Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cyd Charisse, RIP

I grew up watching MGM musicals like they were candy. Loved them so much, and they were the perfect escape from the heat, the dust, the tropical storms. And they all seemed so exotic to me, a child living in Martial Law controlled Manila. My mom hooked me onto the musicals through Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and with the advent of Betamax, we'd go through the shows and the shows about the shows (That's Entertainment 1 and 2, and I'm not talking about that local variety show). The bubble gum love stories, the poufy hairdo's, Ester William's synchronized swimming numbers, and of course the great dancing of both Kelly and Astaire. While Astaire had Rogers on his arm for several movies, Kelly was a soloist, who paired up with some lovely partners, but none was ever as leggy or sizzling as Cyd Charisse. I loved Cyd Charisse. Loved her in the dream sequence in Singing in the Rain. Who cares if Debbie Reynolds won Gene in the end? I wanted the brunette hot mama in the sparkly red cocktail dress with a slit up to her neck to win the wayward boy who was gonna dance. And even if she didn't have a single speaking line, you knew they were the ones meant to be, except she was eventually stolen away by her coin tossing gangster boyfriend.

Another great Charisse movie is The Bandwagon, where she was Astaire's partner (they also worked on Silk Stockings, a musical remake of Ninotchka, with Greta Garbo in the original Slavic role). Bandwagon's famous solo dance piece of Astaire has him dancing on the ceiling and walls, the set designers created a revolving room for the action. But my favorite duet with Astaire and Charisse is a simple moment where they take a horse drawn carriage through Central Park, she's wearing this simple and gorgeous white dress, and they dance their pas de duex through the gardens. I can see her skirt swinging in the air as I write this, with Astaire languidly (for he was never one to look like he exerted himself much) leading the way back to the carriage and into the night. (She was in the movie version of Brigadoon with Kelly, but her accent was sort of difficult to take. Great costumes though!)

She was quite tall unlike the other ballerina turned actress, Leslie Caron. I suspect Cyd couldn't wear heels much when dancing with Astaire or Kelly otherwise it would have looked odd. Her voice was dubbed in most of the musicals, but who cared if she wasn't really singing, it was her dancing that made her a star. I remember my mom telling me that Cyd Charisse had the best legs of any movie star, the story goes that she had them insured for a million dollars, a massive fortune in those days.

Both Astaire and Kelly are dancing up in heaven, and Cyd has gone up to join them, forever embedded in my childhood memories as the woman in red and white, smoking the long cigarette, or twirling through the twilight.

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