The sixties road show musical extravaganza reached its point of no return in 1969; hardly a banner year for the big, bloated Broadway-to-Hollywood hybrid of which Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity (1969) endures as the greatest of all albatrosses, unlikely destined for any sort of artistic reprieve. Sweet Charity had begun life as Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), before morphing into the Broadway play, directed and choreographed by Fosse, and finally, the movie – marking his big screen directorial debut. Alas, in transferring Fellini’s oeuvre from stage to screen all of its gusty, gaudy/bawdy electricity Fosse had poured into his stagecraft seemed to inexplicably evaporate. Determined at considerable expense to duplicate the ‘show’s’ razzamatazz on a big Panavision screen, Fosse instead managed to violate the memory of his original; also, Fellini’s source material on which it was based, creating a glitzy glam-bam – all bounce and no substance - that suffered from too much of too little.
On stage, Sweet Charity slinked along on a vapor of almost cat-like prowess and delectable raunch; Fosse’s now trademarked choreography introducing an entirely new and much more adult flavor and showcasing some of his best footwork and stage illusions. With the eccentric Gwen Verdon as his star (and behind the scenes collaborator and lover), it mattered not the plot of a taxi dancer aspiring to greener pastures, though sadly – and chronically – winding up more than a bit short on ‘happily ever afters’, was threadbare at best. Fosse’s artistry had elevated this needle prick of a scenario into an erotically lush and evocative homage about those ‘ten cents a dance’ gals and the seedy little buggers who employ them. There were still sparks of brilliance to be had in the movie if one could patiently sit through the interminably long stretches of tedium bookending them. Although there was nothing to touch the stunningly imaginative ‘The Rich Man’s Frug’, as example, the movie seemed to settle into a horrible mishmash and mangling of stylistic elements. These utterly failed to come together in as much as pile up like a train wreck, Fosse throwing everything in his bag of tricks at the camera, leaving one stultified and drowning in gaudy excess.
Shirley MacLaine assumed the role of the romantically hamstrung, Charity Hope Valentine – so clueless in love she easily falls for small-time hood, Charlie (Dante D’Paulo) who shortly thereafter pushes her off a bridge in Central Park merely to steal her purse. MacLaine must have seemed a natural for the part; having already played joyful prostitutes in Cole Porter’s Can-Can (1960) and Billy Wilder’s Erma La Douce (1963). The problem was not in MacLaine’s believability to play the ebullient tart; rather, that she was not Gwen Verdon, and therefore considered the lesser in Verdon’s shadow; particularly by the New York critics who fondly lingered on the memory of Miss Verdon’s leggy kicks and larger-than-life cavorting on the stage. Try as she might, MacLaine could not eclipse Verdon’s reputation; nor, it seems, was she able to inspire Fosse to do anything more than merely experiment with new ways to diminish the formidable skill sets she brought to the table; Fosse’s staging of his own numbers different, arguably cinematic, yet, not nearly as inventive as his stagecraft.
The tragedy that befell Sweet Charity is it might have fared better without Fosse, or at least without Fosse’s ego challenging itself to outdo his own creativity on a project already firmly declared a masterpiece by the critics and even more permanently preserved as perfection itself in the hearts and minds of theater goers. Reviewing the film today, one is immediately drawn to the dynamism in its musical sequences. The stagecraft’s visuals had been impressionistic; Verdon, as example, resurrecting a marching band in her own head with shadowy figures dancing across a painted backdrop for ‘I’m A Brass Band’. Nailing down these lyrics to a more concrete visual interpretation in the movie ultimately deprives them of their intangibly imaginative quality. There’s no point to suggesting Charity’s blind-sided joy as she floats on a cloud of love; Fosse instead showing us MacLaine in full parade grand marshal regalia, accompanied by a thirty piece marching band; Fosse inexplicably using the moment to take us on a jaunty Cook’s tour of lower Manhattan. His introduction to our heroine is even more benign, utilizing freeze frames, slow motion and colored filters to express Charity’s various moods as she bounces in and out of foot traffic, peers into shop windows and deliriously spins about the reservoir en route to her Central Park rendezvous with Charlie.
Sweet Charity ought to have worked, chiefly because Fosse had his way with the casting; hand-picking Paula Kelly and Chita Rivera as MacLaine’s taxi-dancing cohorts, and choosing Sammy Davis Jr. for the plum cameo, as psychedelic hippie cult leader, Big Daddy. Fosse also accepted Latin Lothario, Ricardo Montalban as his Vittorio; briefly Charity’s love interest until his main squeeze, Ursula (Barbara Bouchet) comes slinking back into his life. Interestingly, Peter Stone’s screenplay stuck very close to Neil Simon’s original, right down to his placement of the intermission break. Alas, at the last possible moment, Universal balked and requested Fosse re-shoot an alternative ending in which Charity and her latest lover, Oscar (John McMartin) are reunited. Ultimately, the studio agreed with Fosse; that the original – ‘hopeful’ ending – made more sense; though only after both versions had been shot and screened. At a staggering cost of $20 million, Sweet Charity’s epic implosion (it made back barely $8 million) speaks not only to the changing times and tastes (audiences having all but forsaken musicals) but also to the ineffectiveness of the art Fosse had wrought. It is a lousy picture, despite Fosse’s best intensions, and because of his meddling to improve upon his own greatness. The movie’s thud threatened to ruin Universal. Certainly, it ended Fosse’s aspirations to become a director of some stature in film musicals, although he would redeem himself with Cabaret (1972) and his semi-autobiographical, All That Jazz (1979).
Arguably, Sweet Charity – the movie – neither required the girth of 70mm 6-track stereo Panavision, nor 2 ½ hours to tell its simply flawed love story. What had worked on the stage could not benefit the screen adaptation, forcing Fosse to rethink his artistry while remaining too close to his own work to re-conceptualize it effectively. Try as he might – and did – to will a spark of cohesive brilliance into the production, the narrative instead became a series of episodic vignettes with Shirley MacLaine’s diminutive trollop our master of ceremonies. After a lengthy overture, Sweet Charity opens with Charity Hope Valentine jubilantly perusing New York shop windows under the main credits; Fosse periodically freeze-framing the action, presumably, to punctuate her happiness – also, to allow audiences the opportunity to read the titles. She arrives at the footbridge a blushing/gushing woman in love, declaring to boyfriend, Charlie that today the whole of New York is ‘My Personal Property’. He placates her for as long as he can, before seizing Charity’s purse and tossing her into the lake.
Returning to her place of employment, a seedy dance hall run by the lovably frazzled, Herman (Stubby Kaye), Charity settles into the world-weariness of her two coworkers, Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly), each having seen the promise of true love die too many times; now, jaded and wary of even attempting the plunge, much less taking it. The trio take turns declaring ‘There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This’, sharing their daydreams and aspirations for a better life somewhere far removed from their present set of circumstances. Alas, duty calls, and the girls retreat to their places inside the dance hall, encouraging their latest clientele to put their money where their mouth is; coolly cooing, hey, ‘Big Spender’. Determined to find love before it’s too late, Charity stumbles into director and womanizer extraordinaire, Vittorio Vidal (Ricardo Montalban). He is on the rebound from a temporary breakup with Ursula, taking Charity to one of Manhattan’s chicest nightclubs where she marvels at the heavily mascaraed and decidedly effete jet set, performing ‘The Rich Man’s Frug’; undeniably, the most vigorously overproduced production number in the movie; full of Fosse’s matchless choreographic gestures, impeccably performed by dancer, Suzanne Charny and an entourage of stiffly postured live mannequins. If only the rest of the film had lived up to this sensational moment, Sweet Charity would likely have been cemented for posterity as an innovative cinema classic.
Afterward, Vittorio takes Charity to his penthouse apartment for casual sex. Ducking into his boudoir to change out of his ruffled shirt and tuxedo, Charity is left to her own accord in lavish surroundings, declaring, her friends would never believe her, ‘If They Could See Me Now’. Fosse’s attempts to transform this introspective moment into a full-blown solo for MacLaine fall flat; chiefly because what worked on the stage (dramatic lighting effects to isolate the star and punctuate her direct address to the audience) is never as affecting on the screen. Afterward, Vittorio launches into a grand seduction; the moment interrupted when Ursula arrives for reconciliation. Instead of throwing her out, Vittorio tosses Charity into his closet while he and his paramour are reunited. Hours pass. But only after Vittorio and Ursula have consummated their love once more does he quietly let Charity out; quickly and quietly escorting her to the door with very shallow encouragement she will find someone new.
This blow to her conceit does not last for very long, as Charity next encounters on her way to apply for a secretarial job. Oscar panics after the lights go out, comforted by Charity, who takes pity on him, gradually coaxing Oscar out of his sweaty-palmed claustrophobia. In gratitude for the compassion she has shown Oscar pursues a romantic relationship with Charity that is doomed to failure as it is predicated on nothing more than remuneration for her kindness. The two become engaged and Charity takes Oscar to meet her guru, Big Daddy, a self-professed spiritual who operates The Rhythm of Life ‘church’ from an underground parking garage. Oscar is decidedly out of his element amongst Charity’s friends; a discovery made even more disturbingly apparent when he realizes what her profession is and who her real friends are. Meanwhile, Charity has come to the dance hall to announce her retirement from ‘the life’.
While picking out her trousseau, Charity’s naïve verve is stirred, enough for her to declare, ‘I’m a Brass Band’. Indeed, this time it really looks as though things will happen for her. Enthralled by the news, Herman elects to give the bride away with a gaudy engagement party at the dance hall; Charity’s friends and former clients gathering to celebrate, ‘I Love To Cry At Weddings’. But by now Oscar has unequivocally decided he cannot marry Charity. She isn’t the girl for him. His mother would never approve, despite the fact Charity has endeavored with every fiber in her being to remake herself as his demure ‘little woman’. Heart sore and distraught, Charity heads for Central Park, even contemplating suicide as she commiserates, ‘Where Am I Going?’ Embraced by a gaggle of flower children, who offer her sincerity and a message of hope and love, Charity elects to begin her life anew. She will not go back to taxi dancing. Will things be better for her this time around? Fosse seems to suggest as much, a title card reading, ‘…and she lived ‘hopefully’ ever after.’
At intervals, Sweet Charity is very much imbued with flashes of Fosse’s inspired brilliance. In fact, Fosse gives us everything he has to offer – and yet, strangely, it comes across as never enough, or perhaps merely an exercise of a genius trying much too hard to impress. Whatever the reason, the movie is hardly perfect and this is its shame. While some musicals from the sixties have decidedly matured with age, Sweet Charity increasingly seems more a sterile relic from its own time. Fosse stumbles about his milieu as though discovering it for the very first time from a novice’s perspective. Occasionally, he reveals an absolute virtuosity of his craft. Sadly, there are all too few such moments in the picture to hold an audience captive. In the final analysis, Sweet Charity is heavy-handed, tiresome an overall deflating; at times, a highly frustrating experience to wade through.
Universal’s DVD is quite magnificent with handsomely refined colors. Contrast is near perfect. Blacks are deep, velvety and solid. Whites are pristine. The image is razor sharp and always appealing with a modicum of accurately represented grain to boot. Minute age-related artifacts are present but sporadic and never distracting. Honestly, if only more movies could look this good on home video there would be very little to write and/or complain about. Arguably, the original film elements are in exceptionally fine condition, having been expertly archived and only occasionally brought out for a reissue in the intervening decades. But we really should tip our hats to Universal for doing right by this deep catalog title – even if the movie is less impressive than their efforts in bringing it to standard disc. Universal has also remastered the 6-track stereo in 4.0 Dolby Digital surround. Sweet Charity is remarkably aggressive during the musical sequences, but slightly strident sounding in its dialogue, completely lacking bass tonality. Perhaps owing to the movie’s limited following and appeal, Universal has added nothing by way of extras to augment this presentation. We’ll forgive them – just this once.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)