Color, 1969, 150 mins. 12 secs. / 148 mins. 15 secs. / 144 mins. 37 secs.
Directed by Bob Fosse
Starring Shirley MacLaine, John McMartin, Ricardo Montalban, Chita Rivera, Sammy Davis Jr., Paula Kelly, Stubby Kaye, Barbara Bouchet
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Elephant Films (Blu-ray) (France R0 HD), Universal (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1)
The first of a small but fascinating trend of translating successful Italian films into English-language stage musicals (also including Nine and Big Deal), Sweet Charity is a New York-set interpretation of Federico Fellini's Oscar-winning character study, Nights of Cabiria, about an eternally optimistic prostitute dealing with a string of personal letdowns. A hit on Broadway, the Tony Award-winning stage version was a major showcase for director and choreographer Bob Fosse and his wife and muse, Gwen Verdon, complete with a string of catchy numbers (by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields) and a book by Neil Simon. For the film version, MacLaine stepped into the leading role (with Verdon on hand for coaching and assistant choreography) for what would be Fosse's big screen directing debut, paving the way for later films including Cabaret, Lenny, All That Jazz, and Star 80. Fosse pulls out all the stops in visual terms here with a barrage of flashy touches including freeze frames, zooms, snappy editing, and some of the wildest musical sequences in the American screen musical canon. Unfortunately the musical was being beset by a number of high-profile financial misfires around this time like Paint Your Wagon and Star!, but this one has remained some of a cultists' favorite and remains a colorful sensory experience like no other.
First seen cavorting across Manhattan with a potential beau only to get robbed and tossed in a lake for her trouble, dance hall worker Charity (MacLaine) finds comfort in the company of her coworkers including Nickie (Rivera) and Helene (Kelly) who root for her to get out of the life someday. Another possible escape appears in the form of screen actor Vittorio Vitale (Montalban), who gets over his breakup with Ursula (future giallo star Barbara Bouchet) by taking Charity out for a wild night on the town including a club for the chic and famous. When that route also hits a dead end, Charity goes job hunting and gets stuck in an elevator with apparent nice guy Oscar (McMartin) who could be her path to happily ever after... or maybe not.
Making use of every inch of the wide Panavision framing, Fosse's film is a very far tonal cry from Fellini's film and manages to spin what could be depressing subject matter into a vibrant party that mines real cinematic gold out of numbers like "Big Spender" and "If They Could See Me Now," not to mention the spectacular, ultra-'60s dance phantasmagoria of "Rich Man's Frug" that has to be seen to be believed. Along the way you get seasoned vets like Rivera and Kelly strutting their stuff in their prime, and even Sammy Davis Jr. pops up for one number to do a hippie-tastic rendition of "The Rhythm of Life." The film isn't perfect; as with the stage version, the removal of overt prostitution results in some dialogue and narrative decisions that don't quite add up, and MacLaine's intense mugging in the opening number can make this a little tough for some viewers to get into. Those are minor bumps though in a film that continues to reward repeated viewings, and MacLaine (who, incredibly, had none other than future adult film star Georgina Spelvin as her stand-in here) really gives it her all from start to finish.
Back in its early days on VHS and laserdisc, Sweet Charity was one of the earliest films to get the letterbox treatment... sort of. Since there was no way to pan and scan several of the musical numbers and retain any kind of coherence at all, they were presented widescreen with a colorful pattern filling up the rest of the screen area-- a tactic taken a little later with the VHS of Ken Russell's The Boy Friend. A fully widescreen DVD eventually turned up from Universal without any of that aspect ratio switching, and it also included two goodies ported over from the laserdisc, the theatrical trailer and an alternate ending prepared by Fosse in case the studio needed it. Fortunately everyone involved remained sensible and kept the ending from the stage production (and the Fellini film), but it's fascinating to see how this "happy" resolution was approached and tried to make viewers feel good about a different character path for McMartin. Those same extras (albeit with burned-in French subtitles) were included when the film hit Blu-ray in France from Elephant Films in 2016 (as a combo pack with a DVD); that release was easily obliterated in 2019 when Kino Lorber issued a two-disc Blu-ray set featuring a gorgeous 4K restoration of the full roadshow version of the film (including an overture and intermission) on the first disc and a shorter option featuring the alternate ending on disc two. Both cuts come with 5.1 and 2.0 English DTS-HD MA tracks (both very boisterous and enjoyable) with optional English SDH subtitles; disc one also has a pair of vintage featurettes, "The Art of Exaggeration" (7m29s) focusing on Edith Head's striking costume designs, and "Sweet Charity: From the Stage to Screen" (9m1s), a sketch of the film's history from Broadway, plus the trailer and bonus ones for Irma La Douce, What a Way to Go!, Clambake, and Daddy Long Legs. The second disc has just one extra, albeit a substantial one, in the form of a packed audio commentary by Kat Ellinger who goes into all things Fosse, MacLaine, Fellini, and Verdon in great detail.
In 2020, Indicator bowed the film on British Blu-ray with a very different special edition culled from the same excellent 4K restoration; as the comparisons show below, the U.K. and U.S. releases look (and sound) pretty much identical, which is a good thing. (5.1 and 2.0 tracks are present here as well, though the English SDH subtitles have been finessed for greater accuracy). Here you get three viewing options, all on the same disc: the roadshow version, the theatrical cut (sans overture), and the alternate ending version. This time you get an audio commentary combining separate sessions (sometimes multiple ones for the same speaker) alternating Lee Gambin, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and Cara Mitchell, who take different theoretical approaches at the film including its stage to screen history, the tropes of musical cinema and theater used here revolving around showgirls, the elements of melodrama and feminine perseverance, and much more. A fourth audio option is 1971's "The John Player Lecture with Shirley MacLaine," which runs for 81 minutes of the film with the actress at London's National Film Theatre covering her career from that point starting off with her thwarted attempts at becoming a dancer. "The Art of Exaggeration" and "From Stage to Screen" are included here along with the trailer, but you also get the film's Super 8 version (17m16s) which presents a fascinating attempt at consolidating the film down to three songs (kicking right in with "Big Spender") and highlights from the Oscar section. A new audio interview with dance assistant Sonja Haney (71m23s) in conversation on the phone with Gambin is a casual and friendly chat about her time in the musical trenches, her favorite numbers, and her memories of Fosse and Verdon on set versus the stage. Though not directly connected to the film (since it was made before), there's also another great new episode from the unreleased Canadian Now and Then show by Bernard Braden, this time featuring Sammy Davis Jr. (21m44s) smoking profusely and discussing his views on recent political upheaval and the entertainment business. Finally the disc closes out with separate, very extensive galleries for production stills and publicity material, while the limited edition (3,000 units) packaging also comes with a double-sided poster and an 80-page booklet featuring liner notes by Pamela Hutchinson and Bill Rosenfield, notes by Simon, contemporary press coverage of the film’s release including a MacLaine interview, pressbook samples, written comments by Fellini, and sample critical reviews.
KINO LOBRER (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on September 17, 2020