03 May 2019

Cyd Charisse

Cyd Charisse (1921-2008) was born to be a dancer. She became one of the top female dancers in the golden era of the musical. Her films include Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954) and Silk Stockings (1957). She was one of the few actresses to have danced with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Dutch postcard. Photo: M.G.M. Publicity still for Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952) with Gene Kelly.

Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon (1954)
French postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. A 1167. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954).

Cyd Charisse
Spanish postcard by Royal Books, Barcelona, 1993. Photo: Eric Carpenter. Publicity still for Meet Me in Las Vegas (Roy Rowland, 1956) .

Cyd Charisse
Dutch postcard by P. Moorlag, Heerlen, sort. 1/8.

A Girl Called Sid

Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in 1921 (some sources say 1922) in Amarillo, Texas. Her Baptist jeweller father encouraged her to begin her ballet lessons for health reasons. She was frail and sickly at the time and had a bout with polio.

During a family vacation in Los Angeles when she was 12, her parents enrolled her in ballet classes at a school in Hollywood. One of her teachers was a handsome young dancer and dance instructor, named Nico Charisse.

She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at age 13 and became a member of the corps de ballet at age 14. With the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she toured the United States and Europe, adopting the name Felia Sidorova.

In Paris, Nico and Cyd married when she was 18. After World War II broke out the company disbanded and the Charisse couple moved to Hollywood. In 1942, they had a son, Nicky.

Charisse got her start in Hollywood when Ballet Russe star David Lichine was hired by Columbia for a ballet sequence in the musical film Something to Shout About (Gregory Ratoff, 1943). She was billed now as Lily Norwood. The same year, she played a Russian dancer in Mission to Moscow (1943), directed by Michael Curtiz.

In 1945, she was hired to dance with Fred Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies (Vincente Minelli a.o., 1945), and that uncredited appearance got her a seven-year contract with MGM. Producer Arthur Freed preferred the name Charisse to Norwood and changed the spelling of her nickname Sid to Cyd. The nickname originated from her little brother. Initially, he could not say sister and called her Sid.

Her first speaking part was supporting Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls (George Sidney, 1946). Her dark looks initially had her cast as ethnic beauties. She was cast as Ricardo Montalban's fiancee in the film Fiesta (Richard Thorpe, 1947), and as a Polynesian in the Esther Williams' musical On an Island with You (Richard Thorpe, 1948).

In 1947, Charisse’s marriage to Nico Charisse ended in divorce. She married singer Tony Martin in 1948.

Cyd Charisse
Spanish postcard by Ediciones J.R.N., no. 35/7.

Cyd Charisse
Italian postcard by Bromostampa, Torino/Milano.

Cyd Charisse
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 422. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1953.

Cyd Charisse
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. A 961. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Dancing with Kelly or Astaire

Cyd Charisse appeared in a number of musicals over the next few years, but it was the celebrated Broadway Melody ballet finale with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, 1952) that gave her her big break. She appeared in only one of the film’s many indelible dance sequences, but one was enough, and she was both sultry vamp and diaphanous dream girl. Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the film established her as one of Hollywood’s most glamorous and seductive talents.

A year later followed her great performance in The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953), where she danced with Fred Astaire in the acclaimed Dancing in the Dark number. It was her first starring role. Robert Berkvist in The New York Times: "Astaire played a fading Hollywood song-and-dance man hoping to make a comeback on Broadway and who finds himself cast in a show opposite a snooty ballerina (Ms. Charisse). The couple do not see eye-to-eye until they take a nighttime carriage ride through a moonlit Central Park and wind up embracing languorously to the strains of ”Dancing in the Dark.” One of the most famous sequences from the film, if not in the history of dance on film, is 'The Girl Hunt Ballet,' in which Ms. Charisse plays the vamp to Astaire’s private-eye stage character."

In Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954), adapted from the 1947 Broadway show by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Gene Kelly and Van Johnson played American tourists who stumble on a mysterious Scottish village that materialises only once every 100 years. Kelly falls hard for a beautiful villager, Fiona (Charisse). She co-starred again with Kelly in It's Always Fair Weather (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, 1956).

In 1957 she rejoined Astaire in the film version of Silk Stockings (Rouben Mamoulian, 1957), a musical remake of Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939), with Charisse taking over Greta Garbo's role. She had a slightly unusual serious acting role in Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958), where she played a showgirl who became involved with gangsters and a crooked lawyer.

As the 1960s dawned, musicals faded from the screen, as did her career. She made appearances on television and performed in a nightclub revue with her second husband, Tony Martin. At 70, she made her Broadway debut in Grand Hotel. Her last film appearance was in That's Entertainment! III (Bud Friedgen, Michael J. Sheridan, 1994) as one of the onscreen narrators of a tribute to the great MGM musical films.

Cyd Charisse died at age 87 of a heart attack in 2008 in Los Angeles, California. She had two sons: Nicholas Charisse (1942) and Tony Martin Jr. (1950).

Jimmy Durante, Peter Lawford, Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, Ricardo Montalban and Xavier Cugat in On an Island with You (1948)
Belgian postcard. Photo: M.G.M. Jimmy Durante, Peter Lawford, Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, Ricardo Montalban and Xavier Cugat in On an Island with You (Richard Thorpe, 1948).

Cyd Charisse
Belgian Collectors Card by Kwatta, Bois d'Haine, no. C. 36. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Collection: Geoffrey Donaldson Institute.

Cyd Charisse
Belgian Collectors Card by Kwatta, Bois d'Haine, no. C. 37. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Collection: Geoffrey Donaldson Institute.

Cyd Charisse in Sombrero (1953)
German postcard by Kolibri-Verlag, no. 1253. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for Sombrero (Norman Foster, 1953).

Sources: Robert Berkvist (The New York Times),  Tony Fontana (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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