Sweet Charity (1969) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Never mind Bob Fosse’s debut, this was unusual for a number of reasons: a hilarious meet-cute, a raft of one-liners and being based on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). So it could easily have been remembered mostly as a quiz question. But with Fosse at the helm it was a lot more than the sum of those particular parts and introduced a new-style director whose verve, choreography, stylistic flourishes and adult subject matter had wowed Broadway audiences.

Star Shirley MacLaine (Gambit, 1966) adds another layer to her trademark portfolio of losers in love. Hope Valentine Charity (MacLaine) is overly optimistic given her circumstances, robbed of her savings by her fiancé, nearly drowning in the process, the prospects of her switching from a career as a dance hall hostess severely limited by her lack of formal education and basic office skills.

So it’s just as well that she lands millionaire Vittorio (Ricardo Montalban) and might have enjoyed an indulgent romantic interlude had their evening not been interrupted by his wife Ursula (Barbara Bouchet), Charity condemned to spend a humiliating night hiding in the closet.

A chance meeting with the claustrophobic Oscar (John McMartin), doom-laden and intensely shy, appears to lead to unlikely redemption. Her presence cures him of a bunch of neuroses and marriage is on the cards until reality raises its ugly head, and the movie ends on a surprisingly negative note for a musical.

A dance hall hostess – taxi dancer in the parlance because she is hired by the half hour – is equivalent to the modern laptop dancer except that there is no nudity involved. On the other hand, there is none of the hands-off policy exercised in such contemporary operations, and  men buying her time believe that she should accommodate their straying hands. So it’s somewhat unexpected that her colleagues remain so good-tempered and backstage is presented as a bitching-free zone, some accepting their reality, others, like Charity, inclined to the fantasy that a Prince Charming will rescue them.

In terms of song quality it’s not in The Sound of Music (1965) league, boasting only two numbers – “Hey Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” – that you were likely leave the cinema humming. And it certainly suffers by MacLaine not having the voice of a Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand, or the dance skills of Gwen Verdon who originated the part on Broadway, but otherwise she invests the character with enough believability and exudes charm by the bucketload. She has to be applauded for taking on such a gritty role in the first place.

Of course, the movie belongs to the director, the embryonic Fosse, who brings a new look to the movie musical, from the bored dancers draped in unexpected physical shapes during “Hey Big Spender” to the finger-snapping, angled choreography and the celebration of the seedy, the opposite of the glossier Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loew vehicles. A few years later, further acceptance of permissiveness would allow him to explore such worlds in more realistic depth, check out Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979).

There’s a great turn from Sammy Davis Jr (Ocean’s Eleven, 1960) as a snake-hipped hippie preacher, his appearance somewhat out of place though offering contemporary comment, Oscar taking Charity to this literally underground service because he belongs to a Church-of-the-Month Club.

There’s a goodly number of laughs courtesy of the original Neil Simon book for the musical and the meet-cute of the couple trapped in an elevator is very funny.

John McMartin, in a rare movie leading role, is good as the hapless romantic, Ricardo Montalban (Sol Madrid, 1968) as his opposite, and there’s sterling support from Stubby Kaye (Cat Ballou, 1965), Barbara Bouchet (In Harm’s Way, 1965) and Chita Rivera in her debut.

It was probably too much to ask that this hit the ground running, what with Hollywood in financial meltdown in part as a result of budgetary excesses like this (it cost $10 million), a movie that never quite extended a grip on the roadshow audiences necessary to turn it into a hit, a star lacking an exceptional voice, and a storyline that appeared to alienate musical lovers. Most people who viewed it on initial general release saw a heavily truncated version.

It stands up much better today, mostly thanks to Fosse’s direction, but also due to the sleazy background, and it has to be said, setting aside any vocal deficiencies, this is one of Shirley MacLaine’s best performances.

Of course, I saw it at its best, on the big screen at the Widescreen Weekend in Bradford, so I might be slightly biased, but it does have genuine vigor and a refreshing originality.

The Way West (1967) ****

How this crispy-told beautifully-mounted character-driven western ever languished among the also-rans is beyond me. I suspect the specter of John Ford hung heavily over it in the eyes of critics at the time but it more correctly belongs to the cycle of Cecil B. DeMille westerns that told stories with a true historical bent. Often detrimentally compared to How the West Was Won (1963), which told a similar tale of endeavor, this movie deliberately lacks that movie’s inflated drama in which every incident was built up, not least influenced by the need for Cinerama effect, rather than seeking an authentic truth.

Plainly put, the difference is here there are no charges, no races, no fording of rivers in the wrong places. Native Americans are treated with respect. Above all, an epic crossing of the continent with fully-loaded wagons is necessarily going to be slow, risk avoided at all costs, and yet this is not without incident or character arc. In fact, the script is terrific, not just dialogue that rings true, but among the elements brought into play are male rivalry, clash with authority, guilt, young love, revenge, vision, justice, America in embryo. That the movie maintains a stately pace, no fistfights descending into brawls, and a shock ending indicate a director in charge of his material.

Based on A.B. Guthrie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in 1843, the first wagon train heads for Oregon under the iron rule of Senator William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) and guided by a scout with failing eyesight in Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum), both men widowed and in emotional limbo, and in the cantankerous company of Lije Evans (Richard Widmark) and his glamorous wife Rebecca (Lola Albright). There’s a stowaway (Jack Elam), a preacher who can’t afford the price of transportation, an illicit love affair between the vibrant and lusty Mercy (Sally Field) who “hankers after any three-legged boy” but makes eyes at married man Johnnie Mack (Michael Witney), and enough obstacles to keep less determined settlers from reaching their promised land.

Tadlock is the visionary, a politician suffering from an overblown estimation of his self-worth,  who “might have been President except for a woman,” ruthless, valuing only his own ideas. “Point the way,” he tells Summers, “don’t gall me with opinions.” For fear it might interfere with his role as commander, he hides his vulnerability. There’s a plaintive moment when he shares his vision of a city with Rebecca, on the one hand full of his own importance, on the other clearly needing the pat on the back. Later, an occasion of death sees him falling prostate with grief on a grave and on breaking his own laws demands to whipped. The over confident blustering individual is by the end almost suicidal. What is a leader if there is no one to lead?

Summers stoically accepts his infirmity, constantly dropping his head so his eyes are hidden from sight under his hat as if his ailment could be easily detected, mourning the loss of his Native American wife, and while full of Western lore as easily passing on gentle wisdom about love, and his “lucky necklace” to an unrequited lover, but still accused of unworldliness, “for a smart man you ain’t got a lick of sense.”  Evans bristles at any authority, believing independence means he goes his own way, especially if that permits the freedom to get drunk at a time of his choosing, and especially once he realizes such lack of inhibition riles the repressed Tadlock. But his fondness for alcohol triggers an incident that almost costs his son his life.

Celebrations he started catch the attention of the nearby Sioux and in the communal drunkenness a Native American child is accidentally killed. In the best scene in the film battle Sioux seeking justice and intent on attack are thwarted only by the “sacrifice” of the killer.

The picture is packed full of incident, many characters coming alive in a single shot or with one line of dialogue. A woman tramps on her husband’s foot to prevent him challenging Tadlock’s authority. A woman with a baby retorts that she is afraid when bolder settlers facing potential Native American attack assert the opposite. The bravest man in the camp, the first volunteer to be lowered down a canyon, dies when his rope snaps.  

There are any number of reversals. Buffalo, instead of being a danger and prone to stampede, create a dust cloud to hide behind. Rivers are crossed at sensible points, rapids avoided. An African-American whips a white man. A boy becomes a man through honor rather than violence. Stories, large and small, play out in a succinct script.  

Kirk Douglas (The Arrangement, 1969) is superb as a man whose iron core deserts him. Robert Mitchum (Secret Ceremony, 1968), in almost a supporting role, excellent in full awareness that the sight on which his reputation and job depend will vanish, brings a subtlety to his performance that would be recognized as ideal for Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Richard Widmark (The Bedford Incident, 1965), who is generally simmering, gets to mix in a bit of fun in with the simmering.

Lola Albright (A Cold Wind in August, 1961) swaps seductiveness for sense. In her debut Sally Field (Smokey and the Bandit, 1977), filled with zip and zest, sparkles as the lusty young woman and it’s astonishing to realize she would not make another movie for nearly a decade while another debutante Katherine Justice (Five Card Stud, 1968) finds her inner fire when it’s too late.  There’s supporting talent a plenty – Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), Stubby Kaye (Cat Ballou, 1965), Harry Carey Jr. (The Undefeated, 1969) and William Lundigan (The Underwater City, 1962) in only his second film of the decade.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen (The Rare Breed, 1966) captures the correct tone for the film, making up for the essential slow pace with brilliant use of widescreen, coaxing great performances from all concerned. Screenwriters Ben Maddow (The Chairman, 1969) and Mitch Lindemann (The Careless Years, 1957) compress Guthrie’s tome with considerable skill.  

Woefully underrated at the time and since, this deserves reassessment. This is a truer version of how the west was won. And I surely can’t be alone in demanding that McLaglen’s talent be more properly recognized.

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness (1969) **

One of the biggest-ever movie follies, an overblown vanity project with Fellini-esque overtones – written, directed, produced and starring British crooner Anthony Newley (Doctor Dolittle, 1967) – that turned into the first X-rated musical. Bob Fosse mined a similar, almost as seedy, sex-obsessed autobiographical vein in All That Jazz (1979) to critical acclaim whereas the Newley effort met with critical coruscation.

Although primary known as a Broadway star (Stop the World, I Want to Get Off), he had a small but reasonable movie portfolio, star of The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963) and male lead to Sandy Dennis in Sweet November (1968), so in a sense he was ready for the leap into movie stardom, though perhaps not in such grandiose fashion. Had the movie shown the slightest touch of irony, that might have been its saving grace, but the main theme is that women queue up to bed a star who is fed up with bedding women yet appears to revel in his own moral decadence.

The story is so slim it defies belief or arrogance. Hieronymous Merkin (Newley) is preparing to make a film about his own life though he feels he has been controlled from the outset, his child view is that of a marionette with someone else pulling the strings. Once Goodtime Eddie Filth (Milton Berle) sets him on a stage career beauties flock to his side. Although married to Polly Poontang (Joan Collins) he longs to be reunited with earlier lover Mercy Humpe (Connie Kreski). Basically, he keeps asking the universal question besetting all men – if I can have all the sex in the world, why am I not happy?

On the plus side it is certainly audacious, surreal, pretentious, unconventional and gives a good idea of what would happen if a director turned up on a beach in Malta with $1.25 million to spend on whoever happened to be available plus assorted nudes and rolled the camera to see what would happen and then argued with his crew or critics about what was taking place. One big minus is the songs. Newley was a talented lyricist (Goldfinger) and composer as well as performer. But the material here is poor and Newley, despite his Broadway experience, has no idea how to stage a musical.

Cameos abound. You can spot famed comedian George Jessel, singer Stubby Kaye, British entertainer Bruce Forsyth, Tom Stern (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968), and British character actors Patricia Hayes, Victor Spinetti and Judy Cornwell. You may be surprised to learn that the script written in tandem with Herman Raucher (Sweet November) was named Best British Original Screenplay by the Writers Guild of Great Britain.

Theoretically, this is now regarded as a cult classic but I’ve yet to come across a review that treats it as anything other than a self-indulgent curiosity rather than a must-see.

Studio Universal was so embarrassed by the final outcome that it released it in the U.S. under its Regional Film unit “which handles product Universal doesn’t care to go out under its own banner.” The picture was not quite the box office disaster many anticipated after poor runs in New York and Los Angeles. Helped along by a 10-page spread in Playboy it scored substantial business in cities as diverse as Detroit, Louisville and Minneapolis, though not enough, ultimately, to break even.

Given Newley did not make another picture for six years, you might have imagined Hieronymous Merkin spelled the death-knell for his career. But that was not so. After the film opened, he signed a $1 million four-year deal at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, was lining up a Broadway musical about Napoleon and Josephine with Barbra Streisand and was in talks to star in a movie adaptation of his hit musical The Roar of the Crowd.

Afraid you’ll have to dig around on Ebay to find this.

SOURCES: “Newley Making Vegas Bow Aug 7 at Caesar’s Palace,” Variety, June 11, 1969, p76; “Newley-Streisand for B’way Tuner on Nappy-Josie,” Variety, July 2, 1969, p1; “Merkin Dates Overcome Jinx,” Variety, July 9, 1969, p3; “Jack Haley Jr. Setup To Produce, Direct,” Variety, December 24, 1969, p6.

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