Fred Astaire is a washed-up vaudeville and movie hoofer. Tula Finklea (the birth name of Cyd Charisse, and was there ever a more fortuitous name change?) is a much younger étoile de ballet. They are convinced to share the stage in a Broadway musical written by Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant, to be directed by hot-shot Jack Buchanan. Jack decides to take the light-hearted script and turn it into a re-telling of the Faust legend. The show is fabulously overproduced and pretentious. There is a wonderful sequence of an eager, laughing audience filing into the theater. Then we see etchings of misery and damnation, followed by a giant egg sitting on a desolate plain. The audience shuffles out, silent, stunned, looking as if they just learned their beloved dog has died and they have one month to live.
It’s an okay musical from MGM, who seldom made a bad one, but even if it were awful it would be worth seeing over and over again for one sequence of about ten minutes. The set-up: Fred has quit and stormed out. Cyd visits him, and after some shouting, they decide to take a walk in Central Park to see if anything can be salvaged. They board a horse-drawn carriage, and there is no more dialogue from this point. They get off at a place where people are dancing under colored lights. They walk through, watching the couples enjoying themselves. Then they wander into a place with a path and a few benches. Fred assays a little dance step, with a thoughtful look on his face, then stops, and resumes walking. Cyd does the same. They never look at each other. Then—and it’s hard to say just when it begins—they are dancing together in what is, IMHO, the single best romantic pas de deux ever immortalized on film, to the tune of “Dancing in the Dark.” She is wearing a long white skirt that flows magically around her. I have to give a lot of credit to both the choreographer, Michael Kidd, and to Astaire for realizing that this is Cyd Charisse’s moment, her dance. Fred all but removes himself from the scene, never showing off, there only to provide a partner and to lift her now and then. (And yet … he’s Fred Astaire, isn’t he? You’re never going to ignore him.) Every move is exactly as it should be. And though they hardly ever dance closely, most of the time they are side by side, doing the same moves, or touching only at the hands … you can see them falling in love. Every step flows from the one before, and even when they re-board the carriage it is a dance step.
You know, Fred had a lot of dance partners in his career. Fred and Ginger had more romantic numbers than you could count, and in most of them they are dancing, in the words of the song, “cheek to cheek.” But none of them can match the intensity of this number. It’s not steamy, and it’s not in-your-face erotic (that will come later, when Cyd scorches the white off the screen in the final ballet number), but it is so damn moving that I always get a tear in my eye when I watch it, and I’ll bet I’ve seen it 100 times now. If you haven’t seen it, and you love dance, then you must run right out now and get it. It’s also available as one number in That’s Entertainment.