Sweet Charity was Bob Fosse’s first feature film as a director, coming after years of work as a dancer, choreographer and director on stage. He has done some screen work, and even had a MGM contract in 1953, but it wasn’t until 1969 when he graduated to helming a feature film. Fosse and his long-suffering dance partner and wife Gwen Verdon had done Sweet Charity on stage previously, with Verdon in the lead role.
Shirley MacLaine stars in the film, and Verdon actually suggested her for the screen lead. Verdon coached her in the role, and actually acted as an uncredited assistant choreographer, something she did quite often. Sweet Charity is loosely based on Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Besides the name change for the lead, the profession has been changed from prostitute to dancer-for-hire at a low-rent New York dance hall.
The story is a pretty simple: it’s about young woman who hasn’t had much luck with men, because they all turn out to be dirtbags. Like everybody, she is desperate to find love, but she can’t seem to meet the right guy. By happenstance she runs into the Italian movie star Vittorio Vitale (Ricardo Montalbán), but despite a promising evening, not much comes out of it except a good story to tell her girlfriends at work. However, things start to look up when she bonds with Oscar Lindquist (John McMartin) while they are stuck in an elevator—but will Oscar accept her and her history?
The finished film is one of the rare American ’60s musicals that more or less work: the middle is a little dull, but it is nearly two and a half hours long. The songs are all pretty solid, and the film is a little more in the style of Jacques Demy’s musicals of that period, although unlike The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, they don’t sing all the dialogue. As always, Shirley MacLaine is great, and Sammy Davis Jr. has a very fun cameo where he does a number as well, he plays Big Daddy who is a hippie guru. His character even lands a wry, satirical dig at the “new religious movements” that were springing up at the time. The cinematography by old-timer Robert Surtees, who shot films for everybody, is masterful as well, and really pops on the screen. It may not be my favourite Bob Fosse film, because All That Jazz and Star 80, but it’s certainly worth checking out—and as always with Fosse, it has a downbeat edge that is rare in musicals.
The release from Indicator has improved on the Kino Lorber release of just two cuts, with now three different cuts thatinclude the roadshow cut, the roadshow cut without the overture,and the shorter cut which had a tacked-on happy ending that Fosse despised. It has a new commentary from Lee Gambin, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Cara Mitchell, but is missing the Kat Ellinger commentary track on the shorter cut from the Kino release. The John Player Lecture with Shirley MacLaine, which is from 1971, plays as an alternative commentary track, so that makes up for it. Two archival short making-ofs from 1969 are included, one on Fosse and one on the legendary costume designer Edith Head, who did the costumes for Sweet Charity. A newly recorded audio interview with dance assistant Sonja Haney, which is around 70 minutes long, plus an archival interview with Sammy Davis Jr., the Super-8 version, an image gallery and the theatrical trailer round off the on-disc extras. The book is 80 pages long, with new essays by Pamela Hutchinson and Bill Rosenfield, Neil Simon on Sweet Charity, archival press coverage of the film’s release that includes an interview with MacLaine, extracts from the press book, Federico Fellini on Sweet Charity, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits. Finally, it even includes a poster!