It Doesn’t Get Better Than Sweet Charity

by Rachel Bellwoar

When Sweet Charity came out in 1969, Bob Fosse had directed and choreographed Broadway shows. He’d never directed a movie and had Sweet Charity’s commercial failure spelled the end of his film career, there would be no Cabaret.

Money makes the world go ’round but it doesn’t always tell you which movies are the best, and Sweet Charity is everything you could want in a movie musical. Starring Shirley MacLaine as Charity, if you’ve seen the first episode of FX’s Fosse/Verdon, then you know Fosse’s wife, Gwen Verdon, originated the role on Broadway. While it’s hard not to feel she should’ve gotten a chance to reprise the part, that’s not because of any fault in MacLaine’s performance.

Charity Hope Valentine is the kind of adult who refuses to stop skipping, no matter what life hurls at her. Some of her friends call her naïve. Others dumb, but Charity isn’t blind any more than the beggar she meets at the start of the film is blind. She catches onto his scheme right away but spares him a few coins and that’s what makes Charity so irrepressibly joyful. Life hasn’t been kind to her, but she won’t let it take away her optimism and that doesn’t mean she’s not in touch with reality. That means she’s unwilling to let it change her.

Charity doesn’t need to be rich. When an ex wipes out her bank account, you never hear her panic about the money. It’s the added injury to his betrayal that hurts. What Charity still holds out for is love, and despite how hard it is to find when you’re a dance hostess strapped for cash, Charity hasn’t given up on changing her situation, either, if she can find someone who will employ her so that she can quit.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray includes both the roadshow version and an alternate version, that includes a happier ending requested by the studios, before they sided with Fosse. The happier ending isn’t completely ill-conceived (even if it wasn’t what Fosse wanted, you can tell some thought went into it so the picture wouldn’t be undone if that’s what the studio went with) but the original takes the picture forward instead of backwards, and includes a cameo by Harold & Maude’s Bud Cort.

The other difference between the two versions is the roadshow one includes an overture and intermission, which is such a rich tradition in musicals that it feels a shame to go without them. As one can probably gather from the need for an intermission, Sweet Charity isn’t a short movie, but that extra time’s a gift, not a slog. “(Hey,) Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” are the two best known numbers, but there are tons of songs in here that feel like well-kept secrets, like Sammy Davis Jr.’s hippie anthem, “The Rhythm of Life” and the painful, “Where Am I Going?”

Sweet Charity is also a musical where the dancing is valued as much as the music (if you’ve seen Chicago, that’s Fosse’s choreography, too), and “The Rich Man’s Frug” is an amazing example of his style, full of hands, contrasts in motion, and postures that must’ve taken incredible endurance to maintain.

Maybe Fosse is guilty of “a few newcomer’s indulges,” as Julie Kirgo talks about in her booklet essay, but his frame composition is mesmerizing, especially his use of foreground and background (pouring a glass of champagne in front of the dancers on stage so you’re situated back with the customers, all male, privileged and anonymous) and his playfulness with lighting (giving characters control of the switches).

In one episode, Charity spends an evening with Italian film star, Vittorio Vidal (Ricardo Montalbán), and the film has enough restraint to limit their meeting to an evening while delivering on every set-up (a promised beer, a broken knob that Charity later reattaches with a piece of gum). Chita Rivera is also sensational in a supporting role as one of Charity’s friends at the dance hall.

Additional bonus features include archival featurettes on Edith Head’s costumes (including Charity’s uniform, which  takes into account Charity’s budget) and one with Bob Fosse, where he discusses the different requirements of the stage versus the screen. There’s also a commentary track with film historian, Kat Ellinger, where she talks about (among other things) the various connections between Sweet Charity and Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, and the career of song lyricist, Dorothy Fields.

Sweet Charity is available now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. It doesn’t get better than this.

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