Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cyd Charisse, rest in peace

Every once in a while, a prominent film industry legend will pass away, and Anti-D will run a brief obituary. I always feel inadequate to the task of summing up a life, so often I don't write a long one. Mostly these are respectful, but only occasionally do they nearly suck the life out of me. Such is the case with this one. Cyd Charisse, the last star of the MGM musical, passed away today. She was either 86 or 87, depending on the press report.

She was born Tula Ellice Finklea in about the last place you would think could bring life to a powerful dancer named "Cyd Charisse" - Amarillo, Texas, in 1921. For my money, her career remains as one of the gemstone contributions of the Lone Star State to the art of film. Despite its exotic nature, Cyd Charisse wasn't a true stage name - it was actually legit. "Sid" was a childhood nickname, as her brother had trouble pronoucing "Sis." It was later creatively re-worked to "Cyd" by Hollywood. Charisse was the last name of her first husband, Nico, her dance instructor whom she married in her teens and later divorced. At the time of her death, she had been married to her long-time husband, the 90-something and still kickin' Tony Martin, since the forties.

She was practically a human special effect. Charisse was really the last star that the MGM Freed Unit produced in the 1950s, and she is considered arguably the greatest dancer in film musical history, certainly on the female side. Her style ranged from the balletic to the modern and the sexually provocative, at least in terms of 1950s filmmaking. For all her poise and lady-like dignity, her dancing gave off the whiff of reveling in being gorgeous and desirable. Watching her dance was to simultaneously appreciate the delicate artistic potential of the human body and to bet that she was great in bed.

As virtually every deep film fan knows, she gained fame for her spectacularly long, muscular legs, which were once insured by the studio for $1 million. Anyone who has seen Singin' in the Rain in a theater can attest to exactly how far across the screen her gams seem to go. The rest of her wasn't bad-looking, either - her face bore a striking resemblance to Ava Gardner. As a musical star, she had one big weakness - she really couldn't sing. Her singing voice was usually dubbed, usually by India Adams.

She was classically trained, and as a youth she moved away from Amarillo for more high-caliber instruction. As a teenager, she danced as a soloist with (if I recall correctly) an exile touring company of the Ballet Russes. She married Charisse in France and later moved with him to Los Angeles to open a dance studio, which would eventually lead to roles in the movies. She signed a contract with MGM during the forties and appeared in feature dancing roles, sometimes under the name of a relative, Lily Norwood.

She was in her early thirties when she became a true star with the "Broadway Melody" portion of Singin' in the Rain, famously taunting Kelly with her leggy sexuality until they join each other in step and melody. She would then spend the 1950s alternating between work with Kelly and Fred Astaire. Labeled "beautiful dynamite" by Astaire, her routines constituted about the only time that the twin First Men of the Musical had to fear being out-danced by their partner. That's not to mention being looked down upon - listed at 5-foot-9, she was taller than either of them. In the lavender-scarf section of the "Broadway Melody," she supposedly dances on a step above Kelly partly to blur the height difference.

After Rain, in her next and best performance, 1953's The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire, she left us with two sequences that are always listed among the greatest dance routines in film history - the quietly elegant "Dancing in the Dark" and the astonishing 11-minute pulp fiction satire "The Girl Hunt Ballet" (although I never forget her sunflower radiance in "I See a New Sun," either). Later, she starred in Brigadoon and It's Always Fair Weather with Kelly and Silk Stockings with Astaire. Previously, she had played supporting roles and appeared in featured dance routines in musicals like 1946's Ziegfeld Follies and The Harvey Girls. She also regularly acted in non-musicals, with no dancing involved, throughout her era of prominence.

She entered stardom near the end of the age of the dance musical. As tastes changed, time ran out for her in a way that might have seemed unimaginable at the beginning. The MGM Freed Unit machine that endlessly churned out delectable dance musicals in the forties and fifties soon came to an end. Later, she would perform nightclub routines with Martin and work in television. She would appear on Broadway for the first time in 1992. In 2006, she was presented by President Bush with the nation's highest artistic medal. As nostalgia for the age of the musical grew, film enthusiasts would come to see her as a looming icon, the woman who could outdo Kelly and Astaire. She took the elder stateswoman role as host of the 1994 That's Entertainment documentary profiling the musical's Golden Age.

Man, this one hurts. Thank you, and Rest in Peace.


Craig Kennedy said...

I also feel inadequate writing these things. With some passings I feel obligated, but with others, what I want to say springs to my mind even as the bad news is still registering. Cyd Charisse was one of those.

Each time one of the greats passes, it makes me sad, but then I also think back and I'm greatful that they've left something of themselves behind for all of us.

I watched the Broadway Melody sequence tonight when I got home from work. Fantastic.

Nice remembrance KB.

Chuck said...

Very nicely done.

K. Bowen said...

Chuck, thank you.

Craig, it's very difficult to write these things. I thought the personal touch you took over at LiC was a strong approach.

We're all grateful for their efforts.