Movie Review: Sweet Charity (1969)
“…The Musical Excitement of the ’70s”
Sweet Charity (2016)
Director: Bob Fosse
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, John McMartin, Ricardo Montalban
Synopsis: Charity Hope Valentine always tries to look on the bright side of life, despite working in a rundown dance hall and contending with a seemingly endless run of bad dates.
What perverse trick of fate, I wonder, decreed that acclaimed choreographer Bob Fosse begin his directorial career at the very time that the musical genre entered its death throes? He directed only five movies before his death from hard living in 1987, three of which were musicals, all of which contributed fresh and exciting ideas to a genre grown bloated and irrelevant. Sweet Charity, the first of Fosse’s movies, is also the weakest, although it still contains moments of real quality. At an unnecessary 150 minutes, it suffers from the tendency towards excess that plagued all Hollywood musicals of the 1960s, and despite his familiarity with the material (he directed and choreographed the Broadway stage show), Fosse’s imagination and enthusiasm are almost fatally unbridled. Having said that, Sweet Charity is no worse than other musicals of the era, even if it would benefit greatly from shorter scenes and a more disciplined structure.
Surprisingly, the source material for Sweet Charity can be traced to Federico Fellini’s gritty, downbeat Neo-Realist drama, Nights of Cabiria, which was transformed into a Broadway show written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and a novel written by Neil Simon. But there’s a sexual timidity about Fosse’s screen version which is at odds with its self-conscious, hip with-it-ness. Cabiria was a prostitute, but Charity (Shirley MacLaine – My Geisha, Bernie) is a dancer in a seedy New York dance hall. Each night, she lines up with her co-workers so that clients can select the lady with whom he wishes to dance. You don’t need to have patronised a brothel to know what’s really going on here but, despite arriving in the midst of a new era of sexual freedom, Hollywood willingly chose to compromise its material in order to obtain a family-friendly certificate and increased potential revenue. Later, Charity is robbed of her chance of happiness with a respectable man because he can’t come to terms with her past. If Charity were a prostitute, that plot development would make perfect sense, but as a dancer in the dying days of the 1960s…?
The girls with whom Charity works are a damaged-looking lot, their looks faded by years in a thankless profession, but Charity is different. She has something the others don’t. She has hope – limitless supplies of it – and it keeps her soul intact when those around her have become resigned to their fate. She has an unlikely encounter on the street with movie star Vittorio (Ricardo Montalban – Across the Wide Missouri), who’s a throwback to ‘30s matinee idols like Gilbert Roland, rather than the Redfords and Beattys of the late ‘60s. She’s going to sleep with Vittorio – we know it, even if the film once more fights shy of coming out and saying it – but is prevented from doing so by the return of Ursula (Barbara Bouchet – Milano Calibro 9, Gangs of New York) the girlfriend with whom he was fighting when he and Charity met, and has to spend the night in the walk-in wardrobe in his flat.
Longing for a normal life, she applies to an agency for office work, but is humiliated by the clerk’s assumption that his buddies put her up to it because she has no qualifications or experiences. On the way out, she find herself trapped in a lift with Oscar (John McMartin – All the President’s Men), a quiet, unremarkable man who suffers from claustrophobia. Overcoming his natural reserve, Oscar invites her on a date once they escape from the lift, and they strike up an unexpected relationship which just might offer Charity a way out of the life she’s so desperate to escape.
Like many works from the 1960s, Sweet Charity is a relic from an age which seems as relevant to this generation as Victorian sonnets would have done to Fosse’s. But any movie which opens with its heroine being robbed and pushed into a river to drown has to be worth a look. In fact, one of Sweet Charity’s strengths is its fascination with the seedy milieu in which its heroine is trapped. It all looks a little quaint today,but it retains an air of hopelessness which keeps us rooting for the improbably upbeat Charity, even though we suspect that fate will ultimately defeat her dreams. Her over-long encounter with Vittorio, which gives Sweet Charity something of an episodic feel, accentuates the futility of her dreams, and hope is found only in her indefatigable spirit, her strongest defence against the knocks life seems determined to dish out to her.
MacLaine replaced Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s wife, and the star of the Broadway show, for this screen adaptation – another misguided sacrifice to the Box Office God. She’s fine with the acting, but not so hot when it comes to singing and dancing. Leading man John McMartin – a major star who preferred the stage to the screen – is largely anonymous in a role which, to be fair, pretty much demands that he be so. The quality of the numbers is variable: Hey, Big Spender is a wonderfully atmospheric highlight, it’s blowsy singers both enticing and vaguely contemptuous of their audience. Another stand-out is The Rhythm of Life, a vibrant, energetic number sung with relish by Sammy Davis Jr.’s hippy evangelist in a sequence shoehorned into a plot in which it seems to have no place. Although Sweet Charity is too long for its own good, Fosse’s exuberant direction keeps things interesting most of the time, and it’s interesting to see the beginnings of ideas and techniques which he would develop further three years later for the infinitely superior Cabaret.
(Reviewed 9th April 2016)
Click below for a free preview of the Kindle book, The Films of Bob Fosse. The book, written by the author of this review, features reviews of all of the actor’s films, and is available to buy, or to read for free if you’re a member of Kindle Unlimited. You don’t need a Kindle reader – Amazon’s Kindle app works on most popular devices and can be downloaded for free from their site.