Monday Glamour Starter --- Cyd Charisse
Actresses like Cyd Charisse aren’t easy to write about, since there’s just no conflict, scandal, or tragedy to juice up the narrative. I’ve not come across the first mention of personal or professional travails, bad kids, substance abuse --- nothing. Then it occurs to me that if you’re going to dance for a living, a thing that surely requires a tremendously disciplined lifestyle, chances are there won’t be much time or inclination to devote toward those vices that laid so many Glamour Starters low. I do believe that Cyd Charisse is also the first of our Monday subjects to have remained wed for fifty years (well, 58 to be exact, with husband Tony Martin). After Mabel Normand, Gail Russell, and Gloria Grahame, she’s a breath of Spring. There’s an official website HERE, and I understand she still gets out occasionally for tributes and such. Cyd Charisse is eighty-five at present, and looks considerably younger. She’s about the last surviving member of the great MGM musical team, although watching Brigadoon last night reminded me that Van Johnson just celebrated his ninetieth birthday. Search results keep mentioning her legs. Well, she danced, so that’s natural enough, but she also acted from time to time. By the time the music stopped, it was too late to gain a foothold in drama, as the studio system had by then collapsed, and work was limited to television and features far less distinguished than those she’d enhanced at Metro.
There weren’t many ballerinas on studio payrolls in the forties. Vera Zorina was one, but she was back and forth between Fox and Paramount, and neither developed a niche for her. Ballet was a specialty even at dance conscious MGM, but there was often enough a need for someone accomplished in that area, so Cyd Charisse got a contract and plenty of visibility in a series of big musicals during the forties. Scattered amongst these invitations to the dance were supporting parts in melodramas and thrillers. Tension was a 1950 noir where she played nice girl rival to sluttish Audrey Totter, so guess who the notices singled out. East Side, West Side found her down the line behind two prominent females, Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner. She’d been at Metro since 1946, but leads in musicals had collapsed in the face of accident and off-timing. She broke her leg and thus missed out on Easter Parade (that must have been traumatic), while Leslie Caron got An American In Paris when Charisse had a child. The big break arrived with Singin’ In The Rain, where she really commanded attention and MGM finally got serious about making better use of her. Unfortunately, the era of big musicals was itself headed for the rocks, and though she’d participate in some of its last glorious encores, Cyd Charisse would bask but a brief moment in stardom’s glow.
Dancing was where her genius lay. The singing voice had to be dubbed, for Charisse was said to have been "tone deaf." She also had an aloof quality that came across even in motion --- witness her cool vamping of Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain and Fred Astaire during the Girl Hunt number from The Bandwagon. At five-foot nine, she was imposing, and more convincing when serious. She never had the line in perk that sustained Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, and the rest. Charisse was more the self-contained type, and that made her seem a little remote between dance highlights. She warded off Kelly and Astaire on several occasions --- their characters were usually obliged to work a little harder at winning her. The Bandwagon and It’s Always Fair Weather are probably her two best musicals leads, though Brigadoon played better for me than its reputation would suggest. She looks (and dances) great in Silk Stockings, though her Garbo update (of Ninotchka) requires she give partner Astaire the ice for much of the show. Could audiences have confused these chilly roles with the offscreen Cyd Charisse? Party Girl was an unexpected meeting with director Nicholas Ray and leading man Robert Taylor. Here she danced again and made beautiful music with Bad Bob in one of his darkest and most satisfying post-war performances (the French DVD is available at THIS LINK, and it’s first-rate). After Party Girl, there were features in Europe and television stateside. Two Weeks In Another Town was a reunion with director Vincente Minnelli, and though her part was said to have been heavily cut, this is still an unsung masterpiece, even better, to my mind, than The Bad and The Beautiful. She was unsympathetic again in Something’s Got To Give, but that never finished comedy would only be recalled as Marilyn Monroe’s final appearance on film. The Unsightly Seventies found Charisse among passengers on The Love Boat, and there would be a visit to Fantasy Island. Her participation in these was less dispiriting because you never felt as though she really needed the work. Desperation among veterans doing television "guest" work was something a trained viewer eye could unfailingly sense, but not here. Charisse has maintained her dignity and the public’s regard throughout a long and (we hope) happy retirement. Nice to see one turn out this way.