Sweet Charity (1969)

Dir. Bob Fosse. Starring Shirley MacLaine, John McMartin, Chita Rivera

Usually it is a death sentence for a movie if its best scenes don’t really include its major character or have anything to do with its plot. Sweet Charity doesn’t deserve the chair, though; if it were a person it would have been released already for time served. Its two best scenes barely involve Charity Hope Valentine (MacLaine), do virtually nothing to further the plot, and in a movie of two and a half hours those qualities would typically make them easy cuts. But you couldn’t cut “Rich Man’s Frug” or “Rhythm of Life” out of this movie any more than you could cut off your own arms. They are lightning. They rank among the best American scenes of the 1960s, kaleidoscopic and groovy and weird and above all absolutely hypnotic. What is remarkable is that they live in a movie that otherwise cannot maintain any real interest, and which from time to time is just badly done. Who let Bob Fosse use those stills, or flit between black-and-white and color? Why did them let him cast Shirley MacLaine in a role that requires more than slackjawed grinning? Can we talk about why a musical with a total of two good songs even deserves to be made into a major motion picture? And how is it possible that interminable elevator entrapments and Ricardo Montalban cameos sit side by side with scenes that made my eyes pop out of my head?

Fosse is one of those rare directors who is at his best with crowded shots, teeming with the life of individuals in every part of the frame. In “Big Spender,” the best-remembered song of Sweet Charity, he lets us see ten dancers in the background with the cigarette-laden hand of a potential customer in the foreground. (It’s also a preview of the Kit Kat Girls in Cabaret, down to the grotesque, almost corpselike appearance of the women.) Sometimes he has his actors pop up like gophers in a game of Whack-a-Mole, as Ben Vereen does in “Rich Man’s Frug” to hilarious effect (OOOOH! SAY YEAH!); sometimes they move towards the camera, as when the zombie hippies proclaim to Daddy, “Go, go, go!” Later two will pass in front of the camera and in front of the action to fall on each other, creating a little arch for Charity and Oscar (McMartin) to crawl to Daddy through while the camera pans further back. “Rich Man’s Frug” stretches its little amoeba of dancers in ‘The Heavyweight,’ only to compress it and ultimately scatter it in ‘The Big Finish.’ Wonderfully edited—in “Rhythm of Life” in particular, cuts align perfectly with downbeats and pounds on a bass drum—and costumed to excess, these are glorious numbers.

“Rich Man’s Frug” is more reliant on Suzanne Charny than any of the other dancers, and it does well to put its faith in her. Alone among her women comrades, who wear the shimmering lovechilds of party streamers and pickelhaubes on their heads, Charny has an impossibly long ponytail which follows the commands of her core. (Completion of this number has to be worth at least fifty good crunches.) Her hands move smoothly, hidden inside gloves, occasionally wriggling or pointing just slightly. Her importance decreases through each of the three sections of the frug. In “The Aloof,” she is at the center of it all, always center stage, flanked by gentlemen bobbing their heads and skating across the floor, holding their cigars out in front of them like fop pharaohs; in “The Heavyweight,” she shares the limelight with other performers, although it is she who delivers the knockout punch, such as it is; in “The Big Finish,” she is one among many flailing bodies, and Vereen’s role as vocal soloist is probably more important than Charny’s role as dance soloist. It’s not a perfect number, for some of Fosse’s worst instincts come through in “The Big Finish,” as when the entire dance devolves into a multicolored little rave that flashes more than sears. All in all, though, it’s the sole light of the film’s first half.

As a scene for dancing, “Rhythm of Life” pales in comparison to “Rich Man’s Frug,” or even to Shirley MacLaine numbers like “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “I’m a Brass Band.” As a scene for making me want to go out and join a cult yesterday, though, this is the world champion. (They started out as a performance group in San Francisco, Oscar tells Charity, and now they’re a religion.) “Big Daddy” (Sammy Davis, Jr., in a cameo that he may have literally been born to perform) wears an eye painted on his left hand and carries a tambourine. His evangel is simple: “The Rhythm of Life is a powerful beat/Puts a tingle in your finger and a tingle in your feet.” His commandments, although multiple and expounded upon in detail after the number, abideth thus: fly to Daddy, swim to Daddy, and crawl to Daddy. But the greatest of these is “crawl to Daddy.” Where “Rich Man’s Frug” is built upon technically marvelous dancing choreographed by Fosse, the dancing in “Rhythm of Life” keeps the training wheels on and is easy enough for you to try out at home. Davis doesn’t have Charny’s limber movements, but he has the crooning voice and the packed-in disciples to make up for it. Scatting and whoaing and crooning, the chorus fills in the rapid, catchy lyrics and the rest of the frame. In one moving shot, no fewer than seventeen bodies sprawl over a car while just as many snap and wheel around it. Davis, Jr. emerges from underneath the car, and the camera pans up to six shaking men singing about pipers, muscatel, and the cats go-go-going. In another shot, he emerges from behind a woman’s hair (or man’s, it’s the same year as Woodstock), tosses it from the middle part, and walks through with a smile on his face that says, “I am cool enough for this to work, and you know it.” By the time we get to the final chorus, with a huge congregation split into separate pieces, dancing pertly and singing their descants, it’s almost overwhelming. I could watch this scene every day for the rest of my life. Ten years later, in All That Jazz, Fosse outdid himself for sheer ridiculous charm, but it certainly took the full decade to achieve a number that could outshine “Rhythm of Life.”

The rest of the movie is anticlimax, building up to those two dance sequences and then falling away again. I didn’t think it was possible for Ricardo Montalban to be dull and ordinary, but as the actor Vittorio, stricken with ennui and a beautiful home, he has nothing to do besides seem imposing across from MacLaine’s googly eyes. McMartin is not unsympathetic as the repressed Oscar, and even looks the part of a timid actuary who loves a bank teller hopelessly but cannot stomach a taxi dancer. (He does have the single best line of the movie. While stuck in an elevator with the claustrophobic Oscar, Charity asks him questions to calm him down. “Where do you live?” she asks. “In this elevator!” he yells.) In the end, the movie relies on MacLaine as much anyone, and it’s not a performance that carries much weight or much joy. The excitement that Charity seems to always have comes off as insincere, empty, and limp, as if someone is posing a Raggedy Ann doll. When bad things happen to Charity, which is most of the time, she grins and bears it to a fault. When the real tragedy strikes—Oscar leaves her at the courthouse in an ending which is just terrifically forced—Charity is mopey for a little while until she learns to smile again and take on the troubles of life. Whoop-de-doo. Bring back Sammy Davis, Jr.

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