Power, Passion, and Pulchritude
by Ray Hagen
Cyd Charisse became a bonafide star in 1952 after nine years in movies and over a dozen films. The moviegoing public suddenly became mesmerized after her astounding dance duet with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, but all I could think back then was "Well, it's about time!"
Back in 1947, the year I turned eleven, I was already addicted to the movies, particularly musicals, and most particularly musicals with lots of dancing. That year I went to see Esther Williams in Fiesta, and there was this strikingly beautiful young actress in a secondary role playing Ricardo Montalban's love interest. They did a dance together, "La Bamba", very Spanish and Flamencoid, followed by an even hotter one, "Flaming Flamenco", and I was stone dazzled. Boy, could she dance! Who is she?, I wondered. She was of course the improbably named Cyd Charisse, and I sat through the movie three or four more times, just waiting for those two thrilling dances.
For the next few years I was first on line to see all her films; The Unfinished Dance where she played an elegant ballerina showing her ballet prowess and stooging for Margaret O'Brien; On an Island with You, reunited with Williams and Montalban and doing two more wondrous dance duets with him (I was already tired of seeing her play second fiddle to Esther); Words and Music, an all-star extravaganza in which she did a spirited jazz-ballet production number to a Rodgers & Hart medley (paired with the forgettable Dee Turnell) and waltzed about prettily while Perry Como sang "Blue Room"; and The Kissing Bandit, a truly execrable Frank Sinatra dud where all Cyd had to do was pop up from out of nowhere with Montalban and Ann Miller to do a rather sensational, and aptly titled, "Dance of Fury". I was able to catch up on some of her earlier films as well, and her strength and power as a dancer continued to electrify me. She was popular with audiences in a casual sort of way but I couldn't quite grasp why everyone else wasn't as besotted by her as I was. Metro clearly liked her, but apart from using her for dance specialties in their musicals and vapid roles in occasional dramas, they didn't seem to see her as star material. I did, but I wasn't consulted.
Where Metro used her most extensively was in the photo gallery. With that awesome face and flawless figure, she spent countless hours posing for portraits and pin-ups that filled the pages of newspapers and magazines. If her roles in movies didn't keep her firmly in the public consciousness, those eye-popping stills certainly did the job. None of the other excellent MGM dancing dolls - Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Marge Champion, Leslie Caron - even came close. Lawdy, those legs! Betty Grable? Please.
More unremarkable movies: A loanout with Montalban to Universal as a nice Spanish girl doing another hot dance with him in Mark of the Renegade, then back to MGM in Tension as a nice girl who picked up the pieces after bad-girl Audrey Totter finished gnawing the scenery; a nice girl in the sudsy East Side, West Side who played third fiddle to Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner; a nice Indian maiden in The Wild North; and a superstitious but nice Mexican girl in Sombrero. At least in that one she got to do a spectacular "Gypsy Dance", but the movie tanked. It was hard to see where the hell this career was going.
Then Singin' in the Rain hit town. Cyd didn't have a role in the movie, just appeared as a specialty dancer in the "Broadway Melody" ballet. She's first seen as Gene Kelly ends a frantic tap solo with a knee-slide that's stopped dead by a horizontally extended high-heeled foot, which the camera gradually follows to reveal a mile-long stockinged leg, a killer body in a shimmering green frock made for no purpose other than blatant display, and finally up to the face of Cyd Charisse in a severe Louise Brooks bob, leering at Kelly like Hitler leered at Poland and snorting smoke out of her nose! This was followed by an explosive dance that even topped that entrance for sheer wanton eroticism. It was all stupendously sexy and funny and a Cyd Charisse no one had ever seen before. In a movie chock-full of highlights, she caused a sensation.
So the supporting roles were over. MGM took notice and decided to co-star Cyd with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon, and she was arguably the best all-around dancer he ever teamed with. Their duet to "Dancing in the Dark" was a sublime meeting of two superb dancers speaking a very private language. Then came the classic "Girl Hunt Ballet", a send-up of the then-popular Mickey Spillane thrillers, with Cyd in a knockout redder-than-red variation of her "Broadway Melody" green dress being equally sexy and equally funny and definitely in on the joke. That did it. After two megahits in a row, planet earth decided to catch up with me. Well, high time.
I found myself having to adjust to Cyd Charisse as a star, which I happily did. So did MGM. They now gave her the big roles in the big properties, though she was more a CO-star, the leading lady to Astaire or Kelly. She acquitted herself admirably and revealed a seemingly unlimited range as a dancer. She was a likable if limited actress, and her singing was always dubbed, but when she danced she was electric. All the passion, fire and abandon missing in her acting detonated as soon as the music started. When she finally did get her own custom-tailored showcase vehicle, Meet Me in Las Vegas, she came through with a riveting display of terpsichorean chops in no less than five stunning dance specialties. From ballet to jazz, comic to carnal, hard-boiled to hoe-down, Cyd Charisse emerged as the most versatile and accomplished female dancer Hollywood had ever seen, and she even showed an unexpected gift for knockabout comedy. Looking for a quintessential "Cyd Charisse movie"? Rent Meet Me in Las Vegas.
But the next one, Silk Stockings, again paired with Astaire, was suddenly the last one! It was Cole Porter's last Broadway score, the last all-out Fred Astaire dancefest, and the last of the bigtime MGM musicals. Suddenly, it was over. Musicals were now dead in the water --- and Cyd Charisse was only 34. But rather than sit home and go movie-star nuts, she sensibly regrouped. She still did movies (sometimes as a very bad girl), danced on TV, and began a new international stage and nightclub career, frequently paired with singer-husband Tony Martin. As late as 1992 she made her Broadway debut, as the aging ballerina in Grand Hotel (replacing Liliane Montevecchi, her nemesis in the Meet Me in Las Vegas "Frankie and Johnny" ballet). She continued to do her ballet workout every day, year after year, and today looks as impossibly gorgeous as in her movie prime. With a stevedore work ethic and a "legend" she wears as casually as a poncho, she's not only survived, she's thrived.
When the VCR revolution hit, I saw my chance to get what I'd always dreamed of. I gathered up all of Cyd's musicals and transferred every one of her dance numbers to my own custom videotape. No plots, no talk, just Cyd Charisse dancing, uninterrupted, for four hours of pure bliss. Boy, could she dance! Apparently, even at eleven, I had very good taste.
And whatever became of this blithering teenaged Cyd Charisse fan?
He became a dancer.