Cyd Charisse left ‘black and blue’ by Gene Kelly who was ‘rougher than Fred Astaire’

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Cyd Charisse returns to the nation’s screens in ‘The Band Wagon’, which airs on BBC Two this afternoon. This classic backstage musical, released in 1952, features Charisse in one of the best performances of her career. The American dancer — who had ‘million-dollar legs’ — plays ballerina Gabrielle Gerard, who is drafted in for a floundering Broadway production. Charisse shares the screen with fellow Hollywood legend Fred Astaire, whose character Tony Hunter struggles to keep up with the modern musical he is supposed to be leading.

One of the highlights of Vincente Minnelli’s film is Charisse and Astaire partnering up for the ‘Dancing in the Dark’ sequence.

Set against the city skyline at night, the iconic scene was Gene Kelly’s own favourite Astaire number.

Charisse danced with Astaire and Kelly during her long career, performing with both men in a string of classic films.

However, the latter had a more forceful approach with his partners, according to The Week’s obituary of Charisse.

It read: “Charisse performed memorably with both Kelly and Astaire again, in Brigadoon (1954) and Silk Stockings (1957), respectively.

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“Kelly, she found, was rougher than Astaire. ‘If I was black and blue, it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch’.”

Despite the two men’s differing styles, Charisse was complementary about both of her dancing partners.

She once said: “To sum it up, I’d say they were the two greatest dancing personalities who were ever on screen.

“But it’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both delicious.”

Charisse was said to have caught the eye of both men with her performance in ‘Ziegfeld Follies’.

Kelly and Astaire, who also both starred in the 1945 musical, were stunned by Charisse’s dancing after watching her do a scene.

Following a screening of the film, Astaire was said to have asked Kelly: “Did you catch that girl, Charisse?”

Kelly apparently replied to his fellow dancer – who was insecure about his short stature – by saying: “She’s too tall for you.”

Howard Dietz, who co-scored ‘The Band Wagon’ with Arthur Schwartz, claimed the “discrepancy” between Charisse and Astaire was a “problem”.

The pair’s dance was said to have been choreographed so they would lean into each other when dancing, so audiences could not see that Charisse was taller than Astaire.

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The producers also added height to Astaire’s shoes to give him a few extra inches, according to Dietz.

He was quoted in Peter Evans’ biography of Charisse in 2008 as saying: “Cyd was several inches taller than Fred.

“Her long legs made her look streamlined like the Chrysler Building – Fred was more General Motors.

“The discrepancy was a problem, but the producers wanted Cyd and built up Fred’s ego – and his heels.”

But despite the height differences, Charisse, with her long legs and dark black hair, still caught the eye of Astaire.

In his 1959 autobiography, ‘Steps in Time’, he described his dancing partner as “beautiful dynamite”.

‘The Band Wagon’ airs on BBC Two from 12:30pm today.

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