Today is Cyd Charisse's birthday.
She's not someone whose name comes immediately to mind when you think of "movie stars". And she's not quite the first name you'd think of when someone mentions "musical comedy dancer". And yet, two of her film performances created images which are close to the top of the Hollywood American Dream factory.
She was born Tula Ellice Finklea, the poor thing. She started dancing lessons at the age of six to help rebuild her strength after a bout with polio. By the age of 14 she auditioned for (and and danced with) the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. While on a European tour, she married dancer Nico Charisse. After the outbreak of WWII, they returned to Los Angeles, where they had studied. She was hired by MGM, and was quickly brought into the Freed unit, famous for producing musicals.
In 1952, she was cast as the femme fatale in the Broadway Melody number in Singin' in the Rain. Her sultry character and dancing is a highlight of the movie. Even though I consider it sacrilegious to see just a clip from the entire number, I found the following on YouTube. (I'd cap and post the whole number, but it would run about 2 minutes longer than YouTube's allowed 10 minutes.)
The following year, she was paired with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon. She played a ballerina. He played a washed up movie musical star who turns to Broadway for work. Yes, you can name that movie cliche at 10 paces to Baker Street. But that doesn't mean that the film isn't a distinct pleasure - it is. And one of my favorite set pieces in all of moviedom is here, the "Girl Hunt Ballet". Needless to say, she played the girl. Here's the entire sequence (which, interestingly enough runs over the 10 minute YouTube time limit):
There are many other wonderful scenes, songs, and dances she performed which deserve to be noted here, but those two are forever etched into my memory and maybe the memories of film lovers everywhere. Certainly, images from the above used to be used everywhere whenever an illustration was needed for "Hollywood Musical". But there is also the following, also from The Bandwagon. It is a simple number, really. A ballerina and a hoofer, working in the same show, trying to come to terms with each other. We know they will fall in love. They do it while "Dancing in the Dark", with an orchestration by Conrad Salinger - one of the best ever put together at MGM. I used to imagine myself courting/dancing to this number around the reflecting pool and fountain of the Christian Science Church centre in Boston... it's that kind of a moment. Movie magic. And it is the dance I always think of when I see, hear, or read Cyd Charisse's name.