Cyd Charisse: Sexy, subtle and potent
Although she appeared in close to 40 films( including documentaries) mostly produced by MGM, the Rolls Royce of Studios at that time, it is my contention that she was grossly underused in a variety of ways. The most potent aspect of her screen persona was the erotic charge that she generated when she moved, for Cyd Charisse (1921-2008) was a dancer par excellence. And no one ever denied it. In fact she was highly praised for it for the major part of her screen career. But there was a lot more to her than the way she moved in classical dance numbers with such masters of screen dance like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. She was a more than competent actress who wasn’t given much of a chance to display her abilities and her sexuality because she was always being cast in secondary roles or specialty bits as early as in The Ziegfield Follies (1945) where she danced with Fred Astaire or Singing in the Rain (1952) and even as late as 1966 with The Silencers. And when she did play the lead it was always in roles that toned down her sexuality. But even then when she just stood there and simply talked there was always a wonderful and dangerous sub textual element that was being conveyed in the way she delivered her lines and in the way she glanced at the men she was talking to, even the way she smiled. The kind of sexuality she exuded wasn’t blunt or direct. It was the opposite. It was quiet, subtle, suggestive, subversive and even dark. She suggested forbidden possibilities in faraway places. Hers was a sophisticated, knowing kind of sexuality that could challenge conventional moral precepts and guidelines. I look at her on screen I think of the many ways she could’ve been cast in noir type films where that sexuality could’ve been used to more potent effect. But it was never to be. And when I think about it I realize that American cinema has never been a place where her kind of sophisticated form of eroticism was ever really welcome. Violence, spectacle, religion and romance yes, but sex no. So Charisse’s brand of womanliness always had to be displayed in relatively harmless ways.
Her real name was Tula Ellice Finklea and she was born in Amarillo, Texas. As a child she developed polio and was sent to dancing lessons at age 6 to build up her strength. She studied ballet and made her first movie (Something to Shout About) in 1943. Almost right from the beginning her dancing abilities were recognized and she became MGM’s resident prima ballerina. And after that you can find her somewhere in the background in film after film often doing a specialty ballet bit to “class” things up. It was as though she was so good in one area (dance) that they didn’t consider her for much else. Later when she did get leading roles in films like The Band Wagon (1953) or It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) it was generally because the leading men Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, requested her. I kept waiting for her breakout role to come but it never did. In fairly rapid order she played the leads in Meet me in Las Vegas (1956), Silk Stockings ((1957), Twilight of the Gods (1958) and Party Girl (1958). The last two are not musicals and she’s the best thing in both of them, especially Party Girl which is an odd little crime/melodrama directed by Nicholas Ray and it contains many of his off- beat touches. But best of all Charisse is paired up with Robert Taylor who could be a bit of a stiff in some roles. But for some reason he clicked with her and they hit all the right dramatic notes in that somewhat strange film. Then in Vincente Minelli’s overwrought Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) her performance is so extreme that it borders on the cartoonish. I want to blame Minnelli because so much of that film is in that tone but I can’t be sure. Nevertheless, to me it was another opportunity lost for Cyd to show her stuff.
After that we saw less and less of her on screen. She started doing club acts with her husband Tony Martin and appearing sporadically on TV. And it wasn’t until after That’s Entertainment I (1974), and That’s Entertainment II(1976), those compilations of MGM’s great moments in musicals where both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire lavished praise on her as a dancer that audiences began to more appreciate all that she had brought to the screen. In 2006 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush. So as you can see she was honored in her life and career but I still contend that there was a lot more to her that Hollywood failed to recognize and utilize. One just has to look at the “Broadway Melody” section of Singing in the Rain to see how powerful she could be not just as a dancer but as a screen presence. Cyd Charisse was a one-of-a-kind so I guess we should be grateful for what we got, still I think that it’s a shame we didn’t get more because she had so much more to give. But ahh, that’s life. No, that’s the movies.