I mentioned in my review of Lenny awhile back that I had one final “directed by Bob Fosse” film to watch and it was Sweet Charity. The sad thing is I should have stopped at Lenny because Sweet Charity, Fosse’s first film and first box office bomb, has every right to be. The film, based on the stage play written by Neil Simon, not only feels like a first effort from the director he seems confused on how to present the material. The end result is a 120 minute movie filled with compilation of scenes that you’d expect in a 1960s spoof film.
The songs aren’t particularly memorable aside from the legendary “Hey Big Spender” and Shirley MacLaine defined the word “shrill” for me in her performance. There’s debate about how much of this movie corresponds to the stage (I haven’t seen the play) but I was sad to be left saying “that’s not a good Fosse film.”
Charity Valentine (MacLaine) is a taxi dancer recently dumped, literally, in Central Park by her no-good boyfriend. As she tries to move on from him she meets a series of men who shape her life. When she meets the neurotic but nice Oscar (John McMartin), Charity believes she may have found a love that will last.
A Bob Fosse directed film….that’s rated G! I know a G rating in 1969 is completely different from today but Fosse is a man known for his no-holds-barred, R-rated films so already I was leery about this G-rating. A little back story before I dive head-first into this film. Bob Fosse, Broadway director/choreographer is one of my favorite directors. All That Jazz, Cabaret, and Star 80 are on my Top 20 favorite films list with All That Jazz and Cabaret easily slipping into the top ten. Lenny is also an amazing film but where Fosse works so well is in creating characters that are extensions of Fosse himself. All That Jazz’s Joe Gideon and even comic Lenny Bruce have traits (created in various lengths) representative of the director. It helps that Fosse also wrote the scripts for Jazz and Star 80.
Therein lies the problem with Sweet Charity, being Fosse’s first feature he only directed. Screenwriter Neil Simon adapted his own stage production, which I think is the problem. Charity doesn’t have any Fosse-esque qualities negating the ability for the director to work with what he knows. Sweet Charity is a prime example of a director purely putting the film on celluloid and having little input. I will say that the choreography is classic Fosse with the gyrating and the open palms but the dance scenes are so bloated, with excessive 60s touches and little connection to the story.
Another key element of a music, the musical “world” has to be explained and consistent. If actors are going to break into song, keep that consistently. Or are the dance numbers in the character’s head? Here there are moments of MacLaine singing in the middle of the park and others of actual stage performances of the songs. When the staged songs are sung is when the numbers become overly lengthy, reliant on bizarre movements.
If you ever wanted to show someone the stereotypical elements of the 1960s (the mod look, drug trips) the dance numbers in Sweet Charity fit the bill, the performance of “Rich Man’s Frug” specifically. Is the movie actually spoofing the mod movement? You could say that but I just think it’s representative of Fosse not knowing when to quit.
The songs themselves are forgettable. I can sing you “Hey Big Spender” now but I couldn’t even give you the tunes of any others. It probably helps that “Hey Big Spender” influenced “Cell Block Tango” in Chicago (Fosse created the stage version) and is also influential in Cabaret. The film opens with MacLaine singing a song called “Personal Property” that looks poorly filmed, not the best way to introduce your film. The song employs constant close-ups to the point of blurriness and it doesn’t do this just once, it goes on throughout the entire song!
If you don’t already have a splitting headache by then MacLaine’s singing is remarkably weak. She’s breathy, low, and doesn’t project like a Broadway singer or even a decent singer. The way she sings doesn’t help because she seems to be imitating Eartha Kitt or Phyllis Diller with that overly enunciated, baby-doll voice. It seemed to be mostly in this song but the other songs just weren’t that strong.
When you have MacLaine singing opposite musical legend Chita Rivera the discord is painfully obvious. Oddly enough, the group’s performance of “Something Better Than This” appears to be a carbon copy of West Side Story’s America with the same locale and the same general musical structure. If you didn’t already know that Fosse had directed this, you wouldn’t tell from this film.
The actors all exhibit various shades of over-the-top but it doesn’t help that their characters can be described in a word or less. Charity is a romantic, Oscar is neurotic and every other man is a jerk (including Ricardo Montalban at his sleaziest). I mention this in terms of how the actors approach their acting. Charity is a hopeless romantic who believes that tattooing a lovers name to her arm means something special. Sadly, her friends realize what it truly means as Chita Rivera’s character Nickie equates Charity’s heart with a hotel, “guys are checking in and out all the time.”
While Charity ends the film living “hopefully ever after” it comes after two hours of acid tripping and her making the worst decisions. I understand Charity is desperate but she just throws herself at everyone that their courtship is “Hi how are you” to getting married in 30 seconds. Part of this is poor writing I know, but considering the film is already two hours (with intermission) there should be no stop-gaps or need for montage in a relationship. The one interesting plot point is how Charity is treated because of her profession.
The movie equates taxi dancing with stripping or prostitution (“Hey Big Spender” alludes to this) and when Charity goes to get a job, the hiring manager thinks he’s been tricked. Even Oscar decides not to marry Charity because of her profession. Considering that Wiki claims taxi dancing as a rather tame profession (and I’d always assumed it was more nefarious) I wanted this to be explored more.
Thankfully Bob Fosse walked away from this and went on to make iconic works of art. Sweet Charity feels and looks like a first effort from a début director. It’s not representative of his work or who he is and the film suffers for it. The acting is shoddy, the songs are flat, and the plot is too zany to be a plot. Skip it and watch All That Jazz or Cabaret.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.