Monday, March 14, 2011


Although a film major in college, for the past 28 years I've made my living as a professional dancer. Small wonder then that movie musicals have come to mean more to me than just 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 the grand emotions of joy, longing, and love, was Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity. Granted, I was just 12 years-old at the time (1969 – balcony of the Embassy Theater, Market St., San Francisco), so what did I know about grand emotions of any kind? But no film before had ever given me such a roller roller coaster thrill-ride of emotions packed into a single cinematic experience. 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 overwhelmingly theatrical it didn't feel like a movie at all, more like an event!
Charity and her "Charlie" tattoo: Decades before every man, woman, child,
and grandparent could be found sporting hipster body ink
Then unfamiliar with the show's score or any style of dance that wasn't of the sort seen on TV on either Hulabaloo or The Jackie Gleason Show, I was thrilled to find Sweet Charity to be a catchy and kinetic melding of traditional musical theater and a stylized form of contemporary discotheque dancing. It instantly transported me into a groovy, very 60s world of color, movement, music, and spectacle. I was so taken with the whole thing, 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, returning the following week to see it two times more. Thereafter, I sought it out whenever it aired on television or made an appearance at a local revival theater. To this day it remains one of my favorite screen musicals, although now more due to nostalgia and all that iconic Fosse choreography than out of a distinct fondness for the movie itself.
Shirley MacLaine as Charity Hope Valentine
John McMartin as Oliver Lindquist
Sammy Davis, Jr. as Big Daddy
Ricardo Matalban as Vittorio Vidal
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 small, groundbreaking films like Easy Rider & Midnight Cowboy. In this atmosphere of gritty naturalism, Sweet Charity looked elephantine, dated, and more like entertainment geared toward your mom and dad. And for a film released in the early days of the dissolution of the Censorship Code, Sweet Charity does come off as overly modest. Indeed, 1931's Ten Cents a Dance (a Barbara Stanwyck pre-code movie) is a good deal less coy about the life of a dance-hall hostess than this 1969 feature that tiresomely skirts around the fact that sweet ol' Charity may have turned a trick or two in her time.
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 the wake of Nine and Burlesque and the fact that virtually no one appears to know how to make a decent musical nowadays, Bob Fosse's $20 million 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 can't help but appreciate about Fosse is that he's a man who respects and understands the potential of the musical genre.

For many 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 (1957s Nights of Cabiria), MacLaine's 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 leans toward strenuous waifishness, and can prove more than a little exhausting.
I recall a movie director once making the observation that audiences want to root for a character struggling NOT to burst into tears. MacLaine (like Diana Ross' equally moist performance in 1978s The Wiz) explodes into mascara-streaked tears so often, that by the third or fourth outburst, you've grown somewhat numb to her heartbreak. MacLaine is very good in Sweet Charity, but her performance virtually screams "Oscar Bait" (although nominated for Some Came Running, MacLaine wasn't so lucky with Sweet Charity). Also, in rehashing a characterization she perfected in a film made 10 years earlier, the older MacLaine, failing to bring anything new to the mix, misses an opportunity to mine the inherent poignancy in the life of an aging "good-time girl."

Sweet Charity has a killer musical score. Those six notes Comprising the intro to "Big Spender" are as iconic and recognizable as the Jaws rumble or that Strauss-meets-monolith surge in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Aside from the disposable "Rhythm of Life" number, I enjoy all the music in Sweet Charity...the arrangements all being very much of the moment (that being the go go 60s) and terrifically energetic.
"It's ME! Charity!"
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.
OK, so it's a shameless rip-off of West Side Story's rooftop "America" number, but it's still a lot of fun

Big Spender: Anthem to assembly-line sex

"Big Spender" is seriously a mind-blower. Contemporary theatrical revivals of the 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. The bar and the louche poses of the dancers have become instantly iconic, but for all-time favorite, the "Rich Man's Frug" number still can't be beat.
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 clumsy by comparison. The overly-muscled frames of the contemporary dancers are no match for the lithe-yet-strong movie dancers interpreting 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.
Cabiria is conflicted about making her living as a prostitute: she longs for the innocence of her girlhood, but is nevertheless proud of the independence she has achieved through her work. her tiny home and savings are all that separate her from a fate similar to that of a the homeless aging prostitute she meets, forced to live in one of the many hills surrounding the town.

When Cabiria loses all of her worldly belongings 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, 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, for it is not really sad at all...more bittersweet. The same can't be said 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 hopes 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.
For me, 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 by giving us the opposite of a Hollywood Happy ending. Granted, Fosse's ingrained cynicism is by now the stuff of legend, but it just doesn't sit right in Sweet Charity. We've sat through a gargantuan spectacle of a musical which, in spite of its best efforts, is still very old-fashioned in structure and hip-deep in fantasy. Now, 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 become more true-to-life just because it's pessimistic any more than it becomes instantly profound just because it's sad. A movie should have a consistent point of view from which the truth of the narrative is culled. As far as I'm concerned, the true ending for Charity Hope Valentine is to end up with the buttoned-down Oscar Lindquist. What feels most realistic to me is, in being far from a well-matched couple, there is a a bittersweet uncertainty in their actually being able to make a go of it. 
So whenever I watch Sweet Charity on DVD, the only ending that feels really authentic to me is the happy ending. perhaps Sweet Charity was always doomed to be a flop, but I do wonder how it would have performed at the boxoffice had Fosse rewarded audiences for sitting through 2 ½ hours of Shirley MacLaine crying, with a happy ending. 
Charity: "I'm nuts about happy endings!"

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  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

  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.

  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'-

  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.

  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-

  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!

    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."

    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

    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!

  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.

    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!

  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.

    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!

  9. I love this film so much, and yet, like you, now as an adult I agree with your statement that: " To this day it remains one of my favorite screen musicals, although now more due to nostalgia and all that iconic Fosse choreography than out of a distinct fondness for the movie itself."

    First things first--how dare you call Rhythm of Life the one weak musical link! It's one of the top highlights for me musically... on the original Broadway cast recording (or the Debbie Allen 1980s revival where Fosse slightly tweaked it.) The arrangement (and even hiring such a big star to sing it,) in the film completely ruins the song for me--I'm not sure if you're familiar with the cast album? It's also the one point in the film where Fosse's wild camera work and staging ruins the impact of his choreography for me--the original production (at least as I've seen recreated in video of the 1980s Fosse revival,) is brilliant, but on film is so fragmented and mixed up with car headlights, etc, that it's lost as is, musically, the original build of Coleman's music.

    Another random comment--the DVD is indeed beautiful (though I'd love a BluRay,) but inexplicably edits out one tiny bit between Oscar and Charity that is pretty crucial--here is the missing minute on youtube:

    I think I kinda agree with you on the ending. To be clear, the downbeat ending that was finally used on film is *not* the stage musical's ending--and the stage musical (much like Fosse's next musical, Pippin,) went through a lot of rewrites and troubles with its ending. On stage, Oscar actually pushes Charity back in the river, but she sees it as a plus that this time she wasn't robbed as well, and a "Fairy God Mother" figure appears with a sign saying that your wishes will come true--which she takes as a good sign. Before the curtain falls, the Godmother turns to the audience and reveals the rest of the sign saying something like "On ABC tonight at 7" and that she's just marketing a game show... (If anything the film's downbeat ending is probably an improvement.)

    For the purposes of the film, I think the alternate happier ending works better. Then again, I feel the same way about the Little Shop of Horrors ending which is also an unpopular opinion, so what do I know.

    From the stage show I also miss the cutting of some of the lower key, comic songs (especially Baby Dream Your Dream, sung by the girls to Chairty.) And, a witnessed from the Ed Sullivan show clips of Brass Band and If They Could See Me Now, Shirley--who I think overall is pretty great--just doesn't hold a candle as a dancer to Gwen Verdon. But Verdon--as she well knew--would never be cast, and it was Shirley who actually fought to have Fosse direct. I was surprised you didn't mention that other Broadway legend who was largely ignored for films and Fosse DID cast--CHita Rivera in one of her only major film roles (she had previously played Charity in the national tour.) It's thrilling to see her in Something Better than This especially. And yes, the Rich Man's Frug is pure brilliance (I will say in defense of the cast of Fosse--a piece I was lucky enough to see in workshops in Toronto when they were trying out and cutting various Fosse routines--that by the time the PBS special was filmed the cast really was not nearly as tight as they were initially.)

    1. Hi Eric
      Terrific comments all! For all the film's faults (mostly born of an overeagerness on Fosse's part to make the show cinematic) it's unlikely in my mind that a better version could be done. Especially at this late date (nobody knows how to frug anymore), but its fun to hear what elements work and don't work for fans of the film.
      You're good at delineating what doesn't and why. makes for fun comment reading and an excellent contribution to this post.

      And good job citing that missing section cut from the DVD release. I still have my Charity VHS and the scene remains, but I can't say I ever "missed" it ...that whole section not being one of my favorites.
      Once again, thanks for visiting the site so often and taking the time to add your thoughts and knowledge of film and theater!

  10. (cont...) Sweet Charity is a fascinating musical because--on stage and on screen--I absolutely love it, I think it has a fantastic score, a funny book and brilliant choreography. And yet I also think it's deeply flawed (I feel much the same way about Pippin for that matter so maybe it's a Fosse thing.) I do think, as the atrocious recent revival proved, it simply doesn't work without Fosse's staging and choreography--Wayne Cilento is one of the best Fosse dancers, but I didn't envy him having to try to make his own Rich Man's Frug.
    The original stage production (at least as recreated for the 1980s revival which I've studied for several essays on the archive videotape,) also hints at how good a film director Fosse would be--with a sorta camera iris set that often closes up to zoom in on a particular scene or section just like the way he films his movies.

    Eric Henwood-Greer

    1. A good poin! I know what you mean... I saw a production of "Sweet Charity" staged by Patrick Swayze's mother, and the Rich Man's Frug number was the absolute worst. Not necessarily because her choreography wasn't good (it wasn't) but because Fosse's moves are not just "dances" they reflect the irony of the song itself.
      Perhaps that is where Fosse made his biggest mark; in making his choreography such an integral part of the musicals worked on.

  11. (The Digital Bits recently did a great piece about the troubles roadshow release of Charity )

    1. Thanks for this, a very fun and informative read!

    2. Are we ever going to see a bluray release of SWEET CHARITY ? It looked great in HD when it was shown on TCM. Is there any hope?

    3. I would LOVE to see "Sweet Charity" in bluray! One never can tell what the marketing logic is behind certain releases, are some films too costly or not popular enough to warrant a bluray?
      The visuals are this film's lifeblood. It cries out for HD.

  12. Another musical I would love to see in bluray is DOCTOR DOLITTLE. A TODD-AO transfer would look great. Fox has some amazing TODD-AO blurays. They hinted that a bluray release could be coming to a third party. Maybe Twilight Time.

    1. My personal fave would be "Camelot" in bluray DVD (alas, i'd probably be the only customer). My dream would be to see the roadshow version of "on a Clear Day" restored. Another single sale for Paramount.