Though my total assessment of Sweet Charity is highly positive, I must admit that, strangely enough, the music constitutes just about the only significant weakness of the whole thing. A musical without very many good songs would be a failure under any other circumstances. What with Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ score being so transparently derivative of other musicals of the decade, you might wonder if they wrote them as spoofs. Three, in particular, sound like excised numbers from timeless classics.
“There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” (which happens to be one of the stronger ones) imitates West Side Story, and Chita Rivera, who originated a role in said musical, takes part in the number. “I’m a Brass Band” obviously borrows from The Music Man, to the point that Shirley MacLaine literally leads a marching band through the empty streets of New York City. Of course, amidst all of the shameless emulation lies a truly memorable and insanely catchy number—“Big Spender.” Of course, Cabaret has an undeniable influence on the song, but I’d argue “Big Spender” has achieved more immortality than most of the songs from Cabaret, at least among the general public.
It would be imperceptive, however, to deem Sweet Charity’s mimicry as being unintended. It came out at the tail end of a slew of movie musicals—an adaptation which, in turn, reimagines Frederico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria from 1957. MacClaine plays the titular heroine as flighty and open-hearted as a musical heroine can be. Transformed from a sex worker, the inspiration for her character in the Fellini film, into a dance hall hostess, she cavorts innocently in an atmosphere that feels sultry without being too suggestive. After a slew of bad encounters with men leads Charity to venture briefly into the corporate world, she meets what seems to be a kind though bumbling potential partner and sets out to get her heart broken again. It doesn’t sound like much, but what starts out as a zany romantic comedy turns into a poignant, realistic look at romantic vulnerability and self-love.
In that sense, the musical is more like a revue with an unusually strong story, as opposed to borrowing popular hits from here and there and cobbling a story around the songs instead of the other way around. I can’t attest to enjoying many revues or jukebox musicals, which uniformly tend to suck (see Rock of Ages). Sweet Charity not only manages to not suck, but is a wholly entertaining, moving, unmistakably cinematic work. Though director Bob Fosse claims in a featurette to have known nothing about directing at the outset, he immediately picked up a knack for using filmic language upon transitioning from stage to screen. It’s no wonder, as he began his career as a dancer during the early fifties phase of MGM musicals like Kiss Me Kate, and surely picked up some ideas on how to direct for film in the process.
Sweet Charity’s most impressive sequences occur during the musical numbers, where the dancing and direction wonderfully elevates what would have been dragged down otherwise. The camera, while allowing for more fluidity and versatility, can have a confining effect on the dance moves meant to play out in real time and on an open stage. Correctly intuiting the limitations of such choreographies, Fosse uses editing to his advantage in letting cuts motivate the dance moves, and vice versa. The camera is also positively alive, allowing the work to be seen from multiple angles and perspectives, and letting the viewer feel just as much a part of the dance as those on screen. Fosse doesn’t stop there. Still inserts and lens tricks dip into the experimental toolbox, rendering the film’s visual concept totally kaleidoscopic. Of course, film and theater can share some aspects. Costume and set design, major correspondents between the mediums, explode with beauty and creativity, perhaps more so than the stage version, what with Edith Head designing the clothes.
Gwen Vernon originally played Charity on Broadway, but MacClaine proves to be an excellent replacement. Fosse would later on make a similarly brilliant casting choice with Liza Minelli in Cabaret. MacClaine has the rare talent of bringing realistic emotions to farcical situations, modulating between slapstick and brief moments of exquisite subtlety. Such versatility lends invaluable guidance to the path of the story, the most surprising and satisfactory quality of the film. Charity’s journey evolves along a tandem path with the narrative from unserious and fanciful to honest and authentic, leaving off on a happy ending you never knew could exist. | Nic Champion
Sweet Charity comes as a two-disc special edition on this release, containing a longer version with an alternative (and not as satisfying) ending, commentary by Kat Ellinger, and featurettes on the making of the film and Edith Head’s costume design. Also included is a booklet essay from writer Julie Kirgo.