With great emphasis: "SHE."
"A lady named Cyd?"
"So she was pretty?"
If all goes well with childrearing there aren't many moments where a parent says to himself "what the hell have I produced here?" but this was one for my father, I have no doubt. His face was beyond pained as he said, "All right. We'll watch this movie and then you tell me."
For many fans of Cyd Charisse, Brigadoon probably ranks somewhere between Meet Me in Las Vegas and that bit in The Harvey Girls where she sings (via dubbing) about being from Providence, Rhode Island. But as a child I thought it was swell and I still do. Why does everybody single out Brigadoon for being shot on the back lot? Does Seven Brides for Seven Brothers look like it was shot in Oregon? Does Easter Parade scream "sidewalks of New York" to you? Brigadoon is a fantasy, for crying out loud. Of course it doesn't look like Scotland. That is because Scotland has no magical disappearing 18th-century villages. In the Siren's view, Vincente Minnelli struggling with Cinemascope, which he disliked, had more to do with some of the movie's awkwardness than the obvious sets.
But there is still a lot to love. Minnelli lit the interiors to resemble Flemish paintings. The scene in the crowded Manhattan bar is brilliant. Van Johnson proved he could really act, and the Lerner and Loewe score is fabulously beautiful.
Most of all, "The Heather on the Hill" is sublime, with that sexual longing that's in all Charisse's dancing, married to a spiritual feeling in keeping with the film's mysticism.
So the Siren has a special place in her heart for Brigadoon for a number of reasons, but the greatest of these is undoubtedly that the movie was the first time she saw Cyd Charisse, the matchless dancer who died yesterday at age 86.
I think the next time I saw Charisse was in Singin' in the Rain. I like to think this was probably my father's introduction to her, as he was in the Army around this time, and could easily have been in an audience reacting exactly the way David Shipman describes here:
If you were in an air-force cinema, circa 1952, you'll never forget the sound which greeted the appearance of Cyd Charisse halfway through the climactic ballet in Singin' in the Rain. The audience to a man greeted the sinuous leggy beauty with a loud and prolonged 'Ooooaah!' As she slithered round an understandably bewildered Gene Kelly, there was uproar in the cinema. Cyd Charisse didn't do more than dance in Singin' in the Rain and people remember her in it.
It was a star-making turn such as few performers ever get. Up to that time the beautiful Texan had been getting herself married, having a son, getting divorced, then getting married to singer Tony Martin in 1948 and having another son. (One early role the Siren would like to see: Cyd's brief turn as Galina Ulanova in the notorious Mission to Moscow.) There were movies along the way as Hollywood gave her dancing numbers in generally inferior musicals and tried to find use for her in straight roles. She never comfortably adapted to non-musical parts, despite a pretty good late-career performance in the underrated Two Weeks in Another Town.
It was her run of musicals at MGM in the 1950s that guaranteed her immortality, including Singin' in the Rain and another masterpiece that followed it, The Band Wagon. Fred Astaire called "The Girl Hunt Ballet" his favorite dance. Charisse, who had been in a couple of noirs without making much of an impression, took a Mickey Spillane spoof and danced a femme fatale for the ages: "She was bad...she was dangerous. I wouldn't trust any further than I can throw her. But she was my kind of woman."
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.
So in The Band Wagon, she's a ballerina with a bad attitude about musicals, until she and Astaire go "Dancing in the Dark." In Meet Me in Las Vegas, she's a ballerina again, horrified by her contract to perform in Vegas, giving a nice-but-no-more bit from Swan Lake--and then all but igniting the film stock with "Frankie and Johnny."
She gave her best all-around performance in It's Always Fair Weather as a woman who harbors a brain under the bombshell exterior, sporting some dangerously feminist ideas in a cab scene with Gene Kelly, then raising the gym roof with a chorus of punch-drunk boxers in "Baby, You Knock Me Out." Her final musical at MGM had her taking the old Garbo role as a defrosted Soviet in the Ninotchka remake, Silk Stockings, discovering the power of her own beauty in a number partnered only by some lingerie and the items of the title. Her last great dancing part, in Nicholas Ray's Party Girl, brought the two-sided Cyd to some sort of apotheosis, as she tries to set Robert Taylor straight while performing two dances that would turn any good man bad.
For years now the Siren had occasionally searched around for current pictures of Charisse, and she always looked radiantly happy and beautiful. It was a great life, but it's still a sad day for us. The Siren leaves the final word to Astaire: "That Cyd! When you've danced with her, you stay danced with."