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Dancing in the Dark: Cyd Charisse (1921 - 2008)

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Dancing in the Dark: Cyd Charisse (1921 - 2008)

It’s often been said that Cyd Charisse was the greatest female movie dancer, and she was able to partner the very different styles of the two great male movie dancers, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Her only real rival is Eleanor Powell, a prodigious hoofer who came from the world of slightly klunky tap-dancing, whereas Charisse had trained to be a ballerina and even danced with the Ballet Russes when she was a young girl. Ballet provided the backbone of her rock-solid technique, yet when she danced straight ballet on screen, something was missing; in trying to be overly correct for ballet dancing, Charisse looked too tall, too leggy. But give her something jazzy, something modern, something fifties, and she does things with her body that are hard to describe, let alone understand.

She was born Tula Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, and the name “Cyd” came from her brother calling her “Sid” instead of “sister” as a child, while the “Charisse” came from her first husband, a dancer named Nico. “Cyd Charisse” was a fantastic name for her: it sounds like back alleys strewn with colored streamers, a mix of grit and fancy style. MGM signed her in their forties musical heyday, smoothing out her Texas accent and giving her the full treatment in lessons and grooming. This early training would show itself in the stiff, anxious rectitude of her acting; Pauline Kael once cracked that in The Band Wagon (1953) it sounded as if Charisse “learned her lines phonetically,” and that’s not far from the truth. Charisse seemed worried that Texas would somehow come through in her voice, and she is very uncomfortable with dialogue in The Band Wagon and her early films. However, by the time of It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), her acting is perfectly serviceable, though no match for her ring-a-ding-ding, pugilistic dance number with boxers in a ring.

There are five essential Cyd Charisse films. The first is Singin’ in the Rain (1952), where she shows up with a Louise Brooks hairdo in the final big number. First, we see her shapely foot in close-up. Then, the camera moves up her leg, and moves, and moves, and moves. This is a woman with legs for days, and after we finally get to her torso, the camera moves up, and we see that she has a face that seems to be hard and humid with insatiable sexual appetite. Charisse was only five foot seven, but the incredible length of her legs and arms made her seem like an Amazon, a creature from another world. Her thighs were very fleshy, and she delighted in using their sensual amplitude for erotic effect, slyly sliding down Gene Kelly’s leg to the floor, a “bad woman” to dream about.

The second essential is The Band Wagon, where she moves into definite Queen of the Goosebumps territory in her two major dances with Fred Astaire, “Dancing in the Dark,” a lyrical romantic number, and the extended “Girl Hunt” number, a parody of Kelly’s “concept” ballets; these two numbers are Charisse’s clearest ticket to immortality. During “Girl Hunt,” when Astaire enters a dive and sees Charisse seated at a bar, she hesitates for just the right amount of time before doffing her greenish cloak and revealing the reddest damn scarlet woman red dress in movie history, with unapologetic little tassels hanging from her beautiful breasts. When the music speeds up, we’re in a kind of no man’s land: I really don’t know how Charisse does what she does here. Part of the magic is her technical skill, of course, but a huge part of it comes from her, and it has to do with a kind of taunting yet witty sexuality that actually makes the icy Astaire look randy in response. At the height of their pulsating, “are we being serious?” interplay, Charisse extends her epic legs out to Astaire on five horn blasts: one, two, three, four, five, and on the fifth beat she turns. Then, one, two, three, four, five, and on that crucial fifth beat, she flings her whole upper body backwards to the rhythm. That’s math, maybe, or dance. But the way that she throws her head back on that second beat of five is quite possibly the most thrilling single moment I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The boxing number in the underrated It’s Always Fair Weather is Charisse’s third marvel, and her fourth is Rouben Mamoulian’s musical remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), Silk Stockings (1957), a flawed movie, but a high point in Charisse’s development as a movie dancer. Let’s remember the exploratory sexiness of her solo dance as she unwraps delicate Parisian underwear, and the late tour-de-force with Astaire in long takes where they go through more emotions in movement than most actors do in a whole Shakespearean performance. Best of all, let’s remember and resurrect Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (1958), Charisse’s fifth wonder, an underrated, modernist Technicolor noir full of pain and discomfort.

Charisse has two major dances in Party Girl, and they’re so detailed, so intense, so sexual, that they stand as her apotheosis. When I rented the film and saw these two dances, I could barely believe what I was seeing: I re-wound and watched them again and again, and then I called friends and told them to come over and watch the two Charisse dances in Party Girl with me. Jaws dropped, and the tape was re-wound many times for many people. Then I saw it on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art: it wasn’t a pan and scan tape, but in widescreen, as it was meant to be. And I still can’t get over those two ineffable, indescribable Charisse dances in Party Girl. That’s the thing about dance: even professional dance writers (which I am not) have difficulty capturing just what it is we are seeing when we see a great dancer like Cyd Charisse.

She lived a long and presumably happy life with her second husband, singer Tony Martin, and she was surprisingly effective as the be-feathered wife in Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), but her real legacy is those five films from the fifties. Late one night on television, I caught Astaire and Charisse doing “Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon. As I watched the two of them dance with each other, I suddenly felt, with total certainty, that life can’t possibly be completely meaningless, not if something like Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing together was created and still exists. That must mean something, I thought. And by that, I mean Charisse’s endless legs coming to a point on the beat of the music, the line of her body as her arms make their playful, often challenging and always heartfelt points in the air. Cyd Charisse died yesterday. That body that moved like no one else ever has will make no more movements. But her dances negate her death more resoundingly than any book of poems, any supreme novel, any gallery of paintings. On screen, she will always be moving, in both the literal and figurative sense, and that must mean something.

“Girl Hunt” from The Band Wagon:

“Baby, You Knock Me Out” from It’s Always Fair Weather:

Party Girl:

“Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon:

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.