Tuesday, June 17, 2008

RIP Cyd Charisse

I came to musicals late in my filmgoing. For the longest time I knew Charisse, who died today at age 86, from the 1978 fantasy flick Warlords of Atlantis, an HBO staple. Later, in more upscale company, I admired her in better dramatic roles, eye-catching in Nicholas Ray's Party Girl (1958, pictured) and Vincente Minnelli's Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). These were part of the "new" MGM.

But the cornerstone of her reputation was, of course, those MGM musicals, whose spectacular run had just ended. She had small but not insignificant roles in a number of Forties tuners like 1946's Ziegfeld Follies and The Harvey Girls and a few dramas, notably the fine noir melodrama Tension in 1950. Her great showcase was undoubtedly the famed "Girl Hunt Ballet" in 1953's The Band Wagon, opposite Fred Astaire. Her long legs entrap Astaire in a Mickey Spillane sendup that is one of the marvels of the genre.

She had already made her mark in the previous year's Singin' in the Rain, and would go toe-to-toe, so to speak, with Gene Kelly in the Broadway adaptation Brigadoon (1954) and the terrific, and still underrated, It's Always Fair Weather (1955). Silk Stockings, a musicalization of the Garbo classic Ninotchka, reteamed her with Astaire and in what would be her swansong to classic musical roles. But she continued on, more sporadically, in pictures like the spoofy Dean Martin spy film The Silencers (1966) and TV series up to Frasier in 1995. In a friendly nod to the glories of the past, Janet Jackson cast Charisse, who was married 60 years to singer Tony Martin, in her 1990 video "Alright."

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