March 8, 1922– Cyd Charisse:
I think that in all my dancing I play a role. To me, that’s what dancing is about. It’s not just steps.
When you dance with Cyd Charisse, you stay danced.
When Gene Kelly asked what she’d like for her epitaph, Charisse replied:
People sometimes had a problem placing her face, but they never forgot her pins.
She asked what Kelly wanted on his. He replied:
Here lies Gene Kelly. He danced with Cyd Charisse.
Her legs were sensational, of course, long and dangerous, and insured by MGM for a million dollars. But there was much more to her than those million-dollar legs.
She was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas. When she was six-years old, to help recover her strength after having had polio, Charisse began taking ballet lessons at a local studio. Everyone recognized that she was an especially gifted dancer and when she was 12-years old, her parents enrolled her in legendary ballerina Bronislava Nijinska‘s ballet school in Hollywood.
At 14-years old, she was invited to be a member of the new Monte Carlo Ballet Russe, founded by Léonide Massine and René Blum in 1937. Young Tula was required to adopt a Russian-sounding stage name, and she became Felia Siderova, and on occasion, Natacha Tulaelis.
She was on a European tour with the company when she when she met Nico Charisse, a handsome young dancer. They eloped in Paris when she was 18-years old, and she changed her name to Cyd Charisse. The name’s origin, so the story goes, came from her brother who had trouble pronouncing “sister” and settled for “Sid”. Anyway, the name stuck, but the marriage didn’t.
In the early 1940s, Charisse was spotted by studio scouts and Columbia Studios cast her in Something To Shout About (1943), billed as Lily Norwood. In 1946, MGM, the number one studio for Hollywood musicals, signed her to a contract and gave her small, but showy roles in The Harvey Girls (1946), Till The Clouds Roll By (1946) and the lavish Ziegfeld Follies (1945), where she danced a brief opening sequence with Astaire. When she was cast in Ziegfeld Follies, producer Arthur Freed told her to use her married name Charisse and drop the Norwood.
Although only briefly in Ziegfeld Follies, Charisse gives off the impression of woman who knew how to make it on her own in the world. Most chorus girls were cast because they looked naive, but she came across as someone who knew how to seduce, beguile, and dominate a man.
At the screening of Ziegfeld Follies, Astaire turned to Kelly and asked: “Did you catch that girl Charisse?” Kelly answered: “She’s too tall for you!, probably with the idea of having her as a dancing partner for himself.
Because of those famous legs, Charisse seems tall onscreen, but she was a rather average, 5′ 6”. But, Astaire and Kelly were not tall and they were always careful about their partner’s height. Charisse was eventually cast again opposite Astaire in The Band Wagon in 1953. In her shoes, she was several inches taller than Astaire. Lyricist Howard Dietz quipped:
Her long legs made her look streamlined like the Chrysler Building, Astaire was more General Motors. The discrepancy was a problem, but the producers wanted Cyd and built up Fred’s ego and his heels.
Their partnership was sensational. Audiences loved them together.
Unlike Ginger Rogers, who smiled through every routine, Charisse maintained a sensual seriousness which changed the look of dance in film.
Debbie Reynolds was the female lead of Singin’ In The Rain. Charisse was the girl who appears to tempt and torment Kelly in the extraordinary 15-minute dance sequence that is the film’s heart. Playing a gangster’s moll who turns her back on true love for easy money, and she steals the movie.
When Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen were casting Singin’ In The Rain, they knew they needed just the right dancing partner for Kelly in the film’s climactic Broadway Melody Ballet number. Debbie Reynolds was not a trained dancer and simply not up to the demands of the 15-minute routine. Kelly still worried that Charisse was too tall, so he staged it so that whenever they danced closely, they would always bend towards each other. Charisse is never seen standing upright next to Kelly.
For the number, Donen and Kelly decided to make Charisse look like screen star Louise Brooks, the insolent bobbed-haired beauty of the silent era. Kelly:
She looked like a woman who liked to shock priests with wicked confessions.
According to Kelly, Charisse was reluctant to appear so sensual, but when it came time to film it, she did it in style, and the dance and their partnership made film history. Charisse’s performance was so impressive that an entire production number with Reynolds was cut to emphasize Charisse’s impact.
Astaire and Kelly are the two greatest dancing personalities who were ever on screen. They both wanted perfection and worked for days on a few bars to get exactly what they wanted. It could be hard on their partners, but it was worth it!
Asked about working with Kelly and Astaire, Charisse told a reporter that her husband, handsome singer Tony Martin, always knew whom she had been dancing with:
If I was black and blue, it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.
Astaire wanted her back for Silk Stockings (1957). Louis B. Mayer and Freed were not convinced that she had the acting talent to carry off role first played Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939), but Astaire got his way. Astaire:
It wasn’t easy following in the footsteps of Garbo, especially for a gal best known as a dancer. But, she did it beautifully. Even that Russian accent never wavered. I put my head on the block for her and she never let me down.
Charisse said of dancing with Astaire to the demanding choreography of Eugene Loring and Hermes Pan in Silk Stockings:
Fred moved like glass.
Silk Stockings was her last major musical. Interest in Hollywood musicals went into decline, but she found dramatic work in films like the film noir Party Girl (1958) with Robert Taylor and melodrama Two Weeks In Another Town (1962) with Kirk Douglas.
Without much film work, Charisse and Martin put together a really swell nightclub act and they played Las Vegas and clubs around the country. They were much in demand and received great reviews. She continued to work occasionally in film and on stage in summer stock. She appeared on television, dancing on variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dean Martin Show, with seven appearances on The Hollywood Palace, hosting three times. Her final film was an Italian drama, Visione Private (1989).
Charisse made her Broadway debut at 70-years old in the musical, Grand Hotel (1992), playing the lead, a famous but aging ballerina in 1920s Berlin, another role originated by Garbo (in the 1932 film).
Charisse kept working into her 80s, taking that final bow in 2008, gone from a heart attack at 86-years old. She was gorgeous to the end, and the people I know who worked with her say that she was very professional, but possessed a wicked sense of humor.
Arriving in Rome in her 70s, the paparazzi greeted her at the airport as if she were a movie star in prime of her career, begging for shots of her million-dollar legs. She smiled and tossed-off:
Even at my age… not bad for an old broad.