Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cyd Charisse Tripped the Light Fantastic Fantastically

Her grace and elegance both on screen and off were unparalleled, and appeared indomitable, until death claimed one of dancing’s greatest talents at age 86 yesterday. Fortunately film is forever, and Cyd Charisse will remain a glamorous, iconic presence via the string of memorable MGM musicals she starred in during the genre’s golden age. Charisse served nearly a ten-year apprenticeship at the studio (she was most prominently featured during this period in the 1946 Judy Garland hit The Harvey Girls) before breaking through at the perfect time in the cinema’s most perfect musical. Given her remarkable terpsichorean gifts and all-around comeliness, it’s surprising it took Charisse so long to make a major impact at MGM during the reign of the incredible Arthur Freed unit. She finally was allowed to stick out that endless ‘hat stand’ gam toward an appropriately awestruck Gene Kelly in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, and he wasn’t the only one floored by Charisse’s lush sensuality, beauty, and towering presence (hard to believe she stood 5 feet, 6 inches tall) as the screen’s top female dancer of that, or maybe any, era. During the next five years, she was appropriately showcased in some of the studio’s top musical efforts, to the gratitude of generations of moviegoers who would fall in love with Charisse and her awesome abilities as a dancer.

Although she admitted to being no great shakes as a dramatic actress, Charisse was a magnificent, shimmying chameleon in dance, as attested to by her work as Gaby in 1953's The Band Wagon, wherein she teams with ideal partner Fred Astaire, first to sell possibly the greatest romantic sequence in musical film (their classy “Dancing in the Dark” through Central Park can simultaneously give viewers shivers and becalm them) before appearing as the embodiment of both a sweet young thing and a femme fatale in the movie’s sensational “Girl Hunt” ballet. In this terrific, stylish (with direction by Vincent Minnelli, what else would it be?) send-up of the popular Mickey Spillane pulp novels of the time, detective Astaire declares “She was bad, she was dangerous” after encountering Charisse as the slinky, erotic, black-sequined gowned Girl Friday of the piece. Charisse later shows up at “Dem Bones Café”, wherein she removes a black overcoat to reveal one of the cinema’s sexiest figures, resplendent in that sinuously unforgettable red dress and shoes combo and long, long black gloves. When I think of the Freed Unit’s apex, the sight of Astaire supporting Charisse in that café, as she stretches those tempestuous legs out to cover about half the set, is the first image that comes to mind, as well it should be.

Her best all-around performance may have come in her last big musical, 1957’s Silk Stockings, as the stoic Russian Ninotchka, who eventually melts after taking a twirl or two with Astaire. Following in Garbo's footsteps is a very tall order, but in looks and manner the statuesque Charisse fills the legend’s shoes admirably, and she does some of her most impressive hoofing as well (her athletic leaping in “The Red Blues” number is especially memorable). Astaire never really would state who his favorite dancing partner was (in 1976’s That’s Entertainment, Part 2, with tongue firmly in cheek, he revealed Gene Kelly as his #1 pick), yet some have stated Rita Hayworth was at the top of Astaire’s list. Surely Astaire must have singled the screen goddess out before his later work with Charisse, as it’s hard to imagine anyone could supercede the incomparable legend in Astaire’s affections once he had graced that Band Wagon soundstage with the woman he aptly termed “beautiful dynamite.”