Wednesday, October 08, 2014

the. worst. production. number. ever.

When did Bob Fosse's "Sweet Charity" (1969) become so cheesy?  Or was it always cheesy?

I liked this musical - a lot- when Universal released it 45 years ago.  (Forty-five years?  Yikes!)

It's become one of those films that gets worse with each viewing, so much so that I finally gave in and gave up my DVD of it.  But not before watching it one more time to try to figure out exactly what went so wrong.

More than four decades later, one is aware of all the unfortunate decisions that Fosse (in his movie directorial debut) made.

One dubious decision after another.

There are the arty, sepia-toned still shots that occasionally dot the 149-minute film and that are utterly pointless and way pretentious.

There's the "Rich Man's Frug" number - a triptych of gratuitous dances that's set in a glitzy disco, circa 1969 and overburdened with Fosse's annoying choreographic mannerisms. Along with the cringe-worthy Sammy Davis, Jr. number, "The Rhythm of Life," this number immediately dated the film. Badly.

There's the casting of Shirley MacLaine, a personal favorite, who on paper seemed perfect for the title role and who actually has some great moments in the film.  But in retrospect, her reading of the lovelorn heroine, Charity Hope Valentine, is a little too much of a rehash of Ginny Moorehead, the equally lovelorn (more pathetic) character she played ten years earlier in Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running..." (1958).

Lots of self-pitying tears here. Too many tears.

There's the transparent ploy of toning down Charity's "floozie" qualities whenever the character has a scene with Oscar (John MacMartin), the nice guy who could rescue her from her nowhere life. (Sorry, that's cheating.)

And then there's that big production number, "I'm a Brass Band" (music by Cy Coleman, lyric by Dorothy Field) that is not only jaw-droppingly bad but makes no sense whatsoever.  Why would anyone, much less Charity Hope Valentine, equate being in love with marching with a brass band?  Huh?  The number, staged in the courtyard of Lincoln Center, no less, and with dozens of chorus boys, goes on and on and on, with Shirl huffing and puffing, screeching and straining her ligaments to little avail.

It stops the film.  Cold.  And the film never recovers.

On its way from stage to screen, "Sweet Charity" lost several songs, including at least one good one ("Baby, Dream Your Dream") and gained a few new ones, including one great one ("My Personal Property").  Cy Coleman also wrote a new - and improved - melody for the title song.

Universal released it as a big roadshow production which failed to engage both the media (it received scant coverage) and audiences (poor box-office returns).  After its lackluster reserved-seat engagements, the studio punished the film, so to speak, by chopping out 30 minutes for its general release.  (Paramount did the same thing to George Sidney's 1967, 143-minute "Half a Sixpence" after it underperformed as a roadshow.)

Gone, among other elements, were those sepia still shots and the second of those three deadly disco numbers. (The Davis number remained intact.)

The re-edited version of "Sweet Charity," pared down to two hours, was actually an improvement (while "Sixpence" was unnecessarily harmed by its cuts).  Too bad Universal didn't airbrush out most of Charity's tears.

"Sweet Charity" will be screened by Turner Classic Movies @ 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, October 12 and again @ 8 p.m. on Sunday, November 16 and @ midnight on Friday, January 30, 2015.  Judge for yourself.

Note in Passing: The DVD of "Sweet Charity" contains an alternate - happy - ending in which Charity and Oscar reunite.  The theatrical release of the film ends sadly but, as a title card promises, "hopefully."


glenn said...

This is one musical that was always short on style and sophistication. I think it stinks. I guess the stink was less when it was pared down.

david p. said...

Agreed. But Fosse at least knew how to photograph dance movements - in full frame and not sliced-and-diced - unlike contemporary musical directors such as Marshall and Condon.

Mike said...

Maybe Fosse was aiming for surrealism with "Sweet Charity." I can't think of any other way to explain its oddness.

Barry said...

To answer your question, yes, it was always cheesy.

Betty C. said...

I never liked that number either. It's pretty inane. But I always liked the movie itself and I like Shirley. It was a film that I saw as a kid and still enjoy it.

Jodie said...

I also admire Shirley MacLaine and I know she's supposed to be a trained dancer. But you'd never know it from this movie. Most of the time she just struts through numbers and shakes her butt. I don't know if Fosse had to adapt his choreography to accommodate her limitations but her dancing in the film is kinda weak.

joe baltake said...

Jodie- I have to admit that Shirley's moves in the "If My Friends Could See Me Now" were/are a disappointment. But she's great in "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," easily keeping up with Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly. She also danced well in other films - "Can-Can" and "What a Way to Go!," the latter opposite Gene Kelly. But, yes, the dancing in "Charity" leaves a lot to be desired.

Andie said...

I believe MacLaine also danced a bit in Martin & Lewis' "Artists & Models."

joe baltake said...

Yes. And she also did a few dance warm-ups and exercises as Gittle in "Two for the Seasaw."

Alan said...

If not MacLaine as Charity, then who? I can't think of anyone at that point in time who was right for the role.

joe baltake said...

Alan- Good question. But the first name that comes to mind is Goldie Hawn who, back in 1969, was brand new and the right age for the role. Plus, she could sing and dance.

Beef said...

"I liked this musical - a lot- when Universal released it 35 years ago. (Thirty-five years? Yikes!)" Actually--forty-five years ago!
I like the "Rich Man's Frug" production number--but, yes, the film version of "Sweet Charity" is close to unwatchable! All the elements were there to make a decent picture, but it just didn't "gel," somehow. (But I agree with David P.--bad as "Sweet Charity" is, it's still a better-directed film than the Marshall/Condon musicals!)

joe baltake said...

Beef! Error corrected. Thanks! -J

Julie Ward said...

This is my first blog comment because an hour ago you became the first blog I have ever followed. Why you? You have written what I am similarly thinking but have an inability to write clearly. Often, I read your thoughts and say to myself "Exactly" which is what happened a few minutes ago when reading "the. worst. production. number. ever."

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Julie.