1921 to 2008
Pure glamour and romantic escapism
If you once sat enthralled by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals, the name Cyd Charisse evokes Technicolor images of pure glamour and romantic escapism, images that have long since passed into film history. Shown above with Fred Astaire in MGM’s The Band Wagon (1953), Charisse – who was to movie dance partners as rhythm is to blues – died of complications from a heart attack in Los Angeles on Tuesday, June 17. She was 86.
You won’t see her like today.
In contemporary musicals like Mamma Mia (2008) and Hairspray (2007), actors still break into song and dance, but it’s not the same as watching icons of the genre like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon. Not that Charisse ever broke into song – unless her voice was dubbed. She could not sing a note, and her acting was at best “on cue,” according to one critic.
The epitome of dance
But let her waltz into the arms of Fred Astaire to the tune of “Dancing in the Dark” against a backdrop of Central Park, and the effortless elegance of her skill is breathtaking. (Eat your heart out, Dancing with the Stars!) Sure, Ginger Rogers and Astaire were terrific. But Charisse and Astaire represented the epitome of dance pairs. So did Charisse and Gene Kelly.
What Charisse lacked in acting ability, she made up for in characterizations. In Singin’ in the Rain, for example, she lures Gene Kelly in the movie’s climactic “Broadway Melody” finale (shown right) – not with voluptuous curves or sultry words – but with the longest, most awesome pair of legs since Marlene Dietrich. Like the greatest of mimes, she conveyed emotion through inspired movement and on-the-mark attitude. Yet, some of Charisse’s most joyous routines were choreographed in groups, as when she danced her way through the Judy Garland classic, The Harvey Girls (1946).
The Heather on the Hill
Those legs (supposedly insured for $5 million back in the day), able to knock the hat off Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain or wrap around Astaire in Silk Stockings (1957), carried the star through all kinds of production numbers, from the “Frankie and Johnny” vamp in Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956) to the eternally youthful Scottish lass, twirling over the highlands with Kelly (shown left) in Brigadoon (1954). Charisse paid homage to both Kelly and the picture in a 1994 compilation of best movie musical moments (That’s Entertainment III), by calling “The Heather on the Hill” her favorite of all her routines.
With what was described in the Washington Post as her “ravishing grace,” Charisse dazzled audiences throughout the mid-1940s and ’50s, a prancing thoroughbred who combined sophistication and class with unearthly grace. Astaire (shown at right with Charisse in The Band Wagon) and Kelly regularly featured her in dance sequences, even though she played no part whatsoever in the plot. With her dark, come-hither eyes and miraculous smile, the woman Astaire called “beautiful dynamite” spun across the screen in stiletto heels and sequined sheaths like a dazzling comet – hot, yet coolly and utterly in control.
Trained in ballet before she caught the attention of MGM talent scouts, Charisse once confided to dancer/choreographer Ann Reinking that she had no big secrets to reveal. “Oh, it’s just like anything else, dear,” she said. “Practice, practice.”
The love of her life
Born Tula Ellice Finklea in 1921 in Amarillo, TX, Charisse was nicknamed “Sid” when a sibling had trouble saying “Sis.” She changed the spelling to “Cyd” after she took the name of her ballet teacher, Nico Charisse, who she married while dancing with the Ballets Russes in France. The union didn’t last long.
The real love of her life was her second husband, singer-actor Tony Martin. They married in 1948, had one son, Tony Martin Jr. (shown right with his parents) and were married for 60 years.
Martin survives his wife, along with their son, Tony, as well as Charisse’s son by her first marriage, Nicky Charisse. [KBL]
[Movie photos from MGM]