Gerald Kaufman on the late, great dancer and film star ‘who could stop a man by just sticking up her leg’, and the accidents that led her to a role that became a movie sensation
When I discussed Singin’ in the Rain with Cyd Charisse, who died last week, she was of course aware that this was the film that propelled her to instant stardom. She knew less, however, about the series of accidents that brought about this opportunity. Charisse was scarcely a novice to MGM musicals before her big chance came along, but when MGM’s iconic producer of musicals, Arthur Freed, decided to make Singin’ in the Rain, with a score consisting almost entirely of songs written by Freed himself, not the tiniest thought was given to including her in the cast.
Then came the huge success of An American in Paris, for which Charisse had been considered before pregnancy excluded her. The big selling point of this Freed musical was its dream ballet. So Freed decided that Singin’ in the Rain had better have a dream ballet as well, and production, which had been wrapped in the summer of 1951, was reopened that autumn.
A dance sequence, featuring the movie’s two lead dancers, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, was ruled out because O’Connor, not on MGM’s payroll, was already committed to hosting NBC’s TV series The Colgate Comedy Hour. Debbie Reynolds was not eligible because, as Singin’ in the Rain’s co-director Stanley Donen told me, Reynolds had never danced on screen until Kelly, laboriously, taught her how. So they needed a girl, and Kelly wanted his dance assistant, the gamine Carol Haney, who was later to dance up a storm in the ‘Steam Heat’ number of Donen’s The Pajama Game.