Little known facts about Cyd Charisse (at least little known to me): She's from Texas (I assumed she came from the same place Hedy Lamarr came from wherever that was); her birth name was Tula Ellice Finklea--a name that could only have been invented by W.C. Fields. She married her dance teacher, a man named Nico Charisse. She was called "Sid" by her brother because he couldn't say "sis". She left Charisse (they had one son together) and married Tony Martin a year later, in 1948. (They too had one son together, the unimaginatively named Tony Martin Jr.) They're still married--he's ninety six. She's eighty six. She was in "The Silencers" with Dean Martin. And she did an episode of "Fraiser" in 1998.
Having all but lost myself in Cyd Charisse clips over the last few days, I've come to the conclusion that this great dancer and charismatic screen personality was, in some ways, Hollywood's greatest weapon against censorship. My theory is, roughly, that Charisse possessed a startling mixture of deep sensuality and drop-dead good looks mixed with an aura of the high-falutin; she began as a ballet dancer and MGM featured her as such in her first appearance at the studio, 1945's "Ziegfield Follies". I'm not sure how calculated all of this was, but it seems clear that the powers that be--probably Arthur Freed more than anyone else--realized that they could get away with letting Cyd go places that other actresses would have been banned from movies for going...all because something about her act said "art".
Thus the below number, "One Alone", from the 1954 Sigmund Romberg bio "Deep In My Heart". In it, Cyd and her dance partner, James Mitchell (later famous as Palmer Cortland Sr. on "All My Children) all but simulate coitus in one of the most daring and still head-shakingly erotic dance numbers ever filmed. Where were the censors? My guess is that the "Cyd's a Ballet Dancer" shtick had them buffaloed--even the hicks from the Hays Office didn't want to look too square and they probably let a lot of this ride on the basis of it's artsy-fartsy-ness. (Her male partner being in tights probably reinforced the notion that this was highbrow stuff). The number--which stems from Romberg's "Desert Song" operetta (first produced on stage in the twenties, then made into several unwatchable movie versions)--is masterfully staged and shot by the director, Stanley Donen, who--thanks to his expressive use of both crain and dolly--shows us the magnificent set in a way that doesn't dwarf the perfomers who are on it...though given what the performers are up to on that set your attention would no doubt be on them no matter how it was shot.
"Deep In My Heart" was, I believe, the last Metro offering in the mini-genre that I think of Musical Biohacks--that is: hack jobs on the "lives" of popular composers of the day (Robert Walker as a glum Jerome Kern in "Till The Clouds Roll By", Tom Drake as a wooden Richard Rodgers and Mickey Rooney as a self-pitying "girls don't like me cause I'm short" Lorenz Hart in "Words And Music", Cary Grant as the tall, non-gay Cole Porter in "Night And Day" etc...) Why Romberg, whose music had long since fallen out of fashion--if not having already entered the realm of camp (hear the Hi-Lo's hilarious take on "The Desert Song" circa 1957)--was chosen for the full-tilt MGM screen treatment is something of a mystery. His life was decidedly undramatic and Jose Ferrer was the unlucky actor forced, kicking and screaming I'm sure, into portraying the man who "taught America how to love"...but who lived most of his life with his mother. Hm. Today Romberg is best remembered for two stilted love songs that, in the up-tempo hands of some jazz greats, lived on to become standards of the songbook: "Lover Come Back To Me" and "My Romance".
I've written previously of the fact that I interviewed Donen for the DGA Oral History program. I wish I'd known about this number at the time as I'd have had a few questions for him. Like: were they deliberately goading the censors and secretly cackling about the outrageous positions they dreamed up for Cyd? Did the filmmakers get to watch the film in the presence of the censors, smiles frozen on their faces as the room heated up with lust and embarrassment? (This reminds me of the scene in Mel Brooks "Silent Movie" where the executives look at a picture of a bombshell actress and profess mild interest...while the table they're sitting around rises majestically into the air...) Still, Donen did tell me a marvelous story about Charisse and the sheer white China Silk outfit (attached to her body suit) which she wears in the "dream ballet" number in "Singin' In The Rain". I'll quote it. (The below, by the way, isn't from my interview but is reprinted with no permission whatsoever from Stephen Silverman's bio of Donen "Dancing On The Ceiling". The anecdote is substantially the same, however, as when Donen told it to me):
"Cyd's outfit was a headache and the front office was going crazy because it was already so short and the veil pulled it back so far that her pubic hair was showing. Walter Plunkett, the costume designer, would lengthen it a little but the front office was still worried sick. They lived in such tremendous fear of the censors in those days. Finally Walter, who was driven nuts by all this himself, came to the set one day. Now, Walter, a very nice man was very swishy. He was very much like Franklin Pangborn. So this morning he shows up on the set, he's looking very satisfied with himself and I ask: "Walter what's up?" And he said "This time we've done it. We finally got the crotch licked." But that still wasn't the end of it. MGM wasn't satisfied yet. So what they had me do was go into the lab and paint in little white lines over her dark pubic hairs. Well, Technicolor prints start to fade, but the white doesn't. What happend was when the picture was playing theaters, Cyd's crotch started to light up like neon".