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A Great Dancer, Gone

Cyd Charisse has died. I hadn't realized this before, but she was about a month younger than my mother. Here's a French fan site.


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Bruce Lagasse wrote:

Since I have always been a leg man, I have long thought that Cyd Charisse was the sexiest woman that ever walked the earth. In addition to those shapely legs that went from here to there, she was also exceptionally beautiful.

Dick Eagleson wrote:

Cyd Charisse was certainly among the tiny handful of women with defensible claims to being the world's most beautiful.

Moviegoers are given to making all kinds of noises for all kinds of reasons, but I have only heard entire movie audiences spontaneously, and simultaneously, gasp in astonishment at female beauty on three occasions. One was when Phoebe Cates memorably consigned her bikini top to somewhere beyond the edge of the frame in the justly famous fantasy sequence in 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.' A second was when Jamie Lee Curtis staked her own claim to Topless Hall of Fame glory by letting her "girls" out nearly in the face of a justly stupefied Dan Ackroyd in 'Trading Places.' I saw both of these movies on the days they were released so the startle factor was maximized in each case. Neither I nor the rest of each audience had any hint of what was coming.

The third such reaction was to Cyd Charisse in the 'Desert Song' sequence of 'Deep in My Heart,' the MGM bio-pic based loosely on the life and work of early 20th Century operetta composer Sigmund Romberg. I first saw this film in a revival house in the late 1970's. The 'Desrt Song' number, which can be seen here - though in too small and low-resolution a format for anything approaching maximum effect - is a paint-scorching dance of simulated sexual abandon between Cyd and a young and sinuous James Mitchell.

The scene opens with a shot of the entire large set, with Cyd a tiny cloaked figure entering at lower left. Still cloaked, she moves furtively across the floor and sheds the cloak before passing out of the main room into a side chamber through a curtain of beads. The camera is swooping in from above at this point and Cyd turns and reenters the main room through the bead curtain and strikes a pose in the most preposterously flattering skintight dress Helen Rose ever designed. At that instant, I - and everyone else in the place - gasped. We couldn't help ourselves.

So how gorgeous was Cyd Charisse? Enough to unsettle the breathing of an entire revival house crowd, at least some of whom had no doubt seen the film before. The movie was new to me, but was over 25 years past its initial release date by this point. So, with a surprise factor limited to tyro afficianados of classic musicals like, at the time, me - and fully clothed - Cyd Charisse could make a whole theater crowd behave like only a few other women have ever done and do so, moreover, without removing anything but her cloak.

What is it that made Cyd Charisse such a riveting presence? Well, certainly the legendary legs, but the rest of her construction was equally exceptional. For one thing, she had, as the linked clip should make abundantly clear, both the finest ass in Christendom and one of the largest sets of Charlies ever seen on a regular civilian. Her shoulders and arms were built to match, wider and larger than was typical of women of the 50's, even other dancers. She was a peer of Esther Williams in this respect, but without having had to be a chanpion swimmer to acquire these attributes. Cyd was perfectly proportioned and, viewed from the present day, strikes my eye as having had a much more streamlined and modern physique than most of her contemporaries. Her 1950's self, if somehow transported a half-century forward in time, would still rival any modern pole dancer or fitness queen for sheer machine-tooled voluptuousness. She was truly a woman built to military specifications.

Finally, of course, there was that fabulous face. Cyd shared with a few other women of her rarefied ilk - Racquel Welch and Sophia Loren come to mind - the rare gift of fabulous, prominent cheekbones that, nonetheless, have nary a hint of pointiness or angularity about them. They endow her face with an arresting beauty that calmly, irresistably, commands attention. Once she enters your field of view, it is simply impossible not to look at her. You are not permitted to look away until dismissed.

We are fortunate Cyd Charisse came to us in the age of photography. We don't know what Helen of Troy or Cleopatra really looked like and the painted or sculpted likenesses of other great beauties of the pre-photo past are, inevitably, of uncertain veracity. But Cyd we have in thousands of stills and miles of film. As long as men admire women her images will serve to prove that, yes, there really was a women that beautiful so long ago.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on June 18, 2008 8:44 AM.

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