Another great Hollywood star bites the dust.
The dancer and actress Cyd Charisse has died at the age of 86 at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles. She was one of the last of her generation of Hollywood stars. Dancing partners Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire both predeceased her by many years, but she leaves behind her husband of 60 years, singer Tony Martin.
Charisse was a ballet dancer from a young age and performed with the Ballets Russes from the age of 13. Born Tula Ellice Finklea, she picked up the name Charisse when she married her dance instructor Nico, and kept it even after divorce and remarriage to Martin, with whom she had two children.
In her first film role, in Something to Shout About (1943), she was billed as Lily Norwood, but continued to dance in films as Cyd Charisse until the decline of Hollywood in the late 1950s. She never tap danced, but took roles where her balletic skills were to the fore – always elegant, usually a lady. Her major films included Brigadoon, It’s Always Fair Weather, and Silk Stockings – a musical remake of Ninotchka, which she always claimed was her favourite role. In later life she appeared both in non-musical films and on stage, as well as on television.
Charisse was not a great actress, singer (she was usually dubbed) nor even a great beauty, but in the Hollywood of the time, she was able to use her one magnificent talent – dancing – as a springboard to become a major star. The MGM machine was right behind her and her costumiers, make-up artists, hairstylists and cameramen worked with her splendid physique to create for her an enduring image of grace and beauty. Her stunning legs were often on show, especially in publicity shots, and were widely (though falsely) rumoured to be insured for a million dollars.
Along with her green costume in Singin in the Rain (above, a performance she undertook when she had just had a baby), her glittering black dress in Bandwagon has always remained in my mind as the epitome of the womanly fashions of that era, along with her white, pleated, supposedly ‘unsmart’ skirt worn later in the same movie (see image below). The strapless, full-skirted gowns of the day suited her down to the ground, while hairstylists such as Sydney Guilaroff changed her natural soft auburn hair to black for a decidedly more striking appearance.
I grew up watching every film of Cyd Charisse’s, along with Ann Miller and Ginger Rogers and all of those great dancing stars, and it saddens me that she’s gone. The DH and I still watch her a few times a year, most notably in Bandwagon, where her ‘dancing in the dark’ sequence in the park with Astaire has to rank among the sexiest, subtlest dance routines ever filmed. For a more overtly sexy routine, her Louise Brooks-inspired appearance in the dream sequence of Singin’ in the Rain takes some beating. It makes perfect sense that a man attracted by the pert Debbie Rogers in ‘real life’ would focus on someone who looks more like Cyd in his dreams.
So come to think of it, maybe that’s what we’ll do tonight – turn out the lights, pop in a DVD and once more watch Cyd pick up Gene Kelly’s hat with her green shoes…