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Sweet Charity
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by Charles Tatum

"Bitter Sweet"
4 stars

Broadway theater director/choreographer Bob Fosse brought the musical "Sweet Charity," based on Federico Fellini's film "Nights of Cabiria," to the stage in 1966. Starring Gwen Verdon, the story of a dance hall hostess' search for love was a smash. A film version was greenlighted but Fosse had never directed on camera before. Universal Studios took a chance, creating this late 1960's curiosity.

For the film version, Shirley MacLaine took over the title role. She plays Charity Hope Valentine, a dance girl in New York City. In the opening minutes of the film, she is both dumped and robbed by her unofficial fiance, but still tells her friends at the Fandango, where she works, white lies about her relationships. Best friends Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly) have heard it all before, and constantly humor the naive Charity. Charity meets up with Italian movie star Vittorio (Ricardo Montalban), and in an overly long scene, solves his love problems to the deference of her own. Charity finally decides to leave Herman's (Stubby Kaye) club for good, but an interview at an employment agency quickly shows her that she is trained for nothing. She gets stuck in an elevator with Oscar (John McMartin), an insurance company actuary with a variety of psychosomatic mental issues, and both are smitten. Charity lies and tells Oscar she works in a bank, and the two begin a whirlwind, but chaste, love affair. Oscar is the man Charity has been waiting her whole life to be with, but once again, things in Charity's love life don't go as planned.

Bob Fosse does everything at his disposal to make sure "Sweet Charity" is not another stagebound film. Fosse opens it up with actual New York City location filming, and increases the size of the cast almost twenty-fold. He uses still shot montages, jump cut editing, double exposure, and dolly camera angles to keep the picture constantly moving, and every scene is a visual treat.

The film eventually turns into one very long disjointed sequence of really good scenes. While I recognized three of the songs here ("Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," and "The Rhythm of Life"), the rest of the tunes by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields blend together into a meandering soundtrack. Sure, Montalban's bit as Vittorio, leading to MacLaine's rendition of "If My Friends Could See Me Now," is fun, but it drags and drags, and then the audience is let down by the scene's payoff (hmm, Charity makes another poor choice in men- yawn). Same with "The Rhythm of Life." Sammy Davis, Jr. and a few dozen hippies belt out the song in a giant parking garage/church, but the scene is pointless in the greater scheme of the film. I loved the extended dance sequence to the instrumental "Rich Man's Frug" when we see Charity out of her element in a mod club, but it also dwells to the point of tediousness. This film clocks in at just under two and a half hours, joining the ranks of bloated 1960's and early 1970's musicals like "My Fair Lady," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "Doctor Dolittle," "Lost Horizon," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," and pretty much anything Barbra Streisand or post-"Mary Poppins" Julie Andrews warbled in. Many fans look at a lot of these films fondly, but a hundred and fifty minutes of Charity Valentine is a lot for anybody.

MacLaine is adorable without being cutesy, and Rivera, Kelly, and Kaye are all great. The "Big Spender" number is pure Fosse, and he repeats a number of elements here just a few short years later in "Cabaret," which in my opinion is the greatest motion picture ever made. Fosse would also direct "Lenny," "All That Jazz," and "Star 80," always returning to the stage before dying at age 60 from years of self-abuse with drugs and alcohol. The musical's book was done by Neil Simon, and Peter Stone's screenplay has many funny moments including Charity's rescue after falling into a lake, and Oscar's freak-out in the trapped elevator.

The tone is weird in that while Charity's possible part-time prostitution is danced around and hinted at, Davis' Big Daddy delivers a speech about marijuana, and hippies play a large supporting role. Fosse seems to hold back and get in your face all at once, which makes for a sometimes off-putting viewing experience. Even the film's ending is uncommon (it was changed after the original ending was deemed too goofy- I saw the original ending- it was too goofy).

"Sweet Charity" was the only Fosse film I had not seen until today (I still need to get his television production of "Liza With a 'Z'"), and I recommend it to see this genius just beginning his short but rewarding film career.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10234&reviewer=325
originally posted: 04/16/10 23:54:06
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User Comments

4/24/10 gordon Purcell Not a smooth film, but entertaining with a great score. 4 stars
7/20/04 R.W. Welch Lack of Hollywood ending killed box office but score is pretty good. 4 stars
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  01-Apr-1969 (G)
  DVD: 04-Mar-2003

  01-Jun-1969 (PG)

  01-Jun-1969 (G)

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