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
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.
|Jazz Hands Jamboree|
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."
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
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|
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.|
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.
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.
|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