Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Film Review: Be Wowed by Bob Fosse’s 1969 Directorial Film Debut, “Sweet Charity,” Starring the Inimitable Shirley MacLaine (Frugs Included)

Sweet Charity (c) Courtesy of Film Forum

Film: Sweet Charity (1969) 
At Film Forum (NY) for a Week Starting on March 24 
And on Blu-Ray 

Premise: Director/choreographer Bob Fosse’s first film was the 1969 adaptation of the musical “Sweet Charity” which he directed on Broadway with his wife Gwen Vernon. Both the film and musical are adaptations of Federico Fellini's 1957 Italian film “Nights of Cabiria.” The musical was written by Neil Simon with songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields and was nominated for nine Tony Awards in 1966, only winning for Fosse’s choreography. Since then, the musical has been revived numerous times with the title role being played by Debbie Allen, Christina Applegate and most recently off-Broadway by Sutton Foster. For the film, Charity, the dance hall hostess at the Fandango Ballroom filled with an abundance of optimism, was played by a then 35-year-old Shirley MacLaine, who had already been nominated for three Oscars by the time of its release, including the musical “Irma la Douche.” The movie is a series of vignettes revolving around the men in Charity Hope Valentine’s life including a married lout named Charlie (Dante D'Paulo), a famous Italian movie star named Vittorio (played with a swarthy charm by Ricardo Montalbán) and a nervous actuary named Oscar (John McMartin, the only Broadway cast member to make the leap to the big screen). Along for the up-and-down ride that is Charity’s love life are fellow dime-a-dance cohorts Nickie and Helene (Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly, respectively, playing the roles they originated in the London production). The 4K restoration of the film was released on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber, with this big screen debut being shown for a week at Film Forum as part of their partnership with Carnegie Hall’s “Woman in Music” series. For both the Blu-Ray and theatrical presentations, the alternative “happy” ending is shown after the film. 

Sweet Charity (c) The Interested Bystander with SC image courtesy of Film Forum.
Yes, There's an Intermission

My Take: I’ve seen “Sweet Charity” on stage, and while I certainly like all the hit songs, I just didn’t see the point of following Charity, this naïve dreamer, experiencing heartbreak after heartbreak on screen. So, this is my first time seeing the film in its entirety.  Charity, as played by the peerless MacLaine, certainly deserves a happy ending – just not the oddly executed alternative version – but I am fine with the film’s tonally correct finale: life goes on for Charity, forever resigned to the “fickle fingers of fate.” It’s just not that satisfying for a mostly bouncy and upbeat musical. With that said, if, like me, you have never seen the film, you will find so much to love. First, the 4K restoration is glorious at Film Forum. So crisp and beautiful. You really need to see it on the big screen projected to get the full effect. And in the film itself, there is so much joy to be had in its execution.  Bob Fosse, while certainly feeling his way through directing his first film, was already a visionary with his oddly placed angles and mastery of showing off his own singular choreography. You see a lot of the brilliance to come for his Oscar-winning “Cabaret” a few years later. However, his use of blurry jump cuts does get a bit tiresome, and his six-minute dance diversion at the Pyramid Club (“The Rich Man’s Frug”) in the first act is stop-the-story indulgent – totally enjoyable and vibey but still indulgent. The same can be said about his second act descent into a 60s hippie performance art happening with a far-out, scene-stealing Sammy Davis, Jr. (he gets second billing but is really only on screen for the groovy song “The Rhythm of Life”). Both numbers could have been cut, but the atmosphere of both these big production numbers are the highlights of the film. And while it’s criminal that Chita Rivera was passed over to play Anita in the film version of “West Side Story,” to see her dance and sing about her dreams on a different New York City rooftop here in the best character number, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” is welcome.  Speaking of numbers, most of the first act songs are bangers, including the iconic “If My Friends Could See Me Now” (for fun, search for Linda Clifford’s disco version) and “Hey, Big Spender,” while the second act songs feel more of the second-rate musical comedy kind including a generic “I Love a Wedding,” although it was nice to see the great comic actor Stubby Kaye on screen. Still, you will have a great time just seeing what a young Bob Fosse and Shirley MacLaine were able to achieve early on in their film careers. 

Sweet Charity (c) Courtesy of Film Forum

VIP: New York City. I should say Bob Fosse, especially since his penultimate stage show, “Dancin’,” is currently being revived on Broadway for the first time, but it has to be the Big Apple. It was great seeing Manhattan circa 1968 in all its glory (except for a hazy/smoggy sheen, the city has been pretty much sanitized). I love to see things long gone like dime-a-dance halls (the entrance fee of $6.50 would be $56 today), blue taxi cabs and the lockers in Grand Central as well as timeless landmarks like the bridge in Central Park and the Lincoln Center fountain that seems untouched by time. I use a quote from “My Personal Property,” the opening song written just for the film, on my home page as Charity, like me, extolls the joys of living in New York, New York. After seeing the film, I might be willing to admit that Charity Hope Valentine is my spirit animal.

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