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Cyd Charisse Was
Beautiful Dynamite

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1949 publicity portrait of Cyd Charisse.
“She came at me in sections,
more curves than a scenic railway.
She was bad. She was dangerous.
But she was my kind of woman.”

--Fred Astaire upon first
encountering Cyd Charisse,

“Girl Hunt Ballet” from the film,
“The Band Wagon”

With A Nickname From Fred Astaire That Hit The Nail Exactly On The Head, The Icon Of The 1950s Was Really Just A Small-Town Girl From Texas

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Jan. 4, 2015 — Cyd Charisse, with legs that stretched into infinity and a smoldering sensuality that no other dancer in Hollywood could match, became a reigning icon of the Golden Age of MGM musicals that peaked in popularity in the early 1950s. Nicknamed “Beautiful Dynamite” by Astaire, Charisse proved to be a perfect duet partner for Fred in The Band Wagon and later in her favorite role as “Ninotchka” in the musical version of that film, Silk Stockings.

It’s true; MGM had no shortage of talented dancing ladies in those days. Ann Miller’s tap dancing could approximate a pneumatic drill gone berserk; Leslie Caron was ballet-trained and had a certain pixyish gamine quality; and Vera-Ellen could tap or toe-dance with equal aplomb. But Charisse’s routines had an added dimension guaranteed to appeal to red-blooded American males in theaters across the country. In the “Broadway Ballet” from Singin’ in the Rain for instance, when Charisse sinuously wrapped her legs around Gene Kelly’s torso and then rubbed his steamed-up eyeglasses on her inner thigh to the muted, smokey cornet glissando of “Broadway Rhythm,” enough sexual heat was generated to melt granite. More than 60 years later, the effect on movie audiences is still the same.

When we met Charisse in April 1996, she was 76 and lived on the top floor of a luxury high-rise apartment building along the “Wilshire Corridor,” a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard lined with plush condos that bisect some of the priciest real estate in Los Angeles. At the time, Charisse had been married to debonair MGM baritone Tony Martin for 48 years. They would be married another 12 years until Charisse’s death in 2008. Martin would follow her four years later at the age of 98. Although Martin never appeared from his bedroom (Charisse said he was nursing a bad case of bronchitis), we did intermittently hear his hacking cough throughout our visit.

Slim and chicly dressed, Charisse greeted us at the front door with a “Hello, darlings” that oddly seemed anything but perfunctory. In making her way from the entryway to a sitting room, she still displayed an effortless grace that was as natural as a prima ballerina’s classical walk. But in reality, such equipoise did not historically come easily. From the age of six, the practical considerations of overcoming a handicap were the motivating factor in Charisse’s decision to dance.



“Growing up in Amarillo, Texas, I had a slight case of polio which resulted in an atrophied shoulder and me being very skinny,” she said. “People were afraid to touch me. So in order to exercise my muscles and become part of the community again, I took dance lessons.” It helped that Charisse’s father was a self-professed “balletomane” who loved to see his daughter dance and encouraged her every step of the way.

Before long, Charisse’s precocious talent required an outlet beyond what her West Texas hometown could provide. She began studying dance in earnest in Los Angeles, Calif., with a former partner of the great “danseuse” of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Anna Pavlova. It was during the strict regimen of daily classes that the ballet master of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo saw Charisse. The world-renowned troupe was performing at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Hall. In short order, she was offered a spot in the company.

After journeying home to Texas to receive her father’s blessing, the teenage Charisse joined the company in Cincinnati. However, tragedy struck, and Charisse’s father fell gravely ill. She left the troupe to be with him when he died. Then, at the age of 16, Charisse got a second chance to join the company during another stopover in Los Angeles. Proceeding to Europe, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was about to embark on a tour of the great capitals starting with Berlin.

“We were scheduled to perform there on Sept. 1, 1939,” Charisse said. “Unfortunately, Hitler chose that day to invade Poland and begin World War II. At the urging of the U.S. State Department, I found myself on a steamship back to the United States.”

Back for a third time in Los Angeles, Charisse auditioned for the MGM film Ziegfeld Follies which starred just about all the high-octane musical talent the studio could muster.

“Arthur Freed, the producer of the picture, became my mentor,” Charisse said. “He needed someone who could dance ‘en pointe’ in the opening ‘Here’s to the Ladies’ sequence that featured – portentously – Fred Astaire.”

In the number, Charisse dances tantalizing close to Astaire.

“Fred was in top hat and tails and I did this tentative little toe dance around him but not with him.”

Charisse had another chance in the finale of the film to the song “There’s Beauty Everywhere” sung by Kathryn Grayson.

“The problem was these huge mountains of soap suds that were part of the number. Showgirls were gathered on a big staircase that I was supposed to pirouette down. But the bubble machine went crazy and started to cover the girls with suds. They started to scream and pass out and ambulances were called. In the final print all you see is one small shot of me pirouetting through the mess.”

Her movie debut opposite “Mr. Bubble” notwithstanding, Arthur Freed liked what he saw and signed Charisse to a standard seven-year contract at $350 a week. In one fell swoop of a pen, Charisse became a cog in the greatest dream factory in movie history.

“It was fabulous,” she said. “I took singing lessons, acting lessons and had a vocal coach who worked with me to get rid of my Texas twang. MGM in those days had the greatest writers, directors, costume designers – you name it. Everything was at your fingertips, and everything was done in-house.”

According to Charisse, MGM “built stars to last.”

“Today,” she said, “an actor is lucky if they’re in a film big enough to sustain them to stardom. In my day, you had an army of gifted people, all experts in their fields, tailoring parts for your particular talent.”

Charisse’s breakout role was as the object of Gene Kelly’s affection in the “Broadway Ballet,” the 15-minute dream sequence near the end of Singin’ in the Rain.

“Gene was going to use his dance assistant, Carol Haney, in the role,” Charisse said. “Carol was a wonderful dancer, but Freed didn’t think she photographed well. All the moves were already blocked out by the time I was brought in. The ‘vamp’ part of the ballet was hard to do because of all the nuances. It was really like a mini-drama within a number. We rehearsed the Salvador Daliesque ‘Crazy Veil’ sequence until my shoulders were chapped – they had to blow so much wind on me in order to make the veil go up into the air.”

When queried about her favorite dance number, Charisse spoke without a moment’s hesitation: “’Dancing in the Dark’ with Fred Astaire from The Band Wagon was so simple, yet so lovely,” she said. “I loved Astaire’s style. He had a quality when he walked into a room that was his and nobody else’s in the world; a charm, elegance. He was also extraordinarily gentle. He would never confront you with a criticism directly for fear that he would embarrass you. But he wasn’t a pushover. With Fred, you would invariably come in early and work late. You had to have stamina.”



Despite surviving grueling rehearsals, Charisse wasn’t the bolt of lightning she often appeared to be when she danced.

“She’s not strong – she’s not a powerhouse, she just looks that way,” said Eugene Loring who choreographed Charisse in Silk Stockings

“In the ‘Red Blues’ number (from that film), she looks like a dynamo. She has bursts of energy, not for long and then she gives up.”

Thank heavens for the magical intercession of multiple takes and seamless editing which delivers a “trompe l'oeil” aura to any movie.

It was logical to assume when we met Charisse that she might want to relax a bit and accept the plaudits her talents had earned her over decades spent in front of the camera. It was logical, but it was wrong. A couple of years before we visited, to help her mother combat a severe case of arthritis, Charisse in tandem with a chemist friend of hers, developed a product they dubbed Arctic Spray. The “liquid ice” curative is still sold online.

We thought at the time Charisse may have been driven by a work ethic underscored by arduous hours spent rehearsing in drafty sound stages, or possibly that her newfound career owed its provenance to memories of a little girl born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, who triumphed over some tough odds of her own. In any case, Charisse told us with a hint of astonishment, “I now find myself a business executive.”

For her, it was a whole new dance.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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