Such observations are only so dramatically heightened when Charisse is dancing, however. When moving up and down the stage with the grace of a black widow slinking toward her prey, she is not so much a dancer-turned-actress as she is an entity who could seduce and destroy without speaking a word. She surpasses the medium which made her famous. Remember in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) when she showed up in the “Broadway Melody” sequence — a pointy Louise Brooks wig atop her head and a shock of a green dress hugging her hips — danced with Gene Kelly for a couple minutes, and managed to steal the entire movie without uttering a sound?
Akin to Esther Williams, though, Charisse was not born a versatile star. In nearly all her vehicles, Williams, MGM’s greatest and only swimming starlet, was entrancing when in the confines of a kaleidoscopic water ballet sequence. But from the moment she appeared on land and had to attend to whatever romantic and/or comedic flare-ups were thrown her way, she was as flavorless as Arctic Zero.
Charisse’s talents work similarly. When she’s on the stage, shimmying and strutting, we’re convinced that this slender, ethereal vixen is the best thing since pasteurization. But when she’s held responsible for carrying a movie like her very own Joan Crawford, it is, as Pauline Kael ruthlessly put it in her critique of 1953’s The Band Wagon, as if she learned her lines phonetically.
Yet Charisse isn’t half bad in 1958’s Party Girl, which, in addition to being one of the actress’s last starring vehicles, is a solid film noir that also serves as an efficient bookend to director Nicholas Ray’s eventful 1950s.
In the film, Charisse is Vicki Gaye, a chorus girl with connections to the mob. Because the title of the film suggests its leading lady is likely going to be doing her best Gilda Farrell imitation, we’re immediately convinced that she’s probably been miscast. Though a minx when prancing at the center of a chorus line, Charisse is best suited for acting roles that find her portraying a square.
But we learn that Party Girl is, in fact, a misleading title. Like 1947’s Nora Prentiss, a similar, Ann Sheridan-starring women’s noir, what we have is a romantic melodrama that sees troubled people having to overcome a troubled situation in order to see their relationship work out. Here, that romance is centered around Gaye and the dashing lawyer Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor, in his final film sanctioned by an MGM contract), who’s seen better days.
Gaye and Farrell meet by chance at a party being thrown for a mob bigwig, and sparks don’t instantaneously fly. Both criticize the other’s morality, with Gaye under fire for accepting money from criminals to make an appearance at the get-together, and with Farrell scrutinized for defending mobsters for a living.
But a couple nightcaps later and Gaye and Farrell are hooked. Having used and abused an assembly line of icky men, Gaye appreciates a boyfriend who respects her. Recently separated from his cool wife, Farrell considers himself fortunate to have met a woman who genuinely seems to care about him.
But the toils on the outskirts of their courtship is less than ideal. Brutish hitman Cookie La Motte (Corey Allen) is coming up for trial, and mob boss Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb, chewing the scenery like Hubba Bubba) insists Farrell defend him in court. Months ago, Farrell might have. But with Gaye in his life, he’s smitten with the idea of defending people who actually deserve to be defended from now on. This, of course, will not do.
You’ve seen a million star-crossed, plausibly doomed romances like the one groomed in Party Girl before, and you’ve probably seen others done better. And yet the movie works on us with the touch of a skilled masseuse, always throwing in little stimulators to keep us energized just as the storyline’s about to fall into a vat of clichés. Charisse has two thrilling solo dance numbers to cater to, both visually gaudy, and Ray, making the most of the Eastmancolor photography, has a diverse assortment of neat optic ideas to complement the movie’s 1930s scenery.
And I especially like Taylor in the movie, though not because his performance is exemplary (per usual, the actor is slightly stiff). Because he has the looks of a male suitor who could effortlessly call a Lichtenstein print home — his eyes are a freezing blue, his slicked hair a too-pristine black, his face conventionally handsome though vaguely wearied — it makes it easy to imagine the contents of Party Girl homed in a comic strip or on a Fantastic Novels (1940-51) cover. And melodrama is always so much less irksome when its grandiosity has a hint of exaggeration peaking around the corner.
For what it is, Party Girl is proficient, and with stars like Charisse and Taylor leading the way, you probably can’t do any better. It’s model popcorn entertainment, simplistic and likable, and sometimes on a warm September evening, simplistic and likable hits the spot. B
Lee J. Cobb
1 Hr., 39 Mins.
Party Girl September 21, 2017
yd Charisse is a vision. She has chestnut-brown hair down to here, is lynx-eyed, and is leggy. She has a bewitching grin that can only be described as a half-smile, a sultry, knowing curve of the mouth that may or may not be an indication that she likes you. We wonder: Did she enter the world a coy sex goddess made only of angles and transcendent sensuality?