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One of the great female dancers of the movies, Cyd Charisse is generally remembered for classic song and dance films like Singin’ in the Rain – but perhaps her most iconic role was as the cool and calculating good time girl in Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (1958) opposite Robert Taylor, argues one of her many fans, Geoff Gardner.

Cyd Charisse became an almost instant star after being placed under contract by MGM in 1946. For a decade she participated in some of the very finest musicals made by the unit established at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by the legendary Arthur Freed. Freed produced more than forty films at MGM between 1939 and 1962 and brought a galaxy of talent to the studio. Cyd Charisse was one of the best of them, a strikingly cool, alluring dancer with phenomenal legs and a quite unique capacity for sinuous, athletic grace.

"She started as a dancer"

She started as a dancer and joined the Ballet Russe at either 13 or 14 (the biographies are a little unclear about the age but it was astonishingly young). During a European tour she married fellow dancer Nico Charisse. Her first film roles, under the name of Lily Norwood, began in 1943. By 1946 she had been spotted by Freed and was under contract to MGM where she stayed for the best years of her artistic life.

She will be officially remembered for her roles in the classic Freed productions Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Brigadoon, Its Always Fair Weather and Invitation to the Dance in which she appeared variously with either Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, the two greatest male dancers of the movies. Her role in The Bandwagon was especially affecting as you got the impression that there might just be a small touch of her own biography in it. She played a classical dancer who is being sought by old hoofer Fred Astaire to partner him in a raucous Broadway show. Her manager/lover is deeply concerned to maintain her reputation but she ends up hurling herself into the show and Astaire’s arms as it goes from disaster to triumph. It is one of the very greatest of the Freed/MGM productions and Charisse’s wary encounters and eventual romance with Astaire still bring tears to the eyes of old romantics.

Yet for many her most memorable part is in a non-Freed production for MG. Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl is a strange film in which Charisse has several showcase dance numbers playing opposite Robert Taylor in a sleazy story about gangsters, a crooked criminal lawyer and the woman who changes his life. Ray’s film revelled in the luxurious colours and a general air of violent decadence. It became a rallying cry for cultists and those who found cinematic glory in the byways of American cinema. Its recent release on DVD has excited much renewed attention on Ray’s career. Charisse’s cool, apparently calculating and unemotional role as the good time girl of the film’s title remains her most iconic moment in her career.

Her last great musical was for Freed at MGM when Rouben Mamoulian, not an MGM regular, was brought in to direct an adaptatrion of the stage hit Silk Stockings, a musical adaptation of Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. Charisse joined Fred Astaire for the last time playing the role made famous by Greta Garbo as the tightly wound Soviet commissar sent to Paris and ultimately entranced by Fred, the beauties of the city and its luxury clothing. Her number in her underwear made a deep impression on many a schoolboy.br>
As musicals faded from the production lists Charisse played just a small number of straight parts, all using her icy allure. Most interesting of them was probably her return to MGM for a supporting role in Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town in which she played a drunken, violent movie star, her best days over and reduced to making some dreadful epic movie in Italy. Many saw the film as a lesser, shop worn if flamboyant post script to Minnelli’s earlier take on the movie industry The Bad and the Beautiful.

"a thunderous ovation"

In 1972 Charisse came to Australia for a popular production of No No Nanette which was produced only in Melbourne. The production coincided with that year’s Melbourne Film Festival and she received a thunderous ovation when brought down the aisle and onto the stage of the St Kilda Palais Theatre where more than 2,500 people were in attendance.

Charisse married the singer Tony Martin in 1948 after divorcing Nico. They stayed married to the end and together wrote a very readable autobiography The Two of Us published in 1976.

For many Charisse was at the very heart of the MGM musical. Her elegant dancing and her striking beauty will live on forever.

Published June 23, 2008


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Cyd Charisse
March 8, 1921 – June 17, 2008

"Cyd Charisse was one of the best of them, a strikingly cool, alluring dancer with phenomenal legs and a quite unique capacity for sinuous, athletic grace.."

Singin' in the Rain

Party Girl

... in 2006

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