William Katz: When the word had a meaning

Occasional contributor Bill Katz now posts daily at Urgent Agenda, though he saves his longer reflections on life and politics for us. Today Bill remembers Cyd Charisse and her career in Hollywood, where Katz spent several years working for Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show.

Cyd Charisse died yesterday at 86. Cyd Charisse was a star at a time when the word had a meaning. If you want to see just how devalued it’s become, try tuning into a TV show like “Dancing With the Stars,” and list how many of the “stars” you recognize.

The classic definition of a star is someone with that indefinable something extra. It’s a definition most Hollywood executives today can never accept, for it assumes that there are things that are felt, that are experienced in ways that their sociology professors can’t explain.

Cyd Charisse had that indefinable something extra. A great dancer, yes. But there were other great dancers. A great beauty, yes. But there were other great beauties. She had something that just drew us in, and made us want to watch forever. Enjoy it, don’t study it.

She was one of the small group of stars who defined the great film musicals of the forties and fifties. When we think of her we think of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. She danced with both of them, with Kelly most notably in “Singin’ in the Rain” (video above) and with Astaire in “The Band Wagon” and other films. “Cyd Charisse, how she dances,” Gene Kelly rhapsodized in “That’s Entertainment,” the retrospective of MGM musicals made in the early seventies. She was classically trained, and could do anything from ballet to jazz.

She had elegance and class, words we don’t use much anymore to describe the people we see on the screen. She even had a stable family life, having been married to the same man, the great singer Tony Martin, for 60 years. I don’t know what she could have done in the Hollywood of today. Maybe she could have been an extra in “Rocky 26.” To the best of my knowledge she never visited North Vietnam or campaigned for George McGovern.

Besides elegance and class, Cyd Charisse had something else. She had the great army of talent that filled Hollywood in the golden age of American film. A dancer doesn’t dance to silence. Cyd Charisse danced to Cole Porter and Arthur Schwartz and Lerner & Loewe. She was enveloped by lyrics that sung of love and longing, not hookers or the need for medical marijuana. A great movie musical is a meeting of talents. A great dancer without great music is half a dancer, and Cyd Charisse came along when songs were still pouring from Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers.

She had even more. She had a sense of perfection, in part because she was surrounded by perfectionists like Kelly and Astaire, who’d rehearse and rehearse until it was right. Charisse and Astaire made “Dancing in the Dark” look easy in “The Band Wagon,” but that buttery little dance took hours and hours to perfect. They respected the audience enough to give their very best. They showed us what popular culture could be, and neither of them ever made twenty million dollars a film.

It’s all gone now. The great music. The great dancing. There are wonderful dancers today, some from the Fosse tradition, but what do they have to dance to? And what opportunities do they have on film?

I interviewed Tony Martin when I was on The Tonight Show staff in the seventies, and asked him about his wife. “Cyd still works,” I recall him saying. She was barely 50 at the time, her career having been cut short when the movie industry collapsed into the chaos of the sixties. Imagine having to say that someone “still works” at 49 or 50. The Martins had a successful night-club act, but the glory days were past. We can only imagine what Cyd Charisse, as a choreographer or teacher, could have contributed to the motion-picture industry in her later years, if only they’d let her.

She was not one of a kind. She was one of a group. There were others, like Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, and yes, Rita Hayworth, who was a superb screen dancer before turning to acting. They all added polish to the golden age.

So, go out and rent “Singin’ in the Rain,” or “The Band Wagon” or “Brigadoon,” and see why Cyd Charisse is getting the obituaries you’re reading this morning. At least we have the movies to keep the memory. They used to make them that way.

For a view of Cyd Charisse in action with Fred Astaire in “The Band Wagon,” click here.

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