The final discovery of the Arthur Freed mgm musical factory, Cyd Charisse forestalled the end of an era with her hypnotic, sinuous, acrobatically improbable routines. She danced in three dimensions, sometimes appearing to torpedo from the screen toward the audience, others floating in the arms of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, both of whom treated her weightlessness as reverie. Charisse might be regarded as the supernova that brought down the studio musical. As early as her premiere break out performance in Singing In the Rain it was clear that no one would dance on screen better than this transcendent beauty, whose ethereal calm made her seem to be from another planet. No one has even tried.
Singing in the Rain, Gene Kelly’s 1952 Academy Award winning musical, was itself a nod to the changing times. A look back at the advent of the talkies, it predicted another revolution coming to Hollywood, one that would again ask for talents no one had considered cultivating. Method acting was about to make the big screen icons of the 1940s seem as melodramatic and phoney as talkies had made the vamps and cowboys of the 1920s appear. Kelly hinges the entire climax (if not film) on Cyd Charisse, whose ecstatic performance rises above the snide insult that the musical had lost its relevance. Clad in a shade of green so garish it recalls only the preying mantis, she performs a willowy Charleston. The Charleston was the Hustle of the 1920s, a dance seemingly designed to make the dancer look both clumsy and goofy. The few people who look good hustling or charlestoning are more than just graceful, they live dance as their native language. They radiate a solemnity, as though every second they aren’t dancing they struggle mightily to be understood. Both Kelly and Charisse were of that breed.
After Singing in the Rain, mgm tried to market Charisse as a leading lady. It’s hard to say if her acting was bad or if she were simply uncastable. Whether playing a virgin from the mythical town of Brigadoon, an update of the heroine from Ninotchka, or a ballerina on tour with an old school vaudevillean song and dance act, Charisse was marketed as a rarified commodity, a soul exalted above ordinary life. Her rapturous affect left most people stunned beyond the ability to truly utilize her gifts, which is why her first on-screen triumph, a dance without backstory or character, directed, choreographed, and envisioned by Kelly, transcends all of the other perfect performances that are her legacy.
Gene Kelly’s visionary narcissism is its own legend, but he upstages himself in all ways with Charisse. She appears periodically punctuating the sing-songy Broadway Melody. The refrain of middling ode to life on the stage, “gotta dance, gotta dance, gotta dance,” is repeated eerily as though sung by Karen, the little girl in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes. Each time the monotony of the endless step ball change routines the show girls offer makes Kelly’s alighting energy turn crazed, Charisse appears. The two dance, sometimes, but mainly he watches her, struck still by her movement, and she reminds him why he indeed has “gotta dance.” In a gauzy contraption that took three airplane motors to billow about, she is muse. No one should ever try to describe what she does on that screen, but everyone should go out and watch it, even if just on YouTube. It defies every spatial convention of filmmaking, narration, and anatomy.
No one again understood Charisse as well, and in her partnerships with Fred Astaire, while her dancing is still captivating, she at times appeared constrained by his civility. She is best remembered as the uninhibited, otherworldly, decontextualized creature who appears to remind the world what dance should be. And she is remembered.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.