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Birthday Tribute: Cyd Charisse
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Birthday Tribute: Cyd Charisse - 3/8 (Daytime)

During a dance number in 1953's The Band Wagon, Fred Astaire says of the seductive Cyd Charisse that, "She came at me in sections." Audiences knew exactly what he meant, since Charisse's body, and particularly those long, expressive legs, seemed to have a life of their own.

As an actress, Charisse had a natural reserve that meant she could seem remote in dramatic scenes. But the moment she hit the dance floor, all bets were off. She was arguably the best female dancer of the movies' Golden Age--and certainly its most sensual.

Born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, on March 8, 1922, Charisse began dancing lessons as a child to strengthen her body after suffering from polio. Her childhood nickname "Sid" came from a younger brother who was attempting to call her "Sis." While still a teen, she performed with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo under the stage names Felia Siderova and Maria Istomina. During a European tour in 1939, she married fellow dancer Nico Charisse in Paris. Their son, Nicky, was born in 1942.

Cyd Charisse made her film debut in an uncredited bit as a flamenco dancer in the Continental Pictures production Escort Girl (1941) and began working as a chorus dancer at MGM with Thousands Cheer (1943). For her professional name in movies, MGM producer Arthur Freed changed the spelling of her nickname to "Cyd" and used the last name of her husband, whom she would divorce in 1947.

Charisse spent a nine-year apprenticeship at MGM as a dancer, supporting actress and occasional leading lady. After being somewhat taken for granted during that time, she created an unexpected sensation in the "Broadway Ballet" number opposite Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain (1952). She then blossomed as a star opposite Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon and for the next five years played leading roles to spectacular effect in musicals opposite him or Kelly. Astaire said of Charisse that, "When you danced with her, you stayed danced with."

As the movie musical faded away, Charisse turned to dramatic roles such as Universal's Twilight for the Gods (1958) and MGM's Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). Her final role in a feature film came in Warlords of the Deep (1978), but she continued performing on television and the stage. In 1992, she made her Broadway debut in Grand Hotel, and in 1994 she was one of the onscreen narrators of That's Entertainment! III.

In 1956, The Hollywood Reporter writer Jack Moffitt wrote this tribute: "Cyd is so beautiful, her life has been such a credit to Hollywood, her dancing is so lovely and her body is such a perfect medium of expression, that everyone who enthuses over the movies wishes her well."

Charisse was married to singer/actor Tony Martin from 1948 until her death of a heart attack in 2008. The couple had a son, Tony Martin Jr. Here are the films in TCM's birthday tribute, all produced by MGM:

Tension (1949) is a film noir about an unassuming drug-store manager (Richard Basehart) who seeks revenge on a faithless wife (Audrey Totter). In a non-dancing role, Charise gets third billing as the sympathetic young woman Basehart takes up with.

The Wild North (1952), an adventure set in Northern Canada, stars Stewart Granger as a man accused of murder and Wendell Corey as the Mountie who pledges to bring him in. Charisse has a non-musical supporting role as a Native American girl who befriends Granger.

Brigadoon (1954), Vincente Minnelli's screen version of the Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe musical, reunites Charisse and Gene Kelly as the lovers who meet in an ancient, enchanted Scottish village. The emphasis in this version is on the dancing, of course, and the two stars perform with the requisite magic.

Kelly and Charisse deut again in It's Always Fair Weather (1955), which tells a more contemporary story in which three ex-GI's stage a reunion. This musical, co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, offers Charisse a sensational solo, "You Knock Me Out," choreographed for her by Kelly in a boxing gym.

Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), written and designed as a showcase for Charisse, shows off her abilities as a dancer in everything from classical ballet to countrified hoedown. The highlight is an exciting 13-minute ballet based on the song "Frankie and Johnny." Dan Dailey costars, with guest appearances and cameos by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne to Charisse's husband, Tony Martin.

Silk Stockings (1957), a screen version of a Cole Porter stage musical based on the 1939 Garbo film Ninotchka, marked Charisse's final pairing with Fred Astaire. Her cool "remoteness" made her perfect casting as the Russian envoy wooed by Westerner Astaire, and the sizzle of the Charisse dancing became a perfect metaphor for her romantic thawing.

Party Girl (1958), Charisse's final film under her MGM contract, casts her as a cabaret dancer in Chicago during the early '30s, with Robert Taylor (another departing studio star) as the crooked lawyer she helps to go straight. Nicholas Ray directed. Still in top form at age 36, Charisse enjoys some effective dance numbers including one performed to only a drum accompaniment.

by Roger Fristoe

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