Tula, Felia & Cyd…And The Girl Hunt Ballet.

Doing a double-check of Hollywood movie trivia for some writing-in-progress, I had to pause when I stumbled across “The Girl Hunt Ballet” sequence from Vincente Minelli’s 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon. Call me a procrastinator, but I just had to watch it a couple of times. Now, musicals aren’t really my thing. But if you haven’t seen this stunning 12-minute homage to then controversial Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer hard-boiled novels, you’re missing a treat. In the mini-movie-within-a-movie, Fred Astaire’s a dapper but dangerous New York gumshoe and Cyd Charisse may be the most bewitching femme fatale to ever melt a movie screen. For more about “The Girl Hunt Ballet”, follow the link below to a December 2018 post here at The Stiletto Gumshoe.

As for Cyd Charisse, that would be Tula Ellice Finklea from Amarillo, Texas, who first went by Felia Sidrova and later Maria Istomina while dancing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in her late teens and early twenties (when she married fellow dancer Nico Charisse). She became ‘Cyd’ when talent scouts lured her to Hollywood…though even that would be after a brief stint going by Lily Norwood. A woman of many names, indeed. That Charisse was a dancer (and one of Hollywood’s all-time greats) is doubly amazing considering that she began studying ballet to build up her body during a sickly childhood and a bout with polio. 

If an MGM musical star still needed any more mystery/crime/noir cred after her memorable “The Girl Hunt Ballet” performance, check out Nicholas Ray’s 1958 Party Girl, where Charisse is a cynical Chi-Town showgirl mixed up with gangsters and falling for a crooked mob lawyer. It didn’t do so well here in the U.S. and is rarely listed among better known postwar film noir and crime melodramas, but oddly enough it’s gained some sort of cult following among European crime film fans. As luck would have it, Party Girl airs on Sunday evening 9.6.20 (this post being written days ago).

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2018/12/29/the-girl-hunt-ballet/

Tango Noir.

Jorge Botero Lujan 1

Just a dance? No, seems like much more. Intriguing paintings from Jorge Botero Lujan, artfully capturing the steamy embraces of dark ballroom romance.

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The Girl Hunt Ballet

Girl Hunt Ballet 3

The Band Wagon (1953) is a classic MGM musical (it’s the film that included the famous song “That’s Entertainment”) with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant…even a walk-on by Ava Gardner. Astaire plays a popular but aging Hollywood song and dance star who’s returned to Broadway in the hopes of restarting his career, where’s he’s mismatched with Gabrielle Gerard, a famous ballerina unfamiliar with musical theater, played by Cyd Charisse. Their initial outing, an ill-conceived highbrow musical version of Faust, is a disaster. But Fred saves the day by rallying the cast and crew to rework the material into a more conventional musical comedy show that premieres to rousing success…while he and the ballerina (who originally nearly despised each other) naturally end up falling in love.

Okay, so why should we mention this film here? Because of its legendary The Girl Hunt Ballet sequence.

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One of many song and dance numbers planned for the film was called “The Private Eye”, but it proved unworkable for some reason. Still determined to probe that theme, they found inspiration in a recent Life magazine article on Mickey Spillane, at that time a very controversial pop culture phenomenon, reviled by critics, but read by millions.  The result, “The Girl Hunt Ballet” is a dance tale set in a Spillane-style urban underworld of violent New York streets and smoky gin mills, all teeming with cops and robbers shooting it out, gangsters wielding switchblades and fetching femmes fatales…Charisse (remember, she’s playing an aloof prima donna ballerina in the film) the ‘fetchingest’ of them all. Astaire does what comes easy for Astaire – being effortlessly cool, even playing a private eye. Director Vincent Minelli decided the sequence needed some narration, like Mickey Spillane’s first person narrative Mike Hammer novels themselves, and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner wrote it, though he insisted on going unpaid and uncredited so as not to step on the toes of the film’s songwriters and screenwriters.

Cyd CHARISSE und Fred ASTAIRE in 'Vorhang auf!', 1953

I’ll be the first to admit that musicals aren’t really my thing. But The Girl Hunt Ballet is really something to see. Articles about it frequently refer to Charisse and Astaire’s “sexually charged” duet. That’s putting it mildly. I don’t know how the film didn’t melt. The extended 12 minute sequence captures every period pulp and hard-boiled mystery cliché and trope you can think of and turns them into a brilliant piece of noir art. Maybe you don’t want to sit through all of Band Wagon. I get that. But if you can seeThe Girl Hunt Ballet – YouTube or wherever — watch it. And with good speakers and the bigger the screen the better.

Girl Hunt Ballet

 

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