Monday, March 14, 2011

SWEET CHARITY 1969

Although I majored in film at college, for the past 28 years I’ve made my living as a professional dancer. Small wonder then that movie musicals mean more to me than mere escapist entertainment; they represent the convergence of my twin passions.

The first movie musical to really make me sit up and take notice of the genre's potential for expressing grand emotions like joy, longing, and love, was Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity. Admittedly, I was 12 years-old at the time (1969 – balcony of the Embassy Theater – Market St. – San Francisco) but I had never had such a roller coaster thrill ride experience from a film before. I mean, I remember getting goosebumps just from the way the film opened with the Universal Studios logo fading in to the accompaniment of a choral/orchestral crescendo. It was all so theatrical!
Charity and her "Charlie" tattoo: Decades before every man, woman, child, and grandparent would be sporting hipster body ink
Unfamiliar with the music or any kind of dancing that wasn't the sort seen on The Jackie Gleason Show, I was instantly transported into a dizzying world of color, movement, music, and spectacle; I don't think my mouth closed once over the course of the film's two-hour plus running time.
I sat though Sweet Charity twice that day, returned the following week and saw it two times more, then thereafter sought it out at every revival theater or TV airing I could. To this day it remains one of my favorite screen musicals, though more for nostalgia and all that iconic Fosse choreography than anything else.
Shirley MacLaine as Charity Hope Valentine
John McMartin as Oliver Lindquist
Sammy Davis, Jr. as Big Daddy
Ricardo Matalban as Vittorio Vidal
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
A victim of really bad timing, Sweet Charity was pretty much raked over the coals by the critics and ignored by the public when it was released. The New Hollywood was just emerging and young audiences were making hits of films like Easy Rider & Midnight Cowboy. In this atmosphere of gritty naturalism, Sweet Charity looked elephantine, dated, and more like entertainment geared towards your mom and dad. Indeed, 1931's Ten Cents a Dance (a Barbara Stanwyck pre-code movie) was a good deal less coy about the life of a dance-hall hostess than this 1969 feature that tiresomely skirted around the fact that sweet ol' Charity may have needed to turn a trick or two to pay the bills.
Ominous Omen Unheeded: Maybe the set designer was trying to give Fosse a hint, but in this scene from "Sweet Charity" this 1967 issue of "Time" magazine - featuring a cover story on "Bonnie & Clyde" and The New Cinema - sits in ironic counterpoint to the old-fashioned antics occurring onscreen.
Movies like "Bonnie & Clyde" spelled the end for big-budget Hollywood musicals.


But the passing years have been kind to Sweet Charity. In light of Nine and Burlesque and the fact that virtually no one knows how to make a decent musical nowadays, Bob Fosse's 20 million dollar folly now looks endlessly inventive and borders on genius by comparison. Most everything that's pleasing about Sweet Charity Fosse would hone and polish to greater effect in Cabaret, but it's all there: Fosse's unique ability to make the camera a part of the choreography, his love of tableau, the use of color and space, the eye for detail....
Jazz Hands Jamboree
Whether or not you like the results, the one thing you know about Fosse (like Gene Kelly) is that you are looking at the work of a man who understands and loves the genre.

PERFORMANCES:
For several years I really considered Shirley MacLaine's performance in Sweet Charity to be one of her best. But much in the way that the film itself plays better if you've never seen the Fellini masterpiece upon which it is based (Nights of Cabiria), MacLaine's performance as Charity is a lot more persuasive if you've never seen her in 1958's Some Came Running. They're essentially the same role. The major difference being that MacLaine in Some Came Running is touching and tragic, while her Charity Hope Valentine is a little strenuously waifish and not a little exhausting. A film director once made the observation that audiences root for and sympathize with a character struggling NOT to burst into tears. Sweet Charity has so many moments of MacLaine exploding into mascara-streaked tears that by the third or fourth time, you've grown somewhat numb to her suffering.
Shirley MacLaine is very good in Sweet Charity, but her performance virtually screams "Oscar Bait" (she was nominated for "Some Came Running" but didn't have the same luck this time out). Also, in merely rehashing a characterization from a film made 10 years earlier, the older MacLaine misses an opportunity to show us the bitter poignancy in the life of an aging "good-time girl."

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Sweet Charity has a killer musical score. Those six notes that start "Big Spender" are as iconic as the Jaws rumble or the moment Strauss meets the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Aside from the disposable "Rhythm of Life" number, I enjoy all the music in Sweet Charity...the arrangements are very much of the time and are very "Austin Powers." Today's musicals seem to be comprised exclusively of tin-eared, sound-alike Randy Newman songs, or the score is a disconnected grab bag of ditties with their eye set on becoming Top-40 hits rather than suiting the material at hand.
"It's ME! Charity!"
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The dancing! The dancing! The dancing! Bob Fosse is my all-time favorite choreographer. The genius on display in "Rich Man's Frug," "Big Spender," and "I'm a Brass Band" make this film a musical classic no matter what its flaws.

Big Spender: Anthem to assembly-line sex

"Big Spender" is seriously a mind-blower (contemporary theatrical revivals of this show always get it wrong. This isn't a SEXY number...its a number about mechanized sexuality. The women on the bar are robotically spouting the words the "johns" want to hear while lifelessly assuming postures of fake sexual allure), but it's the "Rich Man's Frug" that floors me each and every time.
You can watch it a hundred times and still find more to catch the eye and captivate. The technique of the dancers is impeccable. If you doubt it, take a gander at the DVD of the 1999 Broadway revue Fosse. "Rich Man's Frug," recreated by some of Broadway's best dancers, is almost jarringly inept in its execution. The overly-muscled frames of the contemporary dancers are no match for Fosse's precise isolations. The dancers in the 1969 film are like liquid dynamite.
"Rich Man's Frug" - It helps to know what the 60s dance called "The Frug" really looked like in order to know just how witty this number is.

Mention should be made of Sweet Charitys alternate "happy ending" (included as an extra on the beautifully restored DVD release). Fosse fought hard and won to keep the film's bittersweet ending that has Charity abandoned by her suitor, yet still hopeful about life and love. This duplicates the heartbreaking ending of the Fellini film.

I think I am alone in feeling that Sweet Charity would have been a better film with the happy ending, which Fosse thought too corny.
The sad ending was right for Fellini's film because Cabiria's (Giulietta Mesina) desire to change her life spoke to the film's broader, quasi-religious, theme of redemption being possible only after divesting oneself of everything material. When Cabiria loses all of her worldly belongings (fearful of ending up homeless and abandoned like the aging prostitute she sees residing in one of the town's many hillside caves, Cabiria is proud of her tiny home and clings to her money. She ultimately sells her home to a very poor family and loses her money to a faithless lover), the movie's magical denouement hints at the possibility that now, at last, after all of her previous efforts to find inner peace while holding onto the money and property she had amassed through the debasement of her body, she has a real shot at redemption and love. With nothing material left to her name, she is once again the clean, pure, innocent girl she was revealed to be by the hypnotist, and free to start a new life for herself.  The "sad" ending here makes sense. That's not true of Sweet Charity.

The sad ending doesn't suit the musical because the film hasn't earned it. Of course, this is the ending the Broadway show gave us, but even Neil Simon (the show's playwright) has gone on record saying, "We played around with the ending a lot," and that it was Fosse who pressed for a dark conclusion. Nights of Cabiria offered pathos: A spunky post-war Italian prostitute, who survives in spite of her girlish innocence, struggles in vain to change her life; while "Sweet Charity" gives us bathos: The sympathy cards are so heavily stacked in Charity's corner that there is no real journey for her. She is merely set up to be knocked down.
Flower Power: The appearance of flower children in any movie was sure to date it terribly. By the time "Sweet Charity" hit theaters, the Summer of Love was already two years past, and four months after the film's release, the emergence of The Manson Family sounded the death-knell of the hippie mystique.
The corniest thing about Sweet Charity IS the unhappy ending! It tacks an inappropriate gravitas onto this overblown fable that feels less genuine to the plot and more like a self-conscious effort on Fosse's part to appear hip. Granted, the cynicism in much of Fosse's work is now legendary, but it doesn't sit right in Sweet Charity. We have sat through a gargantuan spectacle of a musical that, despite its best efforts, is very old-fashioned in structure and neck-deep in fantasy, and now, here at the end we are asked to be "realistic" and deny Charity the obvious happy ending she has coming to her. Well, in the words  of Fosse protégé Liza Minnelli, "Balls to you!"
Original Ending: Charity walks off alone but hopeful
Alternate Ending: Charity and Oscar attempt to make a go of it in spite of her past and in spite of his fears
A movie doesn't instantly become profound just because it makes you cry. That's sentiment. A movie should make you cry because it's true, and the true ending for Charity Hope Valentine is to end up with the buttoned-down Oscar Lindquist. The fact that their happiness is not guaranteed is what makes it a fittingly bittersweet ending. Whenever I watch it on DVD, that's the ending I put on and it's the ending the feels the most authentic. If the semi-autobiographical film "All That Jazz" was any indication (or even his problems with the ending of his Broadway show, Pippin) Fosse's disbelief in happy endings wasn't born of wisdom or world-weary cynicism, it was just his own personal hang-up.
Charity: "I'm nuts about happy endings!"

Copyright © Ken Anderson

13 comments:

  1. I enyoyed your article because I have never thought of dissecting a musical before. I just sat back and enjoyed them. I loved 'Sweet Charity', too, and hated the unhappy ending. Her buttoned-down lover stayed true to form though; he was afraid of the tackiness and the smell of desperation. Years ago, when I was flying for Pan Am, I saw a musical in London by Andrew Lloyd Webber called 'Song and Dance'. The heroine displayed the same pathos and suffering as Charity, as she strove for a relationship with a series of men. I still have that LP! Even if the time of the musical was waning, 'Charity' should still have been recognized as wonderful entertainment. Critics make me so tired with their biases!
    gigi wolf, author of A Woman's Guide To Everything on ChezGigi.com

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  2. Hi Gigi
    Thanks so much for visiting my blog and taking time to leave a comment. I saw that show "Song and Dance" way back in 1980 when it was initially presented as a TV special (and released as an album) called "Tell Me On A Sunday." Although I haven't seen the TV show in years, to this day I still listen to the album (I regularly play "Capped Teeth & Caesar Salad" in my dance classes) but never once thought of the similarities it shares with "Sweet Charity." Thanks for pointing that out!
    I love film analysis, but like you, I'm not always fond of film criticism. Critics sometimes forget that, no matter how educated an opinion they proffer, it is still a subjective opinion, and prone to being of the moment and short-sighted. People forget that Fosse was greatly criticized in his career; labeled repetitive and one-note. Now, the very shows and movies critics once disparaged are considered classics.
    By the way, visited your website and LOVE the connection you make between flash mobs and the so-called "false" reality of musicals.

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  3. Thanks for visiting me, too. I've bookmarked your site, because I love intelligent writing. I did not know Fosse was criticized; certain aspects of anyone's work is repetitive. Monet's paintings were always blurry! I'm glad you didn't mind my 'borrowing' that picture; nothing else quite suited. By the way, I'd love to give you a link, if you care to leave a comment on the post- I love 'Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad'! And, I love that phrase 'liquid dynamite'-

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  4. You're very kind. I've linked your website to my homepage, if you don't mind. And as for borrowing images, borrow away. I find it flattering.

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  5. Thank you, Ken. I am still learning how to work my dashboard; I'm glad driving was never this complicated! I am taking a few lessons here and there, and soon will learn how to put links on my homepage. I know how to put them in posts. When I've got it down, I'll return the favor! I did see your other comment, and approved it-

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  6. SWEET CHARITY is one of those films that have stood the test of time. Yes, it's virtually a time capsule of it's era and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

    SWEET CHARITY and Fosse's style is one that continues to leave it's mark and inspire artists to this very day. One only has to take a look at the following videos as evidence of that:

    KARYN WHITE - "Romantic" (1991)

    EN VOGUE - "(My Love) No You're Never Going To Get It" (1992)

    BEYONCE - "Get Me Bodied" (2008)

    I fell in love with this movie at first viewing and it is continues to be a staple of my home movie library in all it' various incarnations (VHS, Laserdisc and DVD).

    Hoping for a blu-ray release!

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    1. Thanks for calling attention to those music videos that have such a strong Fosse influence. You can to that list Emma Bunton's (Baby Spice) "Maybe" and Jody Watley's "I Want You"; both so influenced by "Rich Man's Frug" as to cross the line between homage and plagiarism.I'm sure there are others.
      It's great that Fosse's influence endures, even if it's partially responsible for things like "Burlesque."

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    2. Sweet charity,superbe film , j'ai adoré la fin "refusée et heureuse" qu'on peut tout de même visionner sur le net aussi, et je ne veux garder que cette belle fin pleine d'espoir en mémoire, sourire...Ambre83

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    3. Merci de visiter mon blog! Je suis heureux que vous appréciez "Sweet Charity" aussi. C'est un film merveilleux. J'ai une copie de la production française de la rémunération et il est excellent.
      Merci de partager vos pensées!

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  7. Ive just watched sweet charity and was surprised with the happy ending.never new it existed.seems strange as ive only known the other ending.not sure how to take it.

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    1. Hi Bob
      I know what you mean. I saw "Sweet Charity" back in 1969 and only found out about the happy ending when it was released on DVD decades later. I think most people prefer the bittersweet ending, but I was kind of surprised at how quickly I jumped all over the happy ending. It just seemed right to me.
      Amazing how much fun this film still is to watch today, huh? Thanks for stopping by to read and leaving a comment!

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  8. I LOVE this film! I was a teenager when I saw it with an Irish female friend and she burst into tears at the end. I remember searching out the Album, and a few months later gave a party-my first( for a group of amateur actors I was apart of) I "performed" the entire movie, interrupting the songs with my own narrative of the action( er yes I am gay!). I remember at the time the UK film magazine "Films & Filming" did actually chose Shirley as the year's best female performance. It was a great shame she and the film were so neglected at the time. And it's difficult to think why. Bob Fosse's next film "Cabaret" was also sensational, but I think Charity was better. I think the failure was perhaps because Shirley's career was on a downward trend as an ingénue type performer. Also I think the film's character's were perhaps not the type to appeal to musical fans. Liza got her Oscar for cabaret and approximately the same time Barbra got hers for "Funny Girl". Great performances both but sorry no where near the level of Shirley's- think of the job applicant interview scene, the sequence around "If they Could See me Now", remember how when she is walking along in the rain and Ricardo Montalban asks her what she .."is doing tonight", her self esteem so low , she tells the doorman "he wants to know what you're doing tonight". Over the years I've taken people to see the movie and others have let me know that they have sough it out, everyone loved it, but for some reason it is still neglected.

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    1. Hi Allan
      First off, let me say I love your description of teenage fandom re: Sweet Charity! That is the kind of devotion that film can engender, most often musicals.
      I think we all have a particular favorite film that moved us and inspired us when we were young. "Sweet Charity" is flawed, but I think it deserved a better reception than it got. So many variables played into its flop at the boxoffice. Older audiences wanted a "feel good" escapist movie..."Sweet Charity" has such a sad ending, too many were leaving the theater forgetting about the vibrancy of the early scenes; young people at the time -who longed to distance themselves from their parent's tastes-thought the film too old fashioned (Sammy Davis Jr. and Shirley MacLaine had been around since the 50s).

      Time reveals it to be a classic for its choreography, but it is still a film that has more of a niche following than a public reappraisal.
      Thank you for sharing your personal fondness for this film with us. You made me relive certain scenes vividly in my head!

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