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|
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|
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.
|Jazz Hands Jamboree|
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 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|
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.|
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 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.
|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. 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