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Leslie S. Hiscott
Taxi dancer Charity continues to have Faith in the human race despite apparently endless disappointments at its hands, and Hope that she will finally meet the nice young man to romance her away from her sleazy life. Maybe, just maybe, handsome Oscar will be the one to do it. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Shirley MacLaine wrote that Gwen Verdon, who had starred in the Broadway show, suggested to her that she should pursue the lead for the film version. After MacLaine got the role, Verdon generously coached MacLaine on her performance. See more »
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An Under-appreciated Screen Musical, One of My Favorites
Shirley MacLaine fills the formidable shoes first worn by Gwen Verdon, who created the role of Charity Hope Valentine in the stage musical on which this film is based, and makes the role her own.
"Sweet Charity" is nearly a one-woman show, so the success of any version depends almost entirely on its leading lady, and MacLaine delivers the goods and then some as this New York City "dance hall hostess," part broad and part waif, who wants nothing more than to just be loved but always manages to pick the wrong guy. It's to MacLaine's great credit that you don't get frustrated with Charity, despite her denseness and her willingness to be treated like a doormat. Rather, you respond to the inherent good in her, the belief against all evidence to the contrary that life can have a fairy tale ending, and which the screenplay and MacLaine's performance convey without an ounce of sentimentality. There's not a whole lot of plot; rather, the film takes you into the life of this warm character through a number of episodic segments, until finally we realize that Charity's problem is not, as she thinks, that she's not good enough for anyone, but rather that she can't find someone who's good enough for her.
Bob Fosse, who directed and choreographed the stage version, takes on the same tasks here, with somewhat mixed results. The choreography is stellar, especially during the "Rich Man's Frug" number, set in a hilariously stylized version of a trendy New York night club; and during the "Rhythm of Life" number, led by Sammy Davis, Jr. as a sort of hipster preacher who leads bizarre revival meetings in parking garages. But Fosse's direction is a little less sure, and when one compares this film to his later efforts, like the nearly perfect "Cabaret" and the not as perfect but still fascinating "All That Jazz," one can see how much shakier he is here. He struggles to meld a very conventional style of film-making to his own unique cinematic style, the results being that all of the musical numbers are dazzling and energetic while all of the non-musical moments are a bit flat. He also gives in too much to trendy 1960s flourishes, so the film seems dated now.
But the good in this film greatly outweighs the bad. The terrific score retains most of the major songs from the musical: "Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "I'm a Brass Band," and "I Love to Cry at Weddings." The title song is set to a different tune, and is an improvement over the version that appeared on stage. "My Personal Property" replaces "You Should See Yourself" as Charity's opening number -- again, an improvement. "A Very Nice Face" replaces "I'm the Bravest Individual" as the number sung by Charity when she and Oscar (a hilariously spastic John McMartin) are trapped in an elevator, the one song that's not as good as the original. Ricardo Montalban makes a terrific Vittorio Vitali, the virile and lusty Latin lover movie star who takes Charity back to his place only to leave her stranded in a closet all night when his girlfriend shows up unexpectedly, but his big number, "Too Many Tomorrows," is dropped. And the rubber-limbed Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly, playing Charity's fellow dance hall hostess friends and roommates, don't get their second-act number, "Baby, Dream Your Dream" in the film, but they do great work on "Big Spender" and "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," which the three actresses perform on a rooftop in a scene reminiscent of "West Side Story."
"Sweet Charity" came out a time when the Hollywood musical was dying, and because it was a box office bomb, I feel that it gets lumped in with other bad films from the late 60s, like "Doctor Dolittle," "Camelot," "Hello, Dolly," and "Throughly Modern Millie," but it's leaps and bounds better than any of those, and is one of the unsung musical gems from that era.
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