With apologies to my wife and the rest of the female population, can we all agree that actress Cyd Charisse simply had the best legs that ever walked the earth? If you don’t believe me, just look at that amazing dance number in “Singin’ in the Rain” when Cyd’s legs, sheathed in green stockings, fill the entire length of the screen. Her gams were a work of art, strong, perfectly shaped and proportioned, and more than capable of performing the best dancing ever seen on a movie screen. And I mean EVER. I was at the Beverly Hills Library yesterday afternoon when I saw the news report that Cyd Charisse had died at the age of 86. I let out an involuntary “No!” causing everyone in the reference room to glare at me in disapproval. I wanted to explain to them why I had yelped, but then realized with sadness that most of the twentysomething college students probably wouldn’t have any idea who Cyd Charisse is.
Cyd Charisse was one of those celebrities we’d always see around town. And every encounter only strengthened my impression that she was one of the classiest, sweetest dames ever to come out of Hollywood. And, of course, one of the most gorgeous. I was shocked to read that she was 86 because the last time we saw her at some restaurant or event not that long ago, she was still as breathtakingly stunning as she was at the height of her career. I remember seeing Cyd and her longtime husband, singer Tony Martin (who is still going strong at the age of 96) at a screening of one of her films and thinking that she had the regal air of a queen, but a benevolent one who would always stop and talk to her lowly subjects. In their wonderfully odd joint memoir called “The Two of Us,” Cyd and Tony actually encouraged fans who see them in public to come up to the couple and say hi. Class. I never quite had the courage to accost Charisse but I always meant to, remembering what she said in her book.
Born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1921 with the name Tula Finklea, Cyd’s first love was ballet and she joined the famous Ballets Russes at the age of 13. She married her dance teacher Nico Charisse in 1939 (they divorced in 1947) which gave her a more marquee-worthy last name and took Cyd from her family nickname of Sid which came from her brother’s inability to properly say “Sis.” Charisse came to MGM in 1943 and played a few bit roles before landing the small but noticeable role of “Deborah from Rhode Island” in “The Harvey Girls” in 1946. She was featured in other A-list musicals such as “Ziegfeld Follies,” “Till the Clouds Roll By,” and “Words and Music,” and she did several dramatic roles, usually playing “exotic” Latinas or Native American girls, but it was her extended cameo in “Singin in the Rain” in 1952 that put her over the top.
In the mid-1970s, Vincente Minnelli was being honored at the Chicago International Film Festival. I went to see him in person and then attended all of the screenings of his films. I remember falling in love with Charisse in “The Band Wagon,” her first big starring role opposite Fred Astaire. For my money, “The Band Wagon” is the quintessential MGM musical, even better than “Singing’ in the Rain,” and Cyd was perfect for the role of ballet dancer Gabrielle Gerard who is being courted by Astaire to appear in a Broadway musical. “I can watch Astaire anytime,” Charisse said later. “I don't think he ever made a wrong move. He was a perfectionist. He would work on a few bars for hours until it was just the way he wanted it.” There are so many great numbers in “The Band Wagon” but I think my all-time favorite is the most simple one—a quiet and supposedly impromptu dance between Astaire and Charisse when they are walking in Central Park trying to let off steam from their grueling rehearsals. Behold the magnificence of “Dancing in the Dark.”
Not many actresses got to star opposite both Astaire and Kelly. After “Singing’ in the Rain,” Cyd costarred with Gene Kelly in “Brigadoon” and “It’s Always Fair Weather,” neither among my favorites but both containing memorable dance numbers. Despite her presence in some of the most beloved musicals ever made, Charisse couldn't sing a note, or at least not one considered worthy enough by the MGM honchos. She was dubbed in all her films, often by Carol Richards, and I thought this fact was hidden from the public until I read her discussing it in a 1952 newspaper interview. "I'd give my right arm if I could sing," she said. "I had a number in 'The Wild North' but it's not what I'd call singing...not in comparison to Tony." Throughout her life, Charisse was always asked to compare Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly but she was reluctant to do so. “I’d say they were the two greatest dancing personalities who were ever on the screen,” was as far as she’d go. “Each has a distinctive style. Each is a joy to work with. But it's like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both delicious.”
When I was going to school in Paris in 1978, a local movie theatre did a retrospective of all of Charisse’s films (you gotta love the French for appreciating some of our stars at a time when they were being ignored in their own country). On December 28th of that year, I was scheduled to fly from Paris to the Soviet Union for a weeklong trip with a bunch of French students. On December 27th, to get us in the mood, my friends and I went to a screening of Cole Porter's “Silk Stockings” at the Paris cinema that was honoring Cyd. This film became my absolute favorite of all of Charisse’s work. Made in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, the musical remake of “Ninotchka” featured Charisse in the Greta Garbo role and Fred Astaire playing the Melvyn Douglas part. The anti-Soviet propaganda is utterly outrageous but the film is a joy from beginning to end. (Astaire could somehow get away with lyrics that would make other actors blanch, such as when he lovingly sings to Cyd about "the urge to merge with a splurge of the spring" which her character labels as bourgeois capitalistic propaganda!) While Charisse’s Russian accent is ridiculous and her lines preposterous, her dancing scenes with Astaire are among the best of her career. Here’s my favorite one, especially the last 90 seconds of it. No one was Cyd’s equal. Take a look:
Unfortunately, by 1957 both the studio system and musicals in general were in their death throes, and Charisse never got a decent part in a musical again. I always felt that Charisse could have been a great dramatic actress if given the chance. Cyd is is also known for the films she didn't appear in. She was cast opposite Kelly and Judy Garland in the classic “Easter Parade” but had to bow out when she got injured during rehearsals (Ann Miller took over the part), and she had to abandon the lead in “An American in Paris” when she got pregnant, clearing the way for Leslie Caron who catapulted to fame in the role. Charisse’s most famous movie that was never released was “Something’s Gotta Give,” the movie Marilyn Monroe was shooting when she died in 1962. Monroe requested Cyd for the part and in the clips I’ve seen the middle-aged actress was gorgeous as all get-out and perfect in the role of the snippy Bianca who had just married Dean Martin when his presumed-dead wife (Monroe) returns to town. The unfinished film was made the following year with Doris Day taking over for Marilyn and Polly Bergen assuming Charisse’s role.
Is it wrong that Kendall and I have always viewed Cyd Charisse and Tony Martin as our relationship role models even though we didn’t actually know them? By any measure, their 60-year-marriage was a great success, especially by Hollywood standards. In a 1953 interview with the couple, conducted in the MGM commissary, an L.A. Times reporter asked Martin what attracts him to women in general, Cyd in particular. “Carriage and teeth,” Martin replied, “then it’s interest in what she has to say.” The reporter then asked the singer how he felt about a girl combining marriage and a career. “I wouldn’t recommend it for a couple of 20-year-olds, because it takes a lot of mature understanding,” Martin explained. “But I feel a man should always allow his wife to express herself in a career or in any way she wants or she will develop frustrations and not be happy.”
Farewell, Cyd. You will be missed.