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Vol. LXII, No. 26
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
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DVD Review

Dancing In The Dark With Cyd Charisse

Stuart Mitchner

Perhaps the greatest female movie dancer. Her acting is like the songs in Marx Brothers films.
— David Thomson on Cyd Charisse

You could say as much for The Band Wagon (1953), one of the greatest movie musicals in spite of less than stellar acting, peppy but uninspired dialogue, and a silly premise involving a musical version of Faust that stars an aging song and dance man and a snooty ballerina. To be fair to Cyd Charisse, who died last week at 86, the problem with her portrayal of the supposed prima donna isn’t a question of acting but of temperament; there’s an essential sweetness in her that keeps shining through, which is well and good because once she and Fred Astaire sort things out, she’s luminous. “Dancing conveys emotions denied to her as an actress,” says Thomson, stating the obvious in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. Isn’t that what dancing’s all about? No words; no impediments like accent or phrasing; no quirks of diction; when it’s working, it’s pure, exalted pantomime.

The sorting out takes place at night in Central Park, where the ballerina and the hoofer go to escape from the madness of rehearsing for what is clearly a doomed production. They’ve settled back in a horse-drawn carriage for a ride around the park, nothing romantic, just a bit of fun, a chance to get to know one another; it’s like a first date. When they hear music playing, they get out of the carriage and follow the sound to an outdoor bandstand and dancing area. The melody is haunting, soft and sweet, with a quality of romantic anticipation; it’s like a gentler form of the music Berlioz wrote for Romeo and Juliet to fall in love to, and it’s being played by a small orchestra for couples who are dancing the way couples do “in real life,” not in an M-G-M movie. As the director Vincente Minnelli’s daughter Liza puts it in the commentary accompanying the Band Wagon DVD, her father’s goal was to “put music into real life” and never to lose sight of the humanity at the center of a musical sequence.

Minnelli, however, is mad for color; he’s surely the most technicolor-conscious of all Hollywood directors. The water the horse is drinking at the beginning of the Central Park sequence, for example, is as deep and dark a blue as the deep blue night sky, an image so striking it inspired the title of a book about film (Murray Pomerance’s The Horse that Drank the Sky). When you see the blueness, you know something magical is on the way. It helps that the director has been there before. Minnelli’s 1945 wartime romance, The Clock, contains a tender, beautifully underplayed Central Park love scene between Judy Garland and Robert Walker. In that film, the couple — a soldier and an office worker — have just met.

In The Band Wagon the couple standing outside watching the dancers may be the supreme performers in the medium of the dance, but Minnelli’s human touch makes them appear in that moment like “a real couple,” in effect, watching real couples really dancing. All ages, the dancers dance on as the two stars pass, almost shyly, among them. The casual, understated way they move throughout this prelude to their own dance is what makes the scene so quietly powerful. This is something better than acting; the delicate equilibrium between art and artlessness is touching to behold, all the more so when the two appear again, alone, rounding a corner, thoughtfully strolling. They’re already dancing and yet they aren’t; it’s what they’re both thinking about because they’ve not yet been able to find a balance between their two styles of dance in the show. So even though they appear to be idly, if musingly in motion, their footsteps are measured, and they’re moving in unison. They’ve been growing closer all this time with no visible, explicit indication of intimacy, no touching, no holding hands. Astaire takes her elbow once, but only briefly, to guide her as they wind their away through the dancing couples. When Charisse makes the first move, it’s as natural as if she were stepping around a pool of rainwater. Speaking in the commentary, Liza Minnelli, who saw the scene being filmed when she was a six-year-old, interprets that first step as Charisse thinking: “Let’s try.” Astaire takes a step that mirrors his partner’s, and as “Dancing in the Dark” begins to play on the soundtrack in Conrad Salinger’s renowned arrangement, the formal dance truly begins. Yet even as their movements become stately and brilliant and breathtaking, the scene sustains the subtle spontaneity it began with, shared thought becoming shared movement. They stop at one point, and seem ready to simply walk on, but the spell of the dance pulls them back again. “They can’t help dancing now,” says the director’s daughter. “They’re falling in love.” She also rightly points out the way Fred Astaire always gives the impression that he’s “making it up on the spot.” As the couple settles back down in their carriage, holding hands this time, Liza exclaims to her co-commentator, Michael Feinstein: “Pure Minnelli! Because music, which is in everybody’s life, and movement, which is in everybody’s life, just goes back — to life!”

On one of the special features accompanying the DVD of The Band Wagon, Cyd Charisse says that of all the scenes she ever did, the “Dancing in the Dark” sequence is her favorite. There are other wonders in the film — Astaire softly and inimitably talking/singing “I’ll go my way by myself”; the Penny Arcade number that ends with Fred finding the secret of the mystery machine (which erupts in a gorgeous neon fireworks display of Minnelli madness); and the astonishing Girl Hunt sequence, where Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, film noir, and Fred Astaire as a white-suited private eye come together with the choreography of Michael Kidd. Playing both the blonde victim and the femme fatale brunette, Charisse communicates a potent and playful eroticism; once again, her wholesomeness and humanity come shining through regardless of the gaudy trappings.

Charisse was never a top-tier star, never in the same league with Rita Hayworth or Ginger Rogers, or even Ava Gardner, who makes a cameo appearance in The Band Wagon. And while she was certainly no match for Greta Garbo, she memorably reprised Garbo’s Ninotchka role in Silk Stockings (1957). If you want evidence of her genius as the dancer Fred Astaire called “beautiful dynamite,” check out the version of her solo ecstasy in Silk Stockings on YouTube.

Turner Classic Movies is paying tribute to Cyd Charisse on June 27. starting at 8 p.m. with Singin’ in the Rain, followed by The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings.

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