficult to keep the artistic bar as high as it was in these films, but, as any of us who’ve been transported by the spell woven by Charisse‘s work in Brigadoon, It’s Always Fair Weather and Silk Stockings can attest, she was a key to their abiding appeal. As an actress, the critics and audiences might give her only grudging respect, especially when her natural dancer’s hauteur might come across as icy reserve or stiffness in less carefully made films. I do like Cyd Charisse as an actress, even in enjoyable vehicles that might not be anyone else’s faves, such as The Unfinished Dance (1947), which is a dark, sometimes poignant, sometimes loopy look at the obsessive world of dance co-starring Margaret O’Brien. The Unfinished Dance may be, along with the British masterpiece, The Red Shoes, another film that influenced many little girls to pursue ballet passionately. Other, largely non-musical movies I’ve liked that feature Ms Charisse in diverse roles such as Canadian Indian gals, Roaring ’20s chorine (with that requisite heart of gold), and a wildly decadent denizen of Rome jet set in the ’60s are The Wild North (1952), Party Girl (1958) and even Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). Best of all the moments in her films for me, however, especially since her screen persona seemed to fit the Ninotchka character in Silk Stockings so naturally, I love this scene in that 1957 film, when, all alone, the frosty commisar melts into the feminine romantic, at least when no one is looking at 3:28 into this clip:
To paraphrase the Cole Porter words crooned by an awestruck Fred Astaire to the melting Soviet glacier played by a lithesome Cyd in Silk Stockings—moviegoers everywhere love ”the east, west, north, and the south of you.”
Thank you for putting wings on our earthbound feelings through dance, Cyd Charisse.
Please click here for upcoming Cyd Charisse movies on TCM.
Fantle, David, Johnson, Tom, Reel to Real: 25 Years of Celebrity Interviews from Vaudeville to TV, Badger Books, LLC., 2004.
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