Of the wonderful dancer/actresses who starred in the musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age - Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller, Leslie Caron, Vera-Ellen, Jane Powell... - Cyd Charisse, who passed away last week, was my favorite.
As in The Band Wagon, Charisse's greatest moments usually cast her as a woman whose jazzed-up dancing is seen as slumming somehow. In that sense she was perfectly of the 1950s, her sensuality boiling along under the surface as she gives her frequently wooden line readings. Then the music starts, she begins to dance and all hell breaks loose. You realize that here is the real Cyd, a dose of sex so strong that at some point in the dance her partner, even a great like Astaire or Kelly, seems bowled over by it.
In Band Wagons' "Girl Hunt Ballet," Fred Astaire's character says of Charisse's character, "She came at me in sections, more curves than a scenic railway. . . I wouldn't trust her any further than I could throw her, but she was my kind of woman." This is one of my favorite scenes in any musical:
Here's another sultry dance scene with Gene Kelly from Singing in the Rain:
The Independent mentions this scene:
Charisse recalled, "As the camera panned up my legs and my body, I was supposed to exhale a drifting plume of smoke. I had never smoked and it took me a long time, plus a lot of coughing, before I got it right." The result was, and is, a breathtaking piece of choreographic seduction, and established Charisse as a prime musical star.
Cyd Charisse's husband said that he "could tell who she had been dancing with that day on an MGM set. If she came home covered with bruises on her, it was the very physically-demanding Gene Kelly, if not it was the smooth and agile Fred Astaire." (IMDB)
The Awkward Blogger mentions many Cyd Charisse movies that I'm unfamiliar with, including The Ziegfeld Follies, Til the Clouds Roll By (with Angela Lansbury, among many others), and The Kissing Bandit, with Ann Miller and Ricardo Montalban* (great video links too).
I enjoyed the roles she played, from the two sultry vamp scenes above, to the stuck up dancer in Band Wagon, to the stern/sweet Russian bureaucrat in Silk Stockings. Bitch, Please says:
...Girl could MOVE. From sassy jazz moves to abstract modern works and everything in between, she could morph from good girl goddess to bad girl femme fatale without so much as saying a word--nothing needed to be spoken when you could express yourself so beautifully within your own limbs. Style, substance, smarts and sex appeal--one my personal heroines returns to that great big dance number set piece in the sky...
Although I love her performances in Singing in the Rain and The Band Wagon, my favorite movie of hers is Silk Stockings. In it, her stern character is sent to Paris to bring back a Soviet composer. There, she is romanced (and thawed (thawing to the right)) by Fred Astaire. My favorite dance, however, includes only the chorus and Cyd Charisse. Her exuberance is wonderful in "The Red Blues:"
A few more tributes:
- Bigmouth Indeed Strikes Again writes about meeting both Cyd Charisse and George Carlin.
...Her strength is one of the most remarkable qualities exhibited in the lovely “Dancing in the Dark” number, a slow and romantic pas de deux. Here her trademark long, sexy legs are mostly covered by the mid-calf white dress, whose accordion pleats swish every now and then to give us the briefest glimpse of thigh. No high heels in this number; she dances in flats, gray ballet slippers. No draping her slinky body over her partner; it is nearly a full minute into the dance before she and Astaire even touch each other. No jazz beat, no revealing costume, yet it is one of the most sensual dances she has ever performed.
And though we see less of her body, we seem to see more of Cyd. We see her self-contained world where dance is a most revealing self-expression. Her confidence is riveting. She does not seem to be playing to the audience as much as she seems to be pleasing herself. It’s one of those rare moments were we get to watch a person doing what that person was born to do...
...It’s impossible to imagine the Hollywood musical without her. Like the greatest American movie dancers, she showed how appearing on screen isn’t just a matter of mouthing words, but also moving through and holding space. And she was a stunning physical specimen, at once lean and beautifully curved, with a wasp waist that seems to have been naturally designed for a man’s hand to rest gently in its slope. She didn’t do all that much with her face, though on occasion she let loose a deliciously evocative leer.
Her legs could send viewers into raptures, and after watching “Singin’ in the Rain” again, it’s easy to see why. She’s on screen less than 10 minutes — simply called the Dancer — but she dominates the windup of this American classic. The number, “Broadway Melody Ballet,” occurs in a film within a film that takes flight with Kelly as an eager hoofer looking for his Broadway break, singing “Gotta Dance!” He slides on his knees toward the camera, abruptly stopping before his hat, which has somehow become perched on a foot attached to a long, long leg. He gapes (as do we) as that leg then rises straight in the air with phallic suggestiveness, a prelude to a carnal encounter that was as close to on-screen sex as was possible in the 1950s and wholly sublime..
That Cyd! When you've danced with her, you stay danced with.
* Fans of Fantasy Island, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, or the second and third Spy Kids movies may not know about Ricardo Montalban's musical past. Along with starring in movie musicals, he also was nominated for a Tony award as Best Actor in a Musical for Jamaica in the 1950's (Lena Horne also starred and was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical).