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Cyd Charisse in the “Gotta Dance!” Blogathon

GottaDance_CydGeneClassic Reel Girl is hosting the Gotta Dance! Blogathon today – which is the birthday of Bill Robinson as well as National Tap Dance Day – and I am thrilled to be participating in this celebration of the dance in film by offering a tribute and meditation on the unique talent and beauty of Cyd Charisse.

I have been reading about movie musicals recently and in one article Cyd Charisse was described as “stiff” and in a book she was called “cool,” two words that would never have occurred to me to use to describe her dancing (though perhaps her acting). Interestingly, both comments were made in relation to her dance partnership with Fred Astaire and I’ve discovered that devoted Fred Astaire aficionados are not always as enamored of Charisse as they are of some of his other partners (namely Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth).

The reason this is, I believe, is the nature of her dancing. Cyd Charisse is primarily a ballet dancer and although Fred Astaire didn’t care for ballet, it’s influences can still be seen in his dances with her. In ballet, often the man is there to hold the ballerina up and make her look good. Fred Astaire obviously does much more than that, but it is true that in a certain way Cyd Charisse complements Astaire less than say Ginger Rogers or Rita Hayworth. Rather, he complements her and her style of dancing.

Gene Kelly, on the other hand, was almost better at ballet than tap (as Brian Seibert, author of What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing argues convincingly) and he was interested in expressing himself balletically, making his dances with Cyd Charisse seem more natural to him, though I must confess that I still prefer her collaboration with Astaire, despite those films being less typical of his style. I think the reason is the same reason that Fred Astaire aficionados don’t care for her as much (apart from the fact that she didn’t do any tap dancing).

Usually, a Fred Astaire dance is how he does his wooing. Ginger Rogers resists him until they dance and then you knew her attitude towards him has changed. Not so much with Gene Kelly. He seems to have been more interesting in expressing himself through dance. This means that the lady he is dancing with is not doing as much besides helping him express whatever thought or feeling he is having. The big ballet sequence in An American in Paris has nothing to do with winning the girl (she already loves him, but she’s engaged). It’s more about him working out his internal conflict.

1953: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse perform a dance routine in the film 'The Band Wagon', directed by Vincente Minnelli for MGM.It’s the same with the dream sequence in Singin’ in the Rain, which he dances with Cyd Charisse. She’s fantastic as a Louise Brooks-type vamp, but you don’t get the sense you really know her. And that brings me to Cyd Charisse and what she often expresses through her dancing. As an actress, she is indeed somewhat “cool” and “stiff,” enigmatic, aloof and almost unknowable. But when she dances, she comes alive and suddenly, you feel, she is showing the real person inside.

As I said, I’m not sure Gene Kelly brings this out as much, even in Brigadoon (though their dancing is beautiful), but Fred Astaire does, especially in Silk Stockings, which is almost more of a showcase for Charisse than it is Astaire. “All of You” is not just about Fred Astaire wooing through dance, but drawing out the highly controlled Ninotchka and cajoling her into dancing. For her, it is a liberation, a coming alive and expressing herself in the way she is meant to instead of burying it under austere rhetoric and party solidarity. The film also features the lovely dance where Ninotchka has hidden silk stockings, a corset, a hat and other feminine items of dress around her room and it is a moment of self-discovery for her.

On a side note: it’s a testament to what a gracious and unassuming dancer Fred Astaire was – though a perfectionist and 100% committed to his art – that he could adapt himself to whoever his dance partner happened to be (even Burns and Allen or Joan Fontaine).

Another frequent dance partner for Cyd Charisse was Ricardo Montalban. They danced together in five movies, all of which had totally inconsequential plots, but nevertheless contained some real dance delights. Because the dances are not integrated into the plot, they don’t reveal much about the characters, but that doesn’t dint one’s enjoyment because Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalban really seem to be enjoying themselves and each other. Montalban was not a dancer, but he possessed a natural athleticism and grace and he and Charisse generate a good amount of spark.

In another film – actually a Margaret O’Brien film, The Unfinished Dance – the entire arc of Cyd Charisse’s character is how she discovers that dancing is her life (and consequently her identity) and she dumps her fiance at the end so she can become fully committed to ballet. In another film – Meet Me in Las Vegas – much of the conflict between her and Dan Dailey is that she cannot give up ballet and he cannot give up his ranch. Ultimately, they compromise. But these are examples of how closely her characters are identified with dance. Without it, she almost doesn’t exist as a character.

cyd-charisse-in-silkesstrumpan-(1957)-large-pictureMy sister did ballet for many years and she has a lot of opinions about what constitutes good dancing. For her, one of the signs of skilled dancing is control. Buster Keaton had perfect control (though not a dancer). His body never did anything he didn’t want it to do and it’s the same with Cyd Charisse. As marvelous as Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth are as partners for Fred Astaire, you don’t want to look too closely at their arms, leg kicks or spins (which is a move that always gives the show away –  I took tap for seven years and profoundly sucked at spins).

But control is not “stiff.” There were few dancers more sexy than Cyd Charisse and in her case, perfect body control merely indicated reserves of sexiness, making her dances all the more potent. There never was anyone quite like her. She could do ballet and jazz (how she could do jazz!) and was so sensational, I’d watch an inferior movie, just to see her in one dance.

Be sure to read all the rest of the entries in today’s celebration of dance. Thanks again to Classic Reel Girl for hosting this wonderful event!

Below are some examples of Cyd Charisse. I tried to pick dances that were less known, which is why I omitted the sublime The Band Wagon.

“All of You” is the first dance between Astaire and Charisse in Silk Stockings. They discuss love (she maintains it’s a chemical reaction) and he can’t seem to make any headway until he starts dancing. The dance begins around the 5:30 mark.

And here is the lovely dance where she first puts on silk stockings in Silk Stockings.

From On An Island With You – the plot is barely there, but there are two lovely dances with Montalban and Charisse, as well as a few aquatic dances with Esther Williams.

Another example of a fun dance stuck in the middle of a film (Fiesta) for no other reason than it is fun.

Once again, in It’s Always Fair Weather Cyd Charisse loosens up through dance – though her love interest, Gene Kelly, is not present (how did those two not have a dance together in this film!). When Kelly first meets her, she seems like the ultimate, stereotypical career woman ice-queen and here she reveals herself to be far more accessible and grounded than he supposed.

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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“Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon – parody of film noirs and detective stories

The_Band_Wagon_posterOne of my favorite movie musicals is The Band Wagon from 1953, with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant. It is one of those marvelous backstage dramas where the cast must overcome a variety of difficulties to put on their musical.

It shows you how narcissistic Hollywood is that their two greatest musicals are about entertainment: Singing In the Rain is about the transition from silent films to talkies and The Band Wagon is about the travails of putting on a musical play, as well as being a bit of a satire about entertainment folks. I suppose there’s nothing like doing what you know best and musicals are particularly suited to plots about entertainment, anyway.

The songs in the movie are a collection of songs written in the 1920s and ’30s by the songwriting team Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, who also wrote the songs for the 1931 revue “The Band Wagon” that starred Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. Some of the songs in the revue were recycled for the movie, though the movie has nothing to do with the original revue.

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Fred Astaire did so many excellent movies, it’s hard to pick out a favorite, but this is definitely one of them. It’s a little different – he does less actual tap dancing in this one then he does in his earlier films, especially those done at RKO with Ginger Rogers during the 30s. There is more ballet in The Band Wagon and Astaire said he was uncomfortable with ballet, but he is still nothing short of elegant, a supreme dancer unlike anyone else. There is one beautiful scene, in the middle of the movie, where he and Cyd Charisse dance in the moonlight. The characters are trying to find out if the two of them can work together and dance together (her character was a ballerina and his was a hoofer, which sounds like art imitating life), blending her style with his. The song is called “Dancing in the Dark” and is one of the most lovely, romantic, elegant dances seen in the movies.

“Dancing in the Dark” is an easily accessible dance – there’s nothing to do but watch and enjoy. The last dance in the movie is a little different, because it’s actually a parody as well as a dance and I didn’t get it the first time I saw it. I wasn’t well aware of the source material they were parodying.

The dance is called “Girl Hunt Ballet.” It is around 12 minutes long and is a mini-mystery dance. Fred Astaire plays Rod Reilly, a private detective and he is narrating his story, which is unfolding in the dance, with Cyd Charisse playing both the innocent blonde and the brunette siren.

Cyd CHARISSE und Fred ASTAIRE in 'Vorhang auf!', 1953When I went back, however, and watched movies like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and read some hard-boiled detective fiction, suddenly it clicked and I got it. From then on, it’s been my favorite part in the movie. It’s crazy. It makes no sense. It’s hilarious and I love it – a highly stylish parody.

I could now see all the little clichés of the genre that the dance was playing on. For example, the plot. “Girl Hunt Ballet” makes no sense; things happen in the most random way, but that’s no problem because books and movies like The Big Sleep are known for making no sense. It’s about atmosphere, something Girl Hunt Ballet has in abundance. I do not, to this day, understand what is going on. There’s something about a trumpet, an emerald, some random clues like a bone, and various women dancing about, trying to get the emerald.

Cyd Charisse is the femme fatale, slinking around trying to seduce the hero. Actually, she is two femme fatales, managing to cover both variations that are found in detective stories: the innocent who is not really innocent but plays on the hero’s desire to protect her and the siren who merely plays to lower desires. Fred Astaire is the cool, cynical, hard-bitten detective who saunters around, getting into punch fights, following his instincts and looking cool and in control no matter what.

The voice-over that he provides is likewise hilarious. He gets to say stuff like “She came at me in sections. More curves than a scenic highway. She was bad, she was dangerous. I wouldn’t trust her any farther than I could throw her. She was selling hard, but I wasn’t buying.” It’s exactly the kind of stuff they say in those movies – the kind of picturesque dialogue that film noirs are known for; the kind of dialogue that always sounds so good but unlike anything real people say.

PhotoCharisseAstaireBandWagonGirlHuntI just about expire with laughter during the moment when he is having his romantic dance with the innocent femme fatale Charisse while gunman are fighting each other in the background, their guns going off, and falling down dead while Astaire and Charisse share a kiss.

Apparently it was meant to be a spoof of Mickey Spillane, a popular and slightly pulpy detective writer. There seems to be some confusion about who actually wrote the story for the ballet. Vincente Minnelli, the director, took credit, but so also did Alan Jay Lerner (of eventual My Fair Lady fame), without credit, as a favor. Even Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the screenwriters for the whole movie, are given some credit.

Whoever it was, it’s absolutely brilliant. Not only is it a great dance, but it is very funny. I’ve known some people who didn’t care for it because it seemed just a little odd, but it has to be approached with tongue definitely in cheek.

I cannot show “Girl Hunt Ballet” on this site, but click here to see the entire dance on youtube. Below is the trailer for the entire movie.

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2014 in Movies

 

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