A review requested by Thomas Hartwell, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

It makes sense that the late 1960s would bear witness to some of the worst musicals in the history of the English-language cinema. The historical confluence was exactly right for it. On the one hand, you have a Hollywood studio system that had spent most of the '50s and all of the '60s drunk on massive epics and big-budget spectacles, and in the face of declining box-office receipts had generally countered with more mass and bigger budgets. On the other hand, you have a new generation of filmmakers anxious to try out a level of aesthetic realism previously unknown to American cinema, meaning that all the available talent was headed in exactly the opposite direction. So we have these heaving behemoths of mediocrity, made worse by how unapologetically grandiose and tacky they all were.

Even granting that it was inevitable for some year to be the worst in the history of the screen musical, you really have to give it to 1969 - there's no reason it had to be this bad. There's of course the Unholy Trinity of Paint Your Wagon, Hello, Dolly! and Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (the last of which had indeed quite a small budget, but is still so excruciatingly bad that I'm counting it), and while nobody would likely put Oh! What a Lovely War or the remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips at the same level of those, I think the most I'd care to muster up in their favor is a subdued "...well, it won't kill ya". So with that company to compete with, all that the film adaptation of Sweet Charity really had to do was to show up, and that would be enough to make it the year's best musical.

That's all that Sweet Charity had to do, and to an extent, that's all it does. The material (initially produced onstage in 1966) is strong, kind of. The songs, with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by the magnificent Dorothy Fields, are never worse than perfectly acceptable (and the only number I'd bump down to that level is the title song, a fairly disposable bit of mid-'60s romantic noodling), and I'd put at least three - "Big Spender", "If My Friends Could See Me Now", and "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" - against any other song written for Broadway in the whole decade. The original book, by Neil Simon, is in contrast never better than perfectly acceptable, though how much of that is sober-minded objectivity talking, and how much is my lifelong hate for Simon, I'd hesitate to guess.

Regardless, Simon's text, adapted into a screenplay without too much fussing around by Peter Stone, is a far cry on all levels from its source, Federico Fellini's gorgeous 1957 neorealist tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria. It lacks both the soulfulness and the gusto, blunting the suffering and thereby losing the transporting quality of the joy, and reduces everything to genial comedy with tossed-off stakes. Instead of Fellini's hooker with a heart of gold, played in one of the great screen performances by Giulietta Masina, Sweet Charity buffs the character down to being a mere taxi dancer, one Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine, in her screen incarnation). She's an indefatigable optimist, Charity is, patiently waiting out the long line of scumbags and creeps who come along to exploit her in this way or that, always holding out hope that true love and a better life is just around the corner. There's nothing per se "bad" about this, though it's awfully musty, and in no hurry to move along - the movie is no less than 152 minutes long.

What Sweet Charity has up its sleeve is director/choreographer Bob Fosse, making his first feature in a career that only ended up spanning five movies in 14 years (and the superlative TV special Liza with a Z). Generally speaking, it was all uphill from here, though Sweet Charity is far from the worst film debut ever made by a theater director. He had several years' worth of screen choreography under his belt by this point, stretching back to a terrific short number in the 1953 MGM musical Kiss Me Kate, and he'd self-evidently put a lot of thought into what he could do with camera position and post-production tricks to augment his characteristic treatment of the human body. The manifestation of that thought isn't always ideal: "If My Friends Could See Me Now" suffers from a horribly misjudged "run the film backward" gag, and "Sweet Charity" is bloated with pointless, dated slow-motion. But "Big Spender" is an all-timer, re-creating Fosse's stage choreography in a boldly unreal black void, using harshly acute camera angles and a couple of sudden zooms to exaggerate the sense of deadened complacency exuded by the worn-out taxi dancers (led by Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly) mechanically offering their pitch to customers. It is, sadly, all done by the 18-minute mark, which is early for such a long movie to peak, but them's the breaks. And there's plenty of great, inventive dance filmmaking to come, even if none of it is quite so inspired: the ballet "Rich Man's Frug", for all that it massacres the narrative momentum, is a fantastic and important document of Fosse's great satiric treatment of New York scenesters as empty vessels of robotic movement and group anonymity. The goofy cult parody "The Rhythm of Life" (sung by a cameoing Sammy Davis, Jr.) has some beautiful camera movements and creative positioning of the frame. "I'm a Brass Band" is stuck on a goofy concept, but the geometry of human movement (and the splendid final shot, stretching on forever) is excellent regardless. It would maybe be nice if "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" wasn't so obviously aware of "America" from West Side Story, but Fosse's spin on the rooftop dance motif finds its own level.

The point being, as a musical, Sweet Charity is pretty damn great. But there's a lot of movie to go around, and when the characters are talking and walking rather than singing and dancing, there's simply not a hell of a lot to it. Scenes go on with no particular urgency, and without much in the way of comic timing - MacLaine is perfectly capable of excelling in this kind of material, and in certain moments, she does (her giddy breakdown at City Hall near the end is unimpeachable), but Fosse has no obvious facility for pacing scenes, and moments which feel like they should kill merely trickle off aimlessly, such as the "fickle finger of fate" scene between MacLaine and Ricardo Montalban, or a stalled elevator sequence that pairs her with the wholly generic John McMartin. MacLaine does what she can to keep the movie skipping along, but it's never hard to shake the sense that she's miscast, particularly when she stiffly re-creates moves designed for Fosse's wife and muse Gwen Verdon (whose work as Charity can be scrounged up without too much effort online, and is thoroughly worth it). She's not even a bad dancer, just not one who intuitively gets what Fosse was looking for.

The film surrounding her is decent, though it doesn't look nearly as expensive as it was. The interiors are all overlit (it's one of Robert Surtees's weaker moments as cinematographer), leaving the Oscar-nominated sets and costumes looking frankly dinky, though the New York exteriors are generally outstanding, and speak to the filmmakers' affection for the city in all its warty glory. Anyway, the film's greatest sin isn't visual, but auditory: there is some real bad sound mixing on display, particularly in the tinny shift from overdubbed exterior dialogue to the first instance of singing in the opening number, "My Personal Property" (newly written for the movie, I believe). Not one single song is free of a clunky echo effect, though some are much more acutely damaged by it than others.

The result, all in all, is a film that gets by largely on the strength of a terrific list of songs given snazzy visual embodiment. As a character study or comedy,ย  Sweet Charity is frankly stiff and uncertain of itself. Fosse learned a lot, quickly - three years later, his second film, Cabaret, would improve on the best parts of Sweet Charity, while erasing everything it got wrong. And even here, "everything it got wrong" doesn't go too far - by all means, Sweet Charity is worth watching. It's simply not close to the slam-dunk masterpiece that the director's next two musical films would be. But just as a document of Fosse's 1966 choreography translated into cinema - hell, just as the carrying case for "Big Spender" and "Rich Man's Frug" - it's as close to essential as any late-'60s musical would ever have a prayer in hell of getting.