I once asked the film director, Oliver Stone, to name his favourite film. Mr Stone has a reputation for being something of a misogynist and probably needed no excuse to look down his nose and sneer at my “stupid question”, telling me in no uncertain terms that he had “hundreds” of favourite films. Well, so do I, but I can say with absolute certainty that Sweet Charity is, without exception, my favourite film of all.
In fact, I recently booked tickets to see a new production of the musical version that’s on at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1, starring Tamzin Outhwaite in the lead role. However, I don’t think anyone could ever match the exceptional performance of Shirley Maclaine as Charity Hope Valentine in the original film.
Sweet Charity is about so much more than the fabulous party dresses, memorable songs, outstanding dance routines and curiously captivating plot: In 1957, Federico Fellini directed a comedy drama, Nights of Cabiria, based on the amusing tales of an ‘Italian gamine’. Bob Fosse was so impressed by the film preview, that he stayed up for 48 hours, filling many ashtrays, to conceive and choreograph the Broadway show version of Sweet Charity. In 1967, Universal purchased the film rights to create Sweet Charity, ‘the musical adventures of a girl who wants to be loved’, directed by Fosse. The film’s a real weepy, especially if you’re the sentimental sort, so remember to keep a box of tissues handy…
Charity Hope Valentine, played by Maclaine, is a dance-hall hostess who longs to settle down with the man of her dreams. A tale of mankind’s lost innocence, the film’s essential beauty lies in Charity’s faith in her fellow human beings, in her unfailing trust and openness. Despite and because of her generous heart and enormous passion for life, she is a hapless victim of reality: the corrupt world we live in and the materialistic values of society.
Vulnerable to men who cheat and take advantage of her, the film charts the ups and downs of Charity’s relationships, including a hilariously anti-climactic fling with Vittorio Vitale - played by the divinely smooth Ricardo Montalban, and a wedding to the love of her life, insurance salesman, Oscar – played by John McMartin, which ends in tragedy. However, even when she’s at rock bottom and has nothing left to live for, having lost everything she holds dear to ‘the fickle finger of fate’, Charity never loses hope… which, to me, is key to appreciating the depth of this film and its tragi-comic portrayal of the human condition.
If you’re a lover of retro fashion, lavish interiors and late 1960s nostalgia, you’ll also appreciate this original souvenir programme from the 1969 film, Sweet Charity, that’s available at ShopCurious. It covers the film’s history and introduces each member of the cast, which also includes Sammy Davis Jr, famously starring as a psychedelic underground religious leader and the awesomely stylish dancers, Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly. There are photos from all the song performances including ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’, ‘The Rhythm of Life’, ‘I Love to Cry at Weddings’ and ‘Hey Big Spender’.
There’s also a section on the making of the film and the key people involved, including Fosse, the playwright Neil Simon and the composer, Cy Coleman. I particularly enjoyed learning about the set design and reading the piece on Edith Head, the Chief Costume Designer for Universal City Studios. Ricardo Montalban was apparently so impressed with the costumes that he purchased all his clothing from the film and is quoted as saying, “ The designs are very special and the tailoring is finer than any outfits I’ve ever worn.” Miss Head, who authored books on ‘dressing for success’, was also responsible for a new jewellery innovation in the form of diamante tattoos.
The Sweet Charity programme would make a wonderfully individual and unusual Christmas gift, or could form an incredible source of inspiration, if you’re involved with fashion trends or interiors. Of course, as it’s also highly collectable, a film buff might like to consider this niche publication as an investment. I suspect that a piece of cinematographic heritage as uniquely rare as this might even appeal to Mr Stone.
PS If you’re tempted to get this film on DVD, please beware, as the laserdisc version has an alternative, happier and less inspiring ending than the original video recording.