Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cyd Charisse, 1921-2008

I was less than 10 years old but I can still remember my father's expression when one morning he told me he was going to watch Brigadoon. "Who's in it?" I asked. "Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse." "Cyd Charisse? Who's he?"

With great emphasis: "SHE."

"A lady named Cyd?"

"YES, honey."

"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."


Karen said...

Wow. That closing Astaire quote should go on her tombstone.

My own first exposure to Cyd was that number in "Singin' in the Rain." I was probably a 12-year-old girl at the time, but I can totally identify with the servicemen Shipman describes. That was the thing about her--she seduced women as well as men. I remember my own mother--a fairly old-fashioned, uptight woman--exclaiming in wonder all over again at the sight of those 7-league legs wrapping themselves around Gene Kelly.

Actually, I say I can identify with those 1952 fly-boys, but I really can't. I will, however, spend some happy moments thinking about the mixture of joy and agony the sight of Cyd in that particular number must have brought to those servicemen, a long way from home.

She was just magnificent. The NYTimes obit has a nice picture of her and Tony Martin from early this year. She still had those cheekbones.

Dan said...

When the Siren writes about 'em, they stay written about. Or something like that.

Gerard Jones said...

Interesting how Cyd struck us all at a certain age. I was about 13 when I saw Singin' in the Rain on TV and she was an explosive event in my emerging sexuality. This would have been about 1970, the height of the mini-skirt era, so I was quite familiar with female legs, but I'd never dreamed there were legs like that. Or that legs could move like that.

My parents had encouraged me to watch it because they figured I'd find it fun, and I surely did, but I felt I mustn't say a word about how the woman in the "Gotta Dance" routine affected me--too embarrassing, too precious and too dangerous all at once. In fact, I didn't learn her name until later because I was afraid even to ask "Who was that?"

Wonderful writing, Siren. Somehow as sexy as Cyd herself.

Brian Doan said...

Siren, I knew I could count on you to sum up everything so beautifully. A wonderful, wonderful post.

Brian said...

Great post. Love the images. And the memories.

She certainly appeared radiantly happy and beautiful when interviewed before a screening of Silk Stockings at the Castro Theatre a few years ago.

I'm sad she's gone, but thankful I still have a long way to go to catch up with her filmography.

Campaspe said...

Thanks very much. This is a hard one; for years it has made me happy to know she was alive and well and looking dynamite.

The burning question now is: Has Karen or Peter Nelhaus seen Mission to Moscow? anybody?

Karen said...

It pains me to have to say it, Siren, but no: I've not seen Mission to Moscow. I've seen other pro-Soviet propaganda films: The Demi-Paradise (less pro-Soviet, really, than pro the Anglo-Soviet alliance, with a great deal of British self-congratulation) and The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (which is a TRIP), but not the one with our Cyd.

Shall we petition TCM with prayer?

wwolfe said...

Like others, I first saw Cyd when I was about 12, and I remember thinking - or sensing - that here was something grown-up. I think that probably puzzled and excited me in equal measure. Come to think of it, the ability to do exactly that must be at least part of the definition of the classic Hollywood star. Which she clearly was, no matter that her status was based on a relatively small number of movies.

Thanks for the post.

Campaspe said...

Karen, I'm not even sure how available Mission to Moscow is. Has TCM *ever* shown it? or anyone else, lately? It was a WB picture so it's certainly part of their archive. What they need is an Our Soviet Allies night, with Song of Russia and The North Star following MtM and then maybe The Fountainhead for balance.

According to IMDB & elsewhere, she was credited as "Lily Norwood" in Mission, which reeks of the Name Factory. "You're Vicki Lester!"

Wwolfe, there was nothing girlish about Charisse at her peak, and didn't we love her for it. But Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Film has a post pointing out that she was always refined, too. It was a dignified sexy, always in full control, nothing self-abasing ever.

Frank Conniff said...

Cyd's marriage to Tony Martin always seemed odd to me because she was so way, way, way out of his league in terms of talent. But they were married all these years since 1948, and obviously he made her happy, so God bless Tony Martin.

The Europhile said...

Just saw Party Girl on the movie channel, that woman was fierce!

I have the MM collection, and in the last disc, the last 100 days of Marilyn, the voiceover talks about how ‘little time’ Mme Charise had for Mme Monroe and her antics in ‘somethings gotta give’…makes me think how diametrically opposed those two beauties were, one all confidence, the other all vulnerability, however, how could ya not love both…’

HenryFTP said...


Glad you mentioned Two Weeks in Another Town, a messy film with a mediocre screenplay and some terrible acting (George Hamilton) -- but Cyd Charisse takes a sketchily-drawn caricature femme fatale and makes her vividly believable. Such a shame that Hollywood pigeonholed her as a dancer -- when you had a performer like that who could "all but ignite the film stock", as Siren so aptly says, they still couldn't figure out what to do with her -- I guess she was just too tall, unconventional looking and well adjusted for them.

Kevin Wolf said...

For me, as for many others, Singin' In the Rain is the movie where Cyd got me. I still think the moment when she literally throws herself onto Kelly, in the speakeasy dance scene, is one of the most erotic in movie history.

They don't make 'em - movies or dancers - like that anymore, it seems. But should the question ever come up a peek at her movies will surely prove that they once did.

Marvelous post. Thanks.

Gloria said...

I recall seeing Brigadoon on TV and quite enjoying it, just to read, shortly afterwards a critic bashing it on
"shot on the back lot" grounds... But then some critics seem unable to,sit down, relax and enjoy a darn good film.

On of the most usual criticisms on Brigadoon is the luxuriant Anscolor: apparently there's a film color standard for some which declares "Brigadoon" phtography as heretic... Can't dreamlands be imagined as raving rainbow places?

She's of course great in "The Band Wagon "but I confess guiltily that in that film I was mostly following Oscar Levant: what a character!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I agree with your defense of "Bridgadoon" being shot on the back lot. It was a fantasy. Sometimes making a film as realistic as possible defeats the purpose. Cyd Charisse was unique.

fooemery said...

Thanks for the great post - like everyone else, I'm blown away by Cyd Charisse in Singin in the Rain. Even as a woman, I can only say..."WOW!"

I saw her about 15 years ago when I got asked to help out at a Vanity Fair Photo Shoot - my friends and I were assigned to old MGM and other movie stars (mine was Eva Marie-Saint - what a doll!)and when Cyd Charisse came in, even at an advanced age, everyone turned to stare. She was still statuesque and elegant - she looked better than most younger women at the party! Even at 25, I was envious!

Belvoir said...

Great appreciation, Siren- Charisse really brought joy and elegance.

You mentioned looking for recent pictures of her; this isn't recent, but Charisse appears in a graceful turn in Janet Jackson's "Alright" video, from 1990. She's 67, looks smashing, does a lovely high kick and dance with Jackson. It's sweet. She appears at 2:55 in the video:

Vanwall said...

I watch "Brigadoon" as a kind of lost relic - it deliberately looks staged, possibly the most of any musical, but outside of Cyd, there is nothing too memorable about it - I still watch it tho, it's so pretty. That said I'd watch Cyd washing dishes, or scooping a cat box - she would've done it in style, no doubt about it. I liked the Brooks tribute in "Singin' in the Rain", it's a kind of back-door way to have gotten her into a musical. I think Cyd Charrise and Moira Shearer were best dancers on film, because they were primarily ballet by training and inclination - Cyd was a Ballet Russe expatriate, and it shows.
When she falls into Kelly's arms in the "Gotta Dance" segment, my first thought was, "Wow! She's a big girl! That's some confidence when you trust your partner that much - how did he not drop her a coupla times in rehersals?"
'Course, later when I found out about her ballet training, that must've been small potatoes. I wish she had more shots at good acting parts, she was more than a pair of legs.

Bob Westal said...

Yup, another great post, and kind of touching about how you've sort of kept up with her.

Anyhow, I obviously agree with you about "It's Always Fair Weather" -- that one just seemed to hit her acting as well as her dancing sweet spot.

As for the problems of "Brigadoon" being related to being shot on sets -- balderdash, I say! That kind of musical (and a musical fantasy at that) is the antithesis of realism and too much realism in the settings has ruined a lot of late period musicals. Realistic settings usually just emphasize the unreality of the moment and can make that crucial moment when the song starts, and the other crucial moment when it finishes, all the more awkward. (There are exceptions and I have some other theories, but that's a lengthy blog post for me to write sometime...or maybe I already have.)

Personally, I think "Brigadoon" failed because it was just plain stagy -- which is not the same thing as looking theatrical, it's how you shoot it. You're right that Minelli really seems to have a hard time with 'scope (especially on a TV set, everyone looks like they're a million miles away, which is probably one reason its reputation is so bad), but I think it was probably mainly the age-old problem of adapting stage works for the screen that doomed it.

Campaspe said...

Frank, Raymond de Felitta at Movies Til Dawn did a couple of very nice posts about Tony Martin and his brief movie career,

. They were such a great couple.

Europhile, I saw a documentary about Something's Got to Give that included a pieced-together version of what footage there was from the movie. Marilyn never looked more beautiful and her acting was fine, too. But Charisse looked tightly wound and was playing very, very shrill, an unusual choice for her that may have stemmed from slowly being driven crazy by MM.

Kevin, it really was an electrifying moment and cast poor Debbie Reynolds way in the shade.

Gloria & Jacqueline, I am so glad you share some love for Brigadoon. I think Bob nails it in his comment lower down--it's stagey more than anything and you can almost hear Minnelli grinding his teeth over how to film things. The best parts are where Minnelli clearly said "aw, the hell with it" and just filmed the way he might have with the old aspect ratio, as he does with the dance in "Heather on the Hill." At the beginning, when Kelly is singing, seems Minnelli is trying to fill up space--they're foreground, they're background, they're off to one side so let's stick some sheep to fill in. But when the dance starts the camera just follows them and you don't worry about whether the screen is being filled out or not, it's Cyd and Gene. (see here.

Campaspe said...

Fooemery, welcome and thanks! I don't know you, but you have just earned my eternal jealousy. Helping out on a photo shoot with old MGM stars ... assigned Eva Marie Saint ... saw Charisse do a high kick ...
I'm sorry, I have to go lie down now.

Karen said...

I don't follow much criticism, so I had no idea that Brigadoon was faulted for being shot on a backlot--I'm sorry, did these critics also think that Gene Kelly was singin' and dancin' in the rain on an actual Hollywood street?

As to whether it's stagey, instead: I'm not sure why that should matter. It's a great story, with a great cast, terrific songs, some very snappy dialogue, and That Dancing. Why ask for the moon when you have the stars?

Incidentally, the NYTimes editorial observer had a nice tribute to Charisse today:

Noel Vera said...

Whoa--belittling Brigadoon and Minnelli using 'scope! Good thing this isn't the a_film_by forum...

Anyone ever mention Charisse enjoying her first pair of silk stockings? I badly wanted to be that mirror.

Campaspe said...

Noel, I love Brigadoon, truly I do, but look at the opening part of "Heather"'s staging and tell me I'm wrong. In my view Minnelli gained a much great command of the aspect ratio later on, but in his memoirs he disses the Scope quite a lot and expresses relief that the movies were going back to the old aspect ratios (the book was written in 1974):

"I disliked the shape of the widened screen. I never felt the screen was truly wider, it just tended to cut off the top and bottom of the picture. This had actually been done with The Band Wagon...Some theaters used the Cinemascope mat and cut off Fred's feet in his dancing scenes. This was heresy."

I should re-watch the whole thing; as I remember the opening market number is very fluid and exciting. As Minnelli says, it's the intimate moments that waver.

hamletta said...

I, too, dearly loved Ms. Charisse, but I'm mystified by all the Brigadoon love.

Gawd, I hate everything about that movie except Van Johnson.

FDChief said...

Silk Stockings was my revelation, and I agree that the experience of watching Cyd express, without words, her sensual delight in her new girly clothes gave this boy a whle 'nother level of understanding of "body language".

One of the things I love about her is her size, both physical and on the screen. She takes no prisoners and as such may be why she was such agreat partner for that ig ol' terpsichorean hambone Gene Kelly. You can see she's not a bit intimidated by the guy; if anything, she tops him when the scene needs her to. But more than anything she partners him, and I think their dances are the most successful of his couples dancing.

Didn't Gene say at one point that Cyd was his favorite dance partner?

Lovely lady.

Campaspe said...

Belvoir, thanks so much for the Youtube link. Dancers age incredibly well as a general rule. One of the perks.

Vanwall, I loved Shearer as well and was also very sad when she passed away. We shared a birthday.

Karen, I agree. For me, Brigadoon works very well and Cyd was never more beautiful. Sexier, maybe, but never lovelier.

Campaspe said...

Hamletta, at least we do agree on Van Johnson! Why couldn't he have been that much fun in everything? Minnelli had very nice things to say about his performance, too.

FDChief, I think everybody said Charisse was their favorite. I was over at Youtube looking at some early duets she did with Ricardo Montalban and she makes him look great, too.

Andrea Janes said...

What a lovely, graceful post.
(Can a blog post be graceful?)

Also wanted to say that I like the new banner -- even her feet were gorgeous!

ajmilner said...

The first AP dispatch of Charisse's obit referred to her husband as "Tony BENNETT." Ouch.

FYI: "The Girl Hunt" in THE BAND WAGON was actually the work of an uncredited Alan Jay Lerner, then part of the Freed unit.

Campaspe said...

Andrea, thanks so much. I loved the Joan Collins banner but it felt wrong to have Joan "dancing" when the great Charisse was no more ... Joan herself would probably agree.

I didn't know that about Lerner! It's such a great number, funny, sexy and dazzling.

Lou Lumenick said...

I introduced "Mission to Moscow'' at the Museum of the Museum of the Moving Image a few years ago. Cyd appears briefly as the lead dancer in a Bolshoi Ballet sequence. She is NOT billed as Lily Norwood, but as "Sid'' Charisse in the press book (but not on the film itself). "Mission'' shows up every couple of years on TCM, usually in the middle of the night. I have been lobbying TCM to put this fascinating pro-Soviet propaganda piece (directed by Michael Curtiz and, according to Jack Warner, commissioned by FDR himself) out on DVD, but it's not on their priority list.

Campaspe said...

Thanks, Lou, I'm delighted and flattered to see you here. I have read that as an adventure/thriller, Mission to Moscow is a fairly well-crafted and watchable film. Of course, "politics aside" is an impossibility with this particular movie, both for what it was glossing over at the time and the controversy it generated later. I'm quite serious when I say TCM should do a night of those pro-Soviet curios, as they are a bizarre but important chapter in Hollywood history.

surlyh said...

I'll echo many here in saying sad news, great tribute.
Charisse might have been more a dancer than an actress, but what a dancer. She was striking in a way that only certain stars are striking, as a physical, animal presence. She seemed bigger (or is that longer?) than life.
Like Gerard, I can attest to her powers over young boys. She still holds that power over me today.
And a special thanks for citing the "Dancing in the Dark" number, one of my favorites.

After reading this, of course I had to write a limerick obit for Cyd at my limerick blog, Limerick of the Day.

Mantys said...

I enjoyed reading this :) I found out about Charisse and also whole gold cinema era, about a year ago. Felt in love with it... I wish it comes back in style, or at least gets more attention these days, it was a great time people had in USA.

Oh, besides, I like Cyd's acting too. And it's amazing how well she knew dancing.... That classsss !! :D

James Higham said...

Did you see her on What's My Line? She was fantastic, so elegant, such a sense of humour, so self-effacing. If she hadn't already got you with that dancing and sensuality, she hit you now with her ultra-femininity. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

MCA said...

At the age of 12, I was watching 'That's Entertainment' with my mom. Nothing special going on; they are wrapping up the Fred Astaire tribute narrated by Gene Kelly. By this point, we had seen him dance with Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, Jack Buchanan, and in several solo numbers, ending with his ceiling dance in Royal Wedding. Then, quite sublimely, they dissolve to him and Ms. Charisse in a Central Park idyll- both in summer white, doing the most beautifully choreographed courtship dance I'd ever seen. Memories of "The Bandwagon" frequently point to 'The Girl Hunt,' but fewer, it seems, point to "Dancing in the Dark.' And I'd never seen Astaire with a partner who was not only brunette, but had raven black hair, and otherwise quite the exotic beauty. But she was in sensible ballet flats, and the plain shirtdress she wore was one of those fully pleated skirts that would flare out at the slightest provocation of a spin. I turned to my mom and asked her, "who's this?" And she told me, "a true dancer." The lady just stood out- even in a simple setting like this. In later years I would watch her in a green dress and Louise Brooks bob, bewitching Gene Kelly in a speakeasy and still later see her in an erotic Arabian Nights pastiche with James Mitchell in the otherwise forgotten 'One Alone' from "Deep in my Heart." But she managed to make me fall in love with her anew each time I saw her in a new film. She will be missed.