The Naive Optimism of SWEET CHARITY [Blu Review]

Kino Lorber presents Fosse’s directorial debut in a double BluRay package

Shirley MacLaine in SWEET CHARITY.

Before Bob Fosse helmed the awardwinning Liza with a Z or Cabaret, he directed the 1969 musical Sweet Charity. Shirley MacLaine takes on the character Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon made famous on Broadway — playing the lead role of a dancehall hostess with fairytale dreams. Sweet Charity shows off MacLaine’s hoofing and singing in its loose adaptation of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.

MacLaine praises her character’s “incessant optimism” in one of the short films included in the recent Kino Lorber BluRay issue. Charity has low self-worth and low confidence, but at least her hopes for the future are high. Her first song “My Personal Property” introduces the viewer to her giving nature and how it leaves her open for men to take advantage.

As film historian Kat Ellinger notes in her commentary on the Kino Lorber release, the more introspective numbers sung by the lead in the theatrical production are removed in this iteration. There remains the effervescent, celebratory inner monologue of “If My Friends Could See Me Now” (sung in an Italian film star’s apartment) and the joyous “I’m a Brass Band” (after Oscar [John Mcmartin] admits his feelings for her). But the film version of Charity comes off a tad more naive than that of the original musical.

Kelly, MacLaine, and Rivera in SWEET CHARITY.

He’d run shows on Broadway at this point, but Fosse’s inexperience behind the camera (Ellinger notes he was learning film terms on the job) shows itself in the uneven pacing and bizarre editing choices made in Sweet Charity. The viewer certainly notices the 2.5 hour length. “The Rich Man’s Frug” dance alone is six minutes long — although I wouldn’t cut a second of Fosse’s choreography for this number. Charity feels like an outsider as she watches rich and ridiculous posers (including a young Ben Vereen) parade around in astonishing Edith Head creations. The smooth black sheath dresses and suits of this crowd contrast to the garish spangles her fellow dancers wear in “Hey, Big Spender.”

The colors pop in this restoration. Charity and her two friends (Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly) sing of their dreams for different occupations in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” as their shiny skirts flash and flare against the darkness of a rooftop set.

The story may be a bit of a mess, but Fosse’s first film shows off his choreography talents, and spotlights the music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields (who also co-wrote the songs for Swing Time). MacLaine is exuberant as Charity, no matter what comes her way: either the happy ending Fosse expected the studio might want (included in this BluRay release) or the bummer of an ending they stuck with — more in line with that of the theatrical production — which still retains a flicker of hope.

Charity (MacLaine) and Oscar (Mcmartin) in SWEET CHARITY.

The Sweet Charity BluRay package from Kino Lorber includes:

  • the Roadshow edition of the film and an alternate version (4K restoration)
  • Audio commentary track by historian Kat Ellinger included on the disc for the alternate version (informative, although rambling at times)
  • The Art of Exaggeration: famed Hollywood designer Edith Head speaks about her satirical costume concepts for Sweet Charity in this featurette which came out around the film’s release. It includes wardrobe tests, done to music, for “Big Spender,” “Rich Man’s Frug” and other numbers.
  • From Stage to Screen: A Director’s Dilemma: in this sugarcoated PR short, Fosse embellishes on his directing style during the film (he does admit that “Big Spender” was “the most difficult” segment). The featurette also offers a glimpse at the old tech used during production, like their ginormous sound recording system.
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