Friday, April 19

Dancing Girls II

Leslie Caron and Cyd Charisse are two of the reasons why MGM musicals were so popular in the 1950s.  Both come from balletic backgrounds.  They are two of only six women to dance with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly (Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Vera-Ellen and Debbie Reynolds are the others).  Caron danced with each in just one film while Charisse partnered with Astaire and Kelly in three each.

Leslie Caron was discovered by Gene Kelly for the ingenue role in An American in Paris.  Charisse was actually supposed to have had that role but pregnancy counted her out.  I thought Caron owned the role, her pixie-like demeanor could never have been pulled off by the long and leggy Charisse.  Because the film was so successful (winning Oscar's best picture), she became an instant star.

I will forever think of Caron as the title star of four first-name titles... Lili, Gaby, Gigi and Fanny.  I wonder if any other actress can lay claim to such an occurrence.  Lili and Gigi were musicals, as was The Glass Slipper and her film with Astaire, Daddy Long Legs (far more successful than it should have been).  The award-winning Gigi, of course, was a monster success and is certainly the film for which Caron is most remembered.  Mainly because of her debut film, she will always be regarded as a dancer, but the truth is, she was far more talented and useful as a dramatic actress.

She was not a dramatic actress after her dancing roles dried up... she did drama starting with her second picture and never stopped. 
She earned an Oscar nomination for her compelling dramatic turn as an unwed, pregnant woman in The L-Shaped Room (1962).  The same year I enjoyed her (and David Niven as a British couple caught up in a coup in South America) in The Guns of Darkness, although she didn't think much of it.  Two years later she was charming as the caretaker of seven schoolgirls on an island during the war in Father Goose.  She more than held her own with that old scene-stealer Cary Grant in an often overlooked comedy. 

I quite liked her in Gigi. I will never forget the walk she took with Louis Jourdan before they stepped into the carriage at the end of the film. She could teach the class on elegant. Gigi, after all, was about training a young adolescent to be a swan.

My favorite of all her films is without question the charming, delightful, adorable, enchanting, lilting (where's my thesaurus?) Fanny, 1961.  Gorgeously photographed in Marseilles, it concerns a young woman in love with a restless young man, Horst Buchholz (boy, do they make for some delicious eye candy) who would rather go out to sea without her.  If you haven't seen Fanny, you really should.

In her later years, Caron had small parts in two films I immensely enjoyed, as Juliette Binoche's steely mother in Damage (1992) and as one of the townspeople in Chocolat (2000).  I'm willing to guess there are those of you who loved Chocolat and don't even realize Caron was in it.

At 81, she's still working.

Cyd Charisse is quite the opposite of most all I have said about Caron, except that they both started in ballet.  Charisse made the switch to drama after her dancing career ended, but she never succeeded as well as Caron did.  On the other hand, it would be pretty hard to beat Cyd Charisse as one of the best and most beautiful of movie dancers.  She was long and willowy and the older she got, the more beautiful she became.  Dancing with her must have been like floating in the clouds.  People may chatter about how Kelly and Astaire made the women they danced with look real good.  Well, I'm here to say Cyd Charisse made them look good.

While Caron was a star with her first film, Charisse probably never really became a full-fledged star.  A few of her early films were playing ethnic types or little more than specialty numbers in those all-star extravaganzas of which MGM was so fond.  Her inclusion in the cast of what many (not me) would claim as the best musical ever made, Singin' in the Rain, in one of these specialty numbers, brought her great acclaim.

Her best work is arguably with Astaire in The Band Wagon.  Not all of her musical films were good.  I thought another film with Astaire, Silk Stockings, and one with Kelly, Brigadoon, were not only pretty bad, but they may have contributed to drawing the curtain on musicals.  Nonetheless, she had numbers in both that were sensational.

If you ever saw the silly Dean Martin movie, The Silencers, you could never forget her sexy dance at the beginning of the film (before she's killed).  What a babe!  She made a stab at doing more dramatic parts, but mostly these films went nowhere.

She was married for an astonishingly 60 years to singer Tony Martin.  For years after her movie career stopped, the two of them performed together in television and cabarets. 

She died at age 87 in 2008.  In my mind's eye, she was one of the greatest female movie dancers ever.

Here is a great picture of both Caron and Charisse with Kelly and Astaire:

John Ford


  1. Ha! You know, I was sure you were wrong and that Ann Miller danced with them both (Astaire in Easter Parade and Kelly in On the Town), but I looked at a clip and Miller and Kelly don't have a single moment of partner dancing in Prehistoric Man. Ah, well... I do pride myself on knowing that Vera Ellen was one of them, though. Not too many people remember her (much less people under 50). Cyd Charisse must have had a hard time during that number in Singin' in the Rain, don't you think? She had to keep her knees bent every minute she was close to Kelly because she was taller than him. Her knees must have killed her by the end of filming!

  2. What a fun comment. I read it 3 times! I loved Vera-Ellen. Did you see my posting on her? Yes, Cyd towered over both her dancing men, Kelly and Astaire. She was a great balletic dancer but always a bit wan for my tastes. Thanks so much for reading my stuff and commenting.

  3. Love the work of both these beautiful ladies, I must disagree with you on "Daddy Longlegs", I love the movie. Cyd was a beautiful lady, but of the six who share the honor of partnering with both Fred and Gene, My nomination and vote for most Glamorous has to go to Rita Hayworth.

  4. Rita was certainly glamorous and one can clearly see why she danced with both of them. Did you see my posting on her?

  5. Cyd Charisse is one of the classic glamour girls of old Hollywood. I have many, many books on the pinups and bombshells of the 40's to the 60's, and most of them have pictures of her. Leslie Caron never did much for me. She was kind of cute, but she certainly wasn't beautiful, and imo, she was both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly's weakest dancing partner. Btw, I agree with Anonomyous. Rita Hayworth was probably the most beautiful and glamourous woman in movies....EVER. She had that exotic mixed race beauty just like Raquel Welch, Lynda Carter, (Wonder Woman) and Catherine Bach (Daisy Duke), all of whom are half Latin and half White.

  6. When did Debbie Reynolds dance with Fred?

  7. Fred and Debbie danced together in "The Pleasure of His Company." It was just a dance at her wedding but a dance nonetheless.