“Charisse & Astaire”
Girl Hunt Ballet: 1953

Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire were two of the most elegant and exacting dancers of the 1950s, appearing as a famous dancing pair in a number of Hollywood musicals. A scene from one of those films – the “Girl Hunt Ballet” sequence from the 1953 film, The Band Wagon – is shown below. While much of the career of Cyd Charisse is covered elsewhere at this website – see, “Legs: Cyd Charisse, 1950s-1990s,” which includes Charisse dancing scenes, bio, and her history with Gene Kelly – a bit more focus is offered here on this famous dance sequence from The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire.

 

 

The Band Wagon is a American musical-comedy film, with stage roots dating to the 1930s. It tells the story of an aging musical star played by Astaire who hopes a Broadway show will restart his career. In the play-within-a-play storyline, Astaire’s character becomes entangled with, and falls for, the lead female dancer played by Charisse.

Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in scene from “The Band Wagon”.
Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in scene from “The Band Wagon”.
The Band Wagon — along with Singin’ in the Rain (1952) in which Charisse had her breakout appearance dancing with Gene Kelly — is regarded as one of the finest of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) musicals.

The film was directed by Vincente Minnelli. The songs were written by composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz, and the choreography was by Michael Kidd.

“The Girl Hunt Ballet,” with Charisse and Astaire, is one of the most famous sequences from the film – and some say, in the history of dance on film.

In the dance, Charisse plays the vamp to Astaire’s private-eye character, who is heard narrating parts of the film. The sequence with Charisse and Astaire clearly shows their athletic talents, and Charisse’s incredibly smooth and elegant body movement in unison with Astaire.

Charisse also appears as the femme fatale blonde dancer with Astaire, which is set up elsewhere in the film (not shown in above clip, except brief shot near end).

Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, “Dancing in the Dark” scene.
Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, “Dancing in the Dark” scene.
Another highly regarded Charisse-Astaire dance segment in The Band Wagon film comes with the elegant “Dancing in the Dark” sequence in Central Park where Astaire’s character falls for the beautiful dancer.

In seven weeks at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in the summer of 1953, the film grossed $1,044,000, then one of the highest grossing films at that theater.

In a July 1953 review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther, called The Band Wagon “a show that respectfully bids for recognition as one of the best musical films ever made.” And indeed, by 1995, The Band Wagon was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In 2006, this film was also ranked at No. 17 on the American Film Institute’s list of best musicals.

And while musicals like The Band Wagon are no longer made in quite the way they were in the 1950s, the film, its scenery, dress, and its dancing, have had an influence on later dancers and choreographers, including pop icon Michael Jackson.

 
Jackson Videos

Jackson, in fact, was influenced by, and borrowed from, the 1950s MGM dance scenes of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse when he produced some of his famous music videos. In Jackson’s 1988 “Smooth Criminal” music video for his hit song of that name, he pays tribute to Fred Astaire and The Band Wagon with a similar dance and bar fight sequence, which are also performed in a 1930s styled setting.

1988. Michael Jackson at center, along with other dancers in “Smooth Criminal” video, which has some dance, set, and costume similarities to 1953's “The Band Wagon”.
1988. Michael Jackson at center, along with other dancers in “Smooth Criminal” video, which has some dance, set, and costume similarities to 1953's “The Band Wagon”.
Jackson and dancers doing anti-gravity lean in “Smooth Criminal” video, also used in the 1988 Jackson film, “Moonwalker”.
Jackson and dancers doing anti-gravity lean in “Smooth Criminal” video, also used in the 1988 Jackson film, “Moonwalker”.

The dancers in the Jackson video perform similar moves and wear similar period clothing. Jackson wears a white suit with a blue collar shirt and a white fedora type hat with a black stripe on it, replicating Astaire’s iconic outfit from “The Girl Hunt Ballet.”

Jackson also uses an Astaire line from “The Girl Hunt Ballet” segment – i.e., “she came at me in sections” – for the title song of his album Dangerous. In fact, according to Wikipedia, “Jackson notably pays homage to the film on at least three successive albums.”

But in “Smooth Criminal” Jackson and dancers also perform their own unique contributions, including an “anti-gravity lean” that appears physically impossible. “The Smooth Criminal” video also became the centerpiece of the 1988 Jackson film Moonwalker.

It is not uncommon, of course, for artists from one era to be influenced by, and build upon, the work of previous artists and their productions.

Jackson’s dance moves, in fact, were influenced by the work of a long line of previous artists, among them: Bill Bailey (first to “moonwalk”), Eleanor Powell, John W. Sublett — and especially James Brown and Fred Astaire. (See for example: “Michael Jackson’s Influences” at YouTube.com ).

Jackson often mentioned Fred Astaire as a prominent influence, and according to some sources, he acknowledged the influence of The Band Wagon sets and choreography on “Smooth Criminal,” reportedly dedicating that video to Fred Astaire.

DVD cover of Michael Jackson's “Moonwalker” film. Click for Blu-ray edition.
DVD cover of Michael Jackson's “Moonwalker” film. Click for Blu-ray edition.
Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” won Best Music Video at the 1989 Brit Awards. The Critic’s Choice also awarded the Jackson production “Best Video” and People’s Choice awards for “Favorite Music Video” that same year.

“Smooth Criminal” was re-released in 2006 as a single and as part of Michael Jackson’s Vision: The Video Singles box set.

Other Jackson historians note that his “Billie Jean” music video also uses similar set elements as those appearing in the “Girl Hunt Ballet”, and Jackson’s “You Rock My World” video, is another of his videos said to imitate some of Astaire’s choreography.

Back in the 1950s, meanwhile, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly and others were putting down some pretty dazzling choreography of their own, with a performance legacy that survives to this day. See at this website, for example, “Legs: Cyd Charisse, 1950s-1990s.”

For additional stories on “Film & Hollywood” please visit that category page. Two additional Michael Jackson stories can be found at: “The Jackson Statues” and “Michael & McCartney.”

Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research, writing and continued publication of this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 2 December 2019
Last Update: 2 December 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Charisse & Astaire: Girl Hunt Ballet,
1953,” PopHistoryDig.com, December 2, 2019.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

“Michael Jackson’s Vision,” a 3-disc set of Jackson’s music video singles, released in 2010. Click for Amazon’s Choice DVD.
“Michael Jackson’s Vision,” a 3-disc set of Jackson’s music video singles, released in 2010. Click for Amazon’s Choice DVD.
2017 book on Gene Kelly, “He’s Got Rhythm.” Click for copy.
2017 book on Gene Kelly, “He’s Got Rhythm.” Click for copy.

Bosley Crowther, “The Screen in Review,” New York Times, July 10, 1953.

The Band Wagon,” Wikipedia.org.

“Girl Hunt Ballet” — Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, 1953,” YouTube.com, posted by Jean Belmondo, March 6, 2015.

Roger Ebert, “The Band Wagon (1953),” RogerEbert .com, March 27, 2005.

Robert Berkvist, “Cyd Charisse, 86, Silken Dancer of Movies, Dies,” New York Times, June 18, 2008.

Manohla Dargis, “Sylph or Siren, The Legs Have It,” New York Times, June 19, 2008.

Joe Holley and Adam Bernstein, “Cyd Charisse, 86; Actress Danced Across Silver Screen,” Washington Post, June 18, 2008, p. B-5.

Reuters, “Actress and Dancer Cyd Charisse Dies at 86,” June 19, 2008.

Christina Whener, “Girl Hunt Ballet” From The Band Wagon – Parody of Film Noirs and Detective Stories,” ChristinaWehner.WordPress.com, July 2, 2014.

“Smooth Criminal,” Wikipedia.org.

“Michael Jackson’s Influences,” YouTube.com, posted by Daniel Winter, October 31, 2010.

“Gene Kelly & Cyd Charisse” [from Singin in the Rain], YouTube.com, posted by OurMarvellousWorld, No-vember 22, 2011.

Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson, He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly, April 2017, University Press of Kentucky, 560 pp.

As told to Dick Kleiner, The Two of Us: Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse, 1976, Mason/Charter, publisher, 286 pp.

Brent Phillips, Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, November 2014, University Press of Kentucky, 368 pp.

Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar, Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece, 2009, University Press of Kansas, 346 pp.


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