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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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Revisiting The Quiet Man (1952) – Six Random Observations

4366009_origEven people who don’t usually watch old movies know of The Quiet Man, one of those classics of the classics and it was one of the classic films I grew up with. But as seems to happen with all the movies that I grew up watching, I didn’t watch it for years and years and since 2015 seems to be the year for revisiting old favorites, I recently watched it again. But since it had been so long, it almost felt like a new movie, which is always fun to see an old favorite with fresh eyes. It was a complete delight and I was reminded of why the movie has a special charm.

Here are six things I noticed for the first time – or perhaps I should say – actually thought about when I saw them.

1) No men go to Mass! When Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to Ireland and runs into Father Lonergan (Ward Bond), the priest asks him if he will see him at Mass. This puts Sean Thornton on the spot, but he does go. But Mass is by no means packed and the only other people in attendance are women and one old man. Michealeen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) sits outside the church and smokes his pipe and the rest of the men are at the pub. Of course, one good thing comes of Sean Thornton’s attending Mass. He is able to see Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), who appears to be one of the devout women who presumably attend regularly, and “play patty fingers with the Holy Water” (in the words of Michaeleen Oge Flynn).

Father Lonergan and Michaeleen Oge FLynn

Father Lonergan and Michaeleen Oge Flynn

2) The British are entirely negligible, isolated and out of touch. There’re not exactly a lot of English people running around in The Quiet Man – this is purely an Irish tale, with some talk of “treason” and the IRA, mostly talked by men in the pub to their fellow inebriates. However, during the big fight scene at the end when all the patrons rush out to watch Sean Thornton and Squire Danaher (Victor McLaglen) duke it out, there is one man still sitting in the pub. He’s called General and he looks rather like your stereotypical English officer. I can’t think of anything more funny or ironic than in how this man (I’m assuming he is an Englishman) continues sitting, unaware, unmoved, uninterested and isolated from the entire Irish community.

3) When Mary Kate and Sean Thornton go out courting together and give the matchmaker, Michaelean Oge Flynn, the slip they run into a field and she takes off her stockings so that she can run through a stream. While Sean Thornton tosses his hat and gloves away into the field, I was amused to note that despite running through fields and streams, getting soaked and rained on and making out with Thornton, there she is at the end of the day, still hanging on tightly to those stockings. Of course, they’re probably her best, and probably her only, pair of silk stockings, so this makes sense.

4) Mary Kate Danaher was a spinster. That little nuance totally missed me as a child. A spinster is someone who is an established old maid, with no prospects or expectation of ever marrying. She’s called a spinster several times by Michaeleen Oge Flynn and no one seems to think of her as a marriageable women. It seems rather incredible, considering how absolutely gorgeous she is, but Mary Kate is taken for granted in Inisfree. Michaeleen Oge says it’s because of her temper and lack of fortune. Apparently, people can’t see beyond that and, truly, there appears to be no man worthy of her anyway (they’re all in the pub, drinking), until Sean Thornton arrives. He sees her and it is love at first sight and seems to be for her, as well.

Mary Kate Danaher, Squire Danaher, Sean Thornton and Michaeleen Oge Flynn

Mary Kate Danaher, Squire Danaher, Sean Thornton and Michaeleen Oge Flynn

But as a spinster, it meant that she was destined to live with her brother her whole life and cook and clean and serve him and his hired hands, with no home or possessions of her own.

5) And this brings me to my fifth observation. I finally understood Mary Kate’s perspective. As a child, I didn’t quite get the fuss about her dowry. I recognized that it was Ireland and they did things differently, but it still didn’t make sense to me. So what about the dowry; all you need is love, right?

But I think her being a spinster is important. After her brother denies them her dowry, she says she’s not truly married to Thornton and refuses to let him into the bedroom. She says she’ll wash and cook for him, just like she did for her brother all those years, but she’s still a servant just like she always was.

This is illuminating. It’s more than just the money and her furniture, as Mary Kate says several times, and even more than just the fact that she’s afraid that she married a coward. It’s partially a matter of pride and independence. She wants to come to the marriage with something of her own – her own furniture and her own money. She doesn’t want to play the beggar maid. As long as her brother is withholding money, he’s got something on them and she’s still not quite independent of him. She’s not quite her own woman and, in her view, Sean Thornton’s not quite his own man.

the-quiet-man-john-wayne-maureen-o-hara-1952He doesn’t get this, though.This is a classic example of people talking over each other’s head. He speaks and she speaks and they do not understand each other. This is partially his fault, though. She might have understood if he’d told her about his boxing past and how he’d killed a man in the ring and that after that money never mattered to him. But he can’t blame her for not understanding something she knows nothing about. He says to the Reverend Mr. Playfair, “maybe she doesn’t love me enough.” But love is not just blindly assuming that someone’s private reasons for something are good ones. Perhaps I’m being too modern in this critique. I don’t know if they ever do fully understand each other’s perspectives, though.

6) I always wanted to know what Mary Kate was saying in Irish to Father Lonergan. She’s obviously talking about how she made her husband sleep in a sleeping bag instead of his own bed. I read on IMDB of someone who says they know Gaelic and that she’s asking Father Lonergan if it’s a sin. I suspect Father Longergan said it was a sin. Anyway, later she and Thornton are sitting by the fire looking forlorn. But the next morning, Sean Thornton is walking out of his bedroom looking extremely happy with the world at large, only to discover that she’s left him. This is what finally gets him angry enough to fight. It’s not just because she left him; he thought everything was finally all right and for her it wasn’t. In a way, by finally living as man and wife, she fulfills her part of the marriage contract and goads him into fulfilling his part (as she sees it) of getting her dowry. And by the end of the movie they are truly married.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Drama, Romance

 

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