Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cyd Charisse

Cyd Charisse in her favorite musical number, the "Dancing in the Dark" sequence with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953).

I was saddened to read this morning that Cyd Charisse had passed away on Tuesday at the age of 86. Born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, Charisse was one of those rare actresses who combined an erotic, animal physicality with elegance, grace and class. I always imagined her as something of a noble pantheress. She was certainly was one of the greatest dancers in movie musicals.

Luckily for us, she partnered on several occasions with the two greatest male dancers in film, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Her dual animal/elegant nature worked perfectly with the strongest attributes of both of men. And it's notable that the best Astaire and Kelly musicals of the 1950s were the ones featuring Cyd Charisse: The Band Wagon, (1953) Silk Stockings, (1957) and Singin' in the Rain (1952).

As Astaire once famously said, "That Cyd! When you've danced with her you stay danced with."

The New York Times has an obituary (with a slideshow on her career), as well as appreciations by Verlyn Klinkenborg and Manohla Dargis.

Klinkenborg's favorite Charisse number is when she dances with her lingerie in Silk Stockings. She plays a stern Soviet commissar who has come to Paris to retrieve three Soviet emissaries who've gone astray in the city of lights. Ice cold when she arrives, she gradually gives in to Fred Astaire's romantic overtures, the charms of Paris, and the simple delights of captialism, including French lingerie. At one point, alone in her hotel room, she turns the photo of Stalin that she keeps by her bed face down on the nightstand. Furtively and with a feeling of shame at first, she begins to enjoy the silk stockings and then the nightie that she's secretly purchased. It's a beautiful, sensual number.

Part I:

Part II (a better print) is available at YouTube.

Dargis' favorite Charisse sequence is from The Band Wagon, but not the "Dancing in the Dark" scene.

I prefer the film’s “Girl Hunt Ballet,” a spoof of a Mickey Spillane pulp in which Astaire plays a detective who partners with a willowy blonde and a smokin’ brunette, both danced by Ms. Charisse. The blonde has her allure, but not the brunette’s sex appeal — or her dress, a red-hot number with tassels hanging from each torpedolike breast. “She came at me in sections,” the detective says of the brunette, with “more curves than a scenic railway.” Choreographed by Michael Kidd, the athletic number makes the most of her legs, which thrust through the front slit of her dress like a boxer’s jabs.
Here's a clip:

Cyd Charisse's own favorite performance, "Dancing in the Dark," ranks as one of the most beautiful moments ever in a musical. Jeff posted about the scene a few months back. Here's Klinkenborg's description of the sequence:
And if I had to choose only one moment to remember Charisse by, it would be her silent duet with Astaire in “The Band Wagon.” The song is “Dancing in the Dark,” the setting is Central Park, and, as usual, the overlapping illusions are nearly confounding. There they are — two professional dancers, carefully choreographed and rehearsed, playing two professional dancers dancing spontaneously on a soundstage that is meant to be Central Park, and all the while they are feigning an almost reproachful, amorous awareness of each other that conceals the hard-working awareness of two pros on the job. It was Cyd Charisse’s remarkable gift to move through the hall of mirrors that is the American movie musical and never be caught glancing at herself.
"Dancing in the Dark"

Charisse also had several famous dance numbers with Gene Kelly. It was her appearance in Singin' in the Rain that turned her into a starring lady. It's great watching Charisse with the athletic and powerful Kelly. She complimented him well.

And though I didn't really like Brigadoon that much, I did enjoy Charisse and Kelly in the "Heather on the Hill" sequence:

Thanks, Cyd. May you dance forever. . . .


fg said...

Who would have guess she was from Amarillo...

crystal said...

For some reason I always thought she was French. I've never seen any of thos movies, so thanks.

Hey, are you willing to try for two out of three in scrabulous? :)

cowboyangel said...


Well, there are numerous famous dancers from Texas: Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller, Alvin Ailey, Tommy Tune, Mary Martin and Debbie Allen. . . .

And numerous famous folks from West Texas: Debbie Reynolds and Gene Roddenberry from El Paso, Buddy Holly from Lubbock, Roy Orbison from Wink, Woody Harrelson from Midland, Thomas Haden Church from El Paso, I think . . .

So you just never know.

cowboyangel said...


You've never seen Singin' in the Rain? You really should. It's very funny and entertaining. The Band Wagon, which some think is even better than Singin' in the Rain (both were written by Betty Comden and Aldoph Green) and Silk Stockings are also quite funny and delightful. Must-see movies!

Brigadoon one can skip. Not terrible, but too schmaltzy.

I thought Cyd Charisse was French for a long time myself. "Charisse" is actually a French name: she married a dancer named Nico Charisse in Paris when she was younger.

Of course we can play Scrabulous again. Invite me. That way you get to go first.

crystal said...

Nope, I've never seen Singing in the Rain. I tried to send you an invitation to scrabulous but can't seem to make it work :(

Jeff said...

Wow, this really made me sad, and I haven't read or heard about in anywhere else except here.

I echo everyone else here, I was surprised to learn that "Tula" was from Texas. I thought she was European too. The pantheress comparison is apt. Great animal magnetism. She was very sexy. Tall, strong, graceful. Great pins. Who could ever forget her kicking Gene Kelly's glasses around. :-D

She was one of the greats. At least some people like us will miss her.

cowboyangel said...

Crystal, Go right now and get Singin' in the Rain from the library! I cannot, in good conscience, remain friends with someone who's never seen Singin' in the Rain. :-)

I'll invite you to Scrabulous and pass my first turn.

cowboyangel said...


Yeah, outside of the NY Times, her death didn't seem to get much coverage. Truly sad. I think she was more admired than some news people realize. I was intrigued that the Times had THREE articles about her in two days. That was nice.

Yes, she easily had the greatest legs of all-time in cinema. Not even sure who would come close.