History, Legacy & Showmanship

Sweet Charity: The Roadshow Engagements

February 11, 2014 - 12:01 pm   |   By 

“The Musical with a Heart of Gold”

The Digital Bits is pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 45th anniversary of the release of Sweet Charity, starring Shirley MacLaine as Charity Hope Valentine and highlighted by numerous musical numbers, including “Rich Man’s Frug,” “The Rhythm of Life,” and “I’m a Brass Band.”

Though not yet released on Blu-ray Disc (Universal…what are you waiting for?), The Bits celebrates the musical’s 45th anniversary with a detailed listing of the film’s original, major-market roadshow engagements in the United States and Canada as well as an interview with a trio of roadshow history authorities.  [Read on here…]

Directed by Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All That Jazz) and based upon the 1966 stage musical of the same name and the 1957 Italian film Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria), Sweet Charity was among a number of big-budget, box-office disappointments released toward the tail end of the roadshow era that over time has found a following.  The reflective interview attempts to identify the film’s strengths and examines why the film was not a success on original release.

Sweet Charity Halfsheet

 

PART 1: THE ROADSHOW ENGAGEMENTS

Two months after sneak-preview screenings in Phoenix and Chicago, Sweet Charity had its world premiere in Boston on February 11, 1969 (several weeks ahead of opening in New York and Los Angeles).  Although the Boston engagement played the Saxon (and is identified as such in the engagements listing below), the premiere event was held simultaneously at the Saxon and Music Hall.

The roadshow engagements of Sweet Charity were big-city exclusives that preceded general-release exhibition.  Out of hundreds of films released domestically during 1969, Sweet Charity was among only seven given deluxe roadshow treatment.  Much like a stage show, they featured reserved seating, an advanced admission price, were shown an average of only ten times per week, and included an overture, intermission, entr’acte and exit music.  Many of the roadshow presentations of Sweet Charity were screened in a 70-millimeter (blow-up) print with six-track stereophonic sound and were promoted as “70mm/Panavision with Full Dimensional Sound.”  Souvenir program booklets were sold, as well.

What follows is a (work in progress) list of Sweet Charity‘s domestic theatrical “hard ticket” roadshow engagements, arranged chronologically by date of premiere.  The duration of the engagements has been included for some entries to illustrate how unsuccessful the film was compared to most 1960s era roadshow releases, especially in comparison to Funny Girl and The Sound of Music

Sweet Charity Houston TX roadshow tickets

  • 1969-02-11 … Boston, MA – Saxon [19 weeks]
  • 1969-02-27 … Miami (Miami Beach), FL – Colony [19 weeks]

 

  • 1969-03-19 … Philadelphia, PA – Stanley [16 weeks]
  • 1969-03-21 … Pittsburgh, PA – Nixon [13 weeks]
  • 1969-03-27 … Chicago, IL – Bismarck [13 weeks]
  • 1969-03-27 … Cincinnati, OH – Carousel [9 weeks]
  • 1969-03-27 … Columbus, OH – Cinestage [18 weeks]
  • 1969-03-27 … Detroit, MI – United Artists [14 weeks]
  • 1969-03-28 … Los Angeles, CA – Pantages [20 weeks]
  • 1969-03-28 … San Francisco, CA – St. Francis [9 weeks]

 

  • 1969-04-01 … Cleveland (South Euclid), OH – Fox Cedar-Center [15 weeks]
  • 1969-04-01 … Denver, CO – Centre [12 weeks]
  • 1969-04-01 … New York, NY – Rivoli [19 weeks]
  • 1969-04-01 … Providence, RI – Elmwood                       
  • 1969-04-03 … Toronto, ON – University [13 weeks]

 

  • 1969-05-15 … Charlotte, NC – Carolina [12 weeks]
  • 1969-05-15 … Dallas, TX – Inwood [11 weeks]
  • 1969-05-15 … Dayton (Trotwood), OH – Salem Mall
  • 1969-05-15 … Fort Worth, TX – Opera House
  • 1969-05-15 … Phoenix (Scottsdale), AZ – Kachina [15 weeks]
  • 1969-05-15 … San Diego, CA – Cinerama [13 weeks]
  • 1969-05-16 … Houston, TX – Alabama
  • 1969-05-16 … New Haven (Hamden), CT – Cinemart [15 weeks]
  • 1969-05-16 … Portland, OR – Fox [8 weeks]
  • 1969-05-22 … Buffalo (Amherst), NY – Plaza-North
  • 1969-05-22 … Des Moines, IA – Ingersoll [11 weeks]
  • 1969-05-22 … Hartford (West Hartford), CT – Elm [7 weeks]
  • 1969-05-22 … Honolulu, HI – Kuhio [11 weeks]
  • 1969-05-22 … Louisville, KY – Showcase 1
  • 1969-05-22 … Montreal, QC – Seville [10 weeks]
  • 1969-05-22 … Salt Lake City, UT – Villa [11 weeks]
  • 1969-05-22 … Springfield (West Springfield), MA – Palace [12 weeks]
  • 1969-05-22 … Toledo, OH – Showcase 1 [10 weeks]
  • 1969-05-23 … Atlanta, GA – Georgia Cinerama [8 weeks]
  • 1969-05-23 … San Antonio, TX – Broadway [5 weeks]
  • 1969-05-27 … Kansas City, MO – Capri [10 weeks]
  • 1969-05-28 … Atlantic City, NJ – Virginia
  • 1969-05-28 … Oklahoma City, OK – Quail 1
  • 1969-05-28 … Richmond, VA – Westhampton [8 weeks]
  • 1969-05-28 … St. Louis, MO – Ambassador [6 weeks]
  • 1969-05-28 … Syracuse (DeWitt), NY – Shoppingtown II [8 weeks]
  • 1969-05-29 … Jacksonville, FL – 5 Points [8 weeks]

 

  • 1969-06-05 … Indianapolis, IN – Georgetown
  • 1969-06-05 … Nashville, TN – Belle Meade
  • 1969-06-06 … Orlando, FL – Beacham [6 weeks]
  • 1969-06-10 … Sacramento, CA – Century 22 [6 weeks]
  • 1969-06-11 … Worcester, MA – Showcase 1 [4 weeks]
  • 1969-06-12 … Calgary, AB – Odeon [6 weeks]
  • 1969-06-12 … Davenport (Rock Island, IL), IA – Capri
  • 1969-06-12 … Fresno, CA – Country Squire [11 weeks]
  • 1969-06-12 … Las Vegas, NV – Cinerama [11 weeks]
  • 1969-06-12 … Vancouver, BC – Park [7 weeks]
  • 1969-06-12 … Wichita, KS – Sunset [7 weeks]
  • 1969-06-12 … Winnipeg, MB – Kings [7 weeks]
  • 1969-06-19 … Akron, OH – Fairlawn
  • 1969-06-19 … Harrisburg, PA – Eric
  • 1969-06-19 … New Orleans, LA – Saenger-Orleans [9 weeks]
  • 1969-06-20 … Albuquerque, NM – Sunshine [6 weeks]
  • 1969-06-25 … Albany, NY – Hellman [7 weeks]
  • 1969-06-25 … Birmingham, AL – Ritz
  • 1969-06-25 … Edmonton, AB – Avenue [6 weeks]
  • 1969-06-25 … Milwaukee, WI – Wisconsin 1 [5 weeks]
  • 1969-06-25 … Newark (Union), NJ – Union
  • 1969-06-25 … Omaha, NE – Indian Hills [7 weeks]
  • 1969-06-25 … Oyster Bay (Hicksville), NY – Twin South
  • 1969-06-25 … Washington, DC – Uptown [13 weeks]
  • 1969-06-25 … Youngstown, OH – Uptown [8 weeks]
  • 1969-06-26 … Baltimore, MD – New [5 weeks]
  • 1969-06-26 … Ottawa, ON – Nelson [5 weeks]
  • 1969-06-26 … Rochester, NY – Towne 1 [6 weeks]
  • 1969-06-26 … Virginia Beach (Norfolk), VA – Lee
  • 1969-06-27 … St. Petersburg, FL – Crossroads [7 weeks]

 

  • 1969-07-09 … Lawrence, MA – Showcase 1 [7 weeks]
  • 1969-07-09 … Seattle, WA – Paramount [6 weeks]
  • 1969-07-16 … El Paso, TX – Northgate [4 weeks]
  • 1969-07-16 … Minneapolis (St. Louis Park), MN – Cooper
  • 1969-07-18 … Hamilton, ON – Centre Twin West [7 weeks]

 

  • 1969-08-06 … San Jose, CA – Century 25 [11 weeks]
  • 1969-08-07 … Memphis, TN – Paramount [8 weeks]

 

  • 1969-11-12 … Reno, NV – Century 21 [2 weeks]

 

Sweet Charity screened at the Cannes Film Festival, out of competition, on May 8, 1969.  The first roadshow engagement held outside North America was in London (at the Odeon Leicester Square) and commenced February 25, 1969.  The first foreign-language roadshow engagement was in Mexico City (at the Cine Manacar) and commenced June 19, 1969.  The first of thousands of domestic general-release engagements were held during the summer of 1969.

 

Bob Fosse

 

PART 2: THE INTERVIEW

This segment of the article features an interview with Sheldon Hall, Kim Holston, and Matthew Kennedy.  The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” format.

Sheldon Hall is a senior lecturer in film studies at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, and is co-author (with Steve Neale) of Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History (Wayne State University Press, 2010), which includes coverage of several roadshow releases.  He also is the author of Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It The Making of the Epic Movie (Tomahawk Press, 2005) and co-editor (with John Belton and Steve Neale) of Widescreen Worldwide (Indiana University Press, 2010).  Sheldon participated in the recording of an audio commentary track for DVD and Blu-ray releases of Zulu and Once Upon a Time in the West

Kim Holston is a part-time librarian in the Multimedia Department of Chester County Library (Exton, PA) and is the author of Movie Roadshows: A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings, 1911-1973 (McFarland, 2013).  Kim lives in Wilmington, DE, with his wife Nancy and a menagerie of pets.  In addition to Movie Roadshows, he is the author of various film and performing arts books, including Richard Widmark: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1990), Starlet (McFarland, 1988), Susan Hayward:  Her Films and Life (McFarland, 2002), and (with Warren Hope) The Shakespeare Controversy (McFarland, 2nd ed., 2009).  He is presently at work with Tom Winchester on a follow-up to their 1997 book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Sequels, Series and Remakes.    

Matthew Kennedy is the author of Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2014).  He is a writer, film historian, and anthropologist living in San Francisco.  He has written several other books, including Marie Dressler: A Biography (McFarland, 1999, paperback 2006), Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), and Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes (University Press of Mississippi, 2007).  He is film and book critic for the respected Bright Lights Film Journal and currently teaches anthropology and film history at the City College of San Francisco and San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Sweet Charity Books

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Michael Coate (The Digital Bits):  Sheldon, what was the objective with your book, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History?

Sheldon Hall:  To construct a comprehensive history of the production, distribution and exhibition in the United States of large-scale, big-budget films of all kinds (including roadshows).  An ambitious goal, but for all the necessary compromises involved in cramming such a broad subject and long period (1890s to the 2000s) into a relatively short book, I think my co-author Steve Neale and I succeeded in our aims.  Of course, others are in a better position to judge objectively!

Coate:  Kim, what was the objective with your book, Movie Roadshows: A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings, 1911-1973?

Kim Holston:  I wanted to recapture an era of movie going when certain movies were given extra special attention and presented as an event akin to attending the ballet, opera or a concert.  As I did the research and discovered that reserved-seat roadshows can be traced back to the silent era – and not just for Birth of a Nation and Intolerance – I aimed to describe the unique and sometimes impromptu distribution and exhibition methods used.

Coate:  Matthew, what was the objective with your book, Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s?

Matthew Kennedy:  Roadshow! investigates film musicals after The Sound of Music that were for the most part critical and financial disappointments.  I wanted to better understand why this beloved genre moved to the fringes of popular culture by the early ‘70s when it had been so vibrant ten years earlier. 

Coate:  In any given year there were usually only a handful of films exhibited as a roadshow.  Was it the right choice for Sweet Charity to have been exhibited initially as a roadshow?

Hall:  This is one of several questions which ask me essentially to put myself in the position of the film’s distributors or producers, which – as a historian – is not something I can comfortably do.  I can’t speak for Universal’s decisions or try to second-guess its motivation in making them.  As it was a big-budget musical based on a stage original, roadshowing the film was consistent with what other studios were doing at the time with comparable properties, so there was a certain inevitability to the release strategy.  But I’m not qualified to say if it was the “right choice.”

Sweet Charity

Holston:  Yes.  Sweet Charity was a big movie with big musical numbers, including “I’m a Brass Band” filmed on the streets of New York City.  (The film managed to hit the right note between indoor and outdoor scenes.)  With their plethora of songs and production numbers that resulted in longer than ordinary running times, musicals were entirely appropriate for roadshow release.  I don’t know if it would have been a success as a non-roadshow with a wide general release before disappearing for who knew how long or ending up on a 9 p.m. TV… Night at the Movies.  We had no inkling that something called VHS was waiting in the wings.

Kennedy:  Probably not.  The roadshow format was over extended by the time Sweet Charity opened in early 1969. 

Coate:  Sweet Charity was released toward the very end of the roadshow era and was among several musicals that performed poorly.  In what way did Sweet Charity contribute to the demise of the roadshow?

Hall:  It was, as you say, one of a number of films in the late 1960s and early 1970s which demonstrated the hazards of trying to repeat a success (as a subject its potential appeal is scarcely comparable to that of The Sound of Music!).  It was far from being the biggest disaster of the era, however, so the impact of its failure was probably less than that of, say, Star! or Doctor Dolittle.

Holston: The year 1969 was not a good one for roadshow musicals.  Only Hello, Dolly! seems to have made a decent profit.  Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Paint Your Wagon underperformed.  Many people did see these films but their production costs were hard to recoup unless they were absolute smashes.

Kennedy:  The year 1968 saw Finian’s Rainbow, Funny Girl, Star!, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Oliver! as big splashy roadshows.  There were other non-musical roadshows at that time, too, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Lion in Winter.  It was just too much for the market to bear, and Charity’s appearance in early 1969 was a case of unfortunate timing.  It was one of several musicals of the era that performed badly at the box-office, ultimately dooming the roadshow.  

Coate:  In what way was it beneficial for a film to be exhibited as a roadshow?

Hall:  Roadshowing recreated something of the theatrical experience of a “legitimate” stage show, with a greater sense of occasion and formality than with a regular movie.  Commercially, a successful roadshow could earn far more money than a regular movie, but an unsuccessful one could lose more.

Holston:  The public had become used to this method of exhibition and hoped for an “event,” preferably a film that lived up to the pre-release hoopla.  It just might be that many patrons remembered how in 1965 The Sound of Music and Oliver! in 1968 exceeded expectations and wanted that to happen again.  I did. Some movies did not deserve to be roadshows.  A friend asked me what I thought was the worst roadshow.  My initial response was The Hallelujah Trail.  He agreed.  Filmmakers obviously had seen the profits of such roadshows as Around the World in 80 Days, South Pacific, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day and The Sound of Music and felt they could duplicate them and shoehorned some inappropriate stories into the limited-release format.

Kennedy:  Roadshow spelled prestige, increased marketing and publicity, and, so hoped the studios, increased public interest. Roadshow, by the way, refers to a type of movie distribution, exhibiting, and marketing that doesn’t exist anymore.  Expensive, highly anticipated films would open with reserve seats, high ticket prices, a souvenir programs, stereo sound, and wide screens.  Musical roadshow films usually came with an overture, intermission, and exit music.  Exclusive premieres would begin on a handful of screens in big cities, then fan out to wider markets later as “general releases.”  The attempt was to create a crackling excitement to new, big budget movies that approximated the excitement of live theater.  

Coate:  Would the roadshow exhibition concept work today?

Hall:  No, because audiences now expect instant access, to which the slow, staggered, exclusive release pattern is antithetical.  Studios also desire rapid release because of the threat of piracy.

Holston: I doubt it.  It is now possible to purchase tickets in advance for the initial showings of some films, but those tickets are not for specific seats and you don’t get deluxe programs and overtures and intermissions.  Ever since Billy Jack and Jaws, people are used to seeing a new film immediately somewhere in their vicinity.  Instant gratification.  Today no one’s going to drive into a city to see a movie that won’t come to the suburbs for months or a year — if it’s successful.  That’s what happened with the likes of West Side Story, Cleopatra and The Sound of Music.  Plus, there are hardly any huge art deco movie theaters left in inner cities.  As I researched my book I realized that roadshows and movie palaces existed symbiotically.  The roadshow depended on palatial theaters—and big premieres.  Not to mention concentration of people in cities.  Suburbs, cars, and mall theaters helped kill the “experience.”

Kennedy:  I don’t think so.  Roadshows played hard to get, beginning in big cities on single screens.  Today we know most all movie will be available in many forms via the home markets, TV, streaming, etc.  Roadshows were based on limited opportunity to see them before they disappeared into the vaults.  Opening a huge movie on a handful of screens and withholding it from a larger audience for weeks or months has become too risky.  When roadshows were not well received, word of mouth killed them.  Now with thousands of screens showing the same “blockbuster” in its opening weekend, audiences are lured in before negative word of mouth spreads.  Maybe that’s changing, too.  Nowadays audiences text and tweet “this movie sucks” far and wide before its first matinee is over. 

Coate:  Why do you think Sweet Charity performed poorly at the box-office?

Hall:  It’s always hard to say why something failed, but the fact that the story is a downer, emotionally speaking, and is not really suitable for children and family audiences must have been significant.  When I have shown the film to students, they tend to get bored in the second half, understandably: its momentum is not quite sustained and the “I’m a Brass Band” number makes the pace drag.  This reaction perhaps helps to explain the studio’s decision to re-edit the film to 132 minutes while it was in release and change the ending, though the cuts were so badly made (in the version I’ve seen) that they probably antagonized audiences further and increased negative word of mouth.

Sweet Charity Premiere Philly AdHolston:  (1) The somewhat gloomy ending:  Charity is dumped by the straight-laced Oscar who thought he would but couldn’t get over her “dancehall hostess” past.  (2) The uptight view of some older audience members.  When I saw it the first time there was a good bit of agitation when Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Big Daddy” and his acolytes sang “Rhythm of Life” in the parking garage.  The middle-aged women around me, who had come with their bags from shopping downtown, must have thought it sacrilegious.  (3) Conversely, for a film aiming to be, as the program said, “right now,” it hedged some of its bets, calling Charity a “dancehall hostess,” which was short for taxi dancer, short for prostitute.  (4) The move to the suburbs, the mall theaters, cars – people had entertainment closer to home.  Perhaps they were afraid to go back into cities that faced anti-war and civil rights protests.  (5) The youth culture that was more in tune with The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy RiderSweet Charity was caught between past and present.  (I find it interesting that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, also a 1969 release, had a downbeat ending.  The young women sitting near me gasped as Bond lost his love.  Did word of mouth about that also contribute to OHMSS not being as big a hit as projected?)

Kennedy:  There was the glut of roadshows problem. Also, the premise of a woman who has terrible judgment with men seems a bit off for 1969.  I find Shirley MacLaine’s girlish “you’re gonna love me” attempts to ingratiate unsuccessful. She and costar John McMartin have zero chemistry.  It’s a small, intimate story blown up to more than two and a half hours.  Other roadshows were also too big for the stories they told, including Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which came out later in 1969 after Sweet Charity.  

Coate:  In what way is Sweet Charity worthy of celebration on its 45th anniversary?

Hall:  It’s a good movie!

Holston: Bob Fosse, Shirley MacLaine, a representative roadshow, a record of a Broadway show.  Although The New York Times frowned on it, Sweet Charity received many excellent reviews upon release: Cosmo, London Times, Variety, UPI, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor.  Universal tried a makeover, promoting it as a harder-edged film.  That failed just as had Fox’s makeover of Julie Andrews’ Star! the year before, when they changed the title to Those Were the Happy Times for general release.  I do have the sense that Sweet Charity is more and more recognized as a quality musical.  Robert Elder’s 2013 book, The Best Film You’ve Never Seen, features director Bill Condon’s enthusiastic praise.

Kennedy:  Sweet Charity has many assets. There’s the interest of Bob Fosse’s directorial debut, and how he kept, abandoned, or modified certain choices in his future projects, Cabaret foremost.  “(Hey,) Big Spender” looks like an audition for Cabaret.  And there are some truly terrific production numbers.  “Rich Man’s Frug” is just plain fun, filled with ‘60s pizzazz and style.  Ditto “The Rhythm of Life.”  It’s also a pleasure to see Chita Rivera in a rare film appearance that shows off her great dancing. 

Coate:  How is Sweet Charity significant within the musical genre?

Hall:  The excellence of several of the production numbers is significant; so is the fact that it is adapted (via the stage show, of course) from a European art movie – Fellini’s Notti di Cabiria – rather than a more conventional source.  The film has also influenced a number of “homages,” such as in Bring It On, though ultimately that’s rather a minor achievement.

Holston: Bob Fosse’s first film directorial effort and his choreography.

Kennedy:  It is significant to Fosse’s career, in that it made Cabaret possible.  But it also had negative significance, its low box-office convincing Universal to get out of the musical business and sending roadshows into obsolescence.

Coate:  Can you recall your reaction to the first time you saw Sweet Charity?

Hall:  I first saw the film on BBC television in 1974, at the age of nine, and very much enjoyed it (which seems to contradict my earlier point about its unsuitability for children, but I doubt that I was a typical child!).  I saw it several more times on TV before experiencing it for the first time in ’scope and on the big(gish) screen, albeit in 16mm, on a university film course in 1984.  By that time I had come to love it for its dynamic energy, humor, pathos, the brilliance of the choreography, and the memorable songs.  I have since seen a clumsily abridged 70mm version but, oddly enough, never a 35mm print.

Holston:  It was in April 3, 1969, at the Stanley Theatre in Philadelphia.  My seat was N 3 Center in the Orchestra.  (I’ve kept all my ticket stubs.)  I was enthralled by the songs, the dancing, the humor, and the heartrending performance of Shirley MacLaine.  I didn’t have a girlfriend and would have taken the lovable Charity Hope Valentine in a heartbeat.  I saw it a half dozen times in theaters between 1969 and 1971.

Coate:  Bob Fosse choreographed and directed the stage production on which Sweet Charity was based.  Was he the right choice to direct the feature film version?

Hall:  Without wanting to second-guess the producers, I can’t think of anyone I would rather have directed it.  There is the sense of a debutante director trying to prove what he can do (stylistically, Fosse is arguably trying too hard – it is very post-New Wave), but that in itself gives the result a certain dynamism.

Holston: Yes.  Although… Stanley Donen might have done a good job.

Kennedy:  I guess so.  He brought so much show-business dazzle with him.  But Charity suffers from his liberal use of camera tricks – slow motion, reverse motion, shock cuts, zooms.  They work better in the production numbers than the dramatic scene.  But without him directing Sweet Charity on screen, he might not have been offered Cabaret

Coate:  Where does Sweet Charity rank among Bob Fosse’s body of work?

Hall: I prefer it to everything he directed except possibly (and only “possibly”) Cabaret

Holston:  It’s his biggest production and probably taught him things that would be employed in 1972’s Cabaret, which of course is considered nonpareil – and probably would have won the Best Picture Academy Award except for The Godfather being released that year.

Kennedy:  I’d put it way way below Cabaret, way below the non-musical Lenny, and slightly below All That Jazz

Coate:  Was Shirley MacLaine the right choice to play the film’s lead character, Charity Hope Valentine?

Hall:  Again, I can’t speak as a would-be producer, only as a historian and critic.  Her performance is good and very much in the mould of the MacLaine persona up to that time (the tragic tart-with-a-heart, if that’s not too glib or callous a description).  Although MacLaine was an accomplished dancer she was not quite the equal of Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly (I’m prepared to believe her stage predecessor Gwen Verdon was better in that respect), but she gets away with it.

Holston:  Yes.  Her gamin-like look and personality had made her an appealing star.  She was enthusiastic about making it. She could sing and dance well enough.  Gwen Verdon originated the role on the stage and is a Broadway legend but was not exactly a household name.  Like so many popular film stars, the camera loved MacLaine.

Kennedy:  I’m not a fan of her performance here.  I wonder if a younger actress with musical chops, maybe Liza Minnelli or Michelle Lee or Goldie Hawn or Lesley Ann Warren, might have given Charity the quality of lovable pathos she needed. 

Coate:  Where does Sweet Charity rank among Shirley MacLaine’s body of work?

Hall:  I’d place it pretty high, along with Some Came Running and The Apartment.  Those are her three defining performances, I think.

Holston:  It was the apotheosis of her lovable tarts in Some Came Running and Irma La Douce.  Some thought MacLaine would receive a Best Actress Academy Award nomination, and she deserved it.  Her Charity is funny and when she needs to be, pathetic.  Variety was correct to say it was MacLaine’s most versatile outing.  The financial failure of the film apparently prevented a nomination.

Kennedy:  MacLaine played romantic losers brilliantly in Some Came Running, The Apartment, The Children’s Hour, and Irma La Douce, among others.  But her methods wore thin by Sweet Charity.  All that gaiety, energy, and blind optimism looks so phony. Charity, I must admit, is one of my least favorite MacLaine performances. 

Coate: Most roadshow films premiered in New York, Los Angeles or London.  Why did Sweet Charity premiere in Boston?

Hall:  I can’t say for sure, but Boston was a major roadshow market and often one of the first cities to play roadshow films.

Holston: The exhibitor and multi-theater owner, Ben Sack, who’d made Boston a roadshow hub.

Kennedy:  Not sure. 

Coate:  Two endings were shot… why?  And were both endings shown during the original release?

Hall:  Nerves, I’d guess.  It was an expensive movie with an unhappy ending (in its original version), so the studio probably wanted protection.  As I understand it, the “happy” ending was used after the initial engagements had proved less successful than hoped.

Holston:  I saw it as soon as it came out.  It had the ending in which a distraught Charity is heartened by the flower children in Central Park and walks off to face the world anew.  The alternate ending in which Oscar decides to return is on the DVD and apparently on the LaserDisc.

Kennedy:  The alternative happy ending was shot but not used in theatrical release. 

Coate:  If and when Sweet Charity gets released on Blu-ray, which ending should be included?

Hall:  Both endings should be included, preferably “branched.” 

Holston:  “And she lived hopefully ever after.”

Kennedy:  I’d like to see a version as close to the original roadshow as possible.  The alternate ending could be included as an extra, as it is in the 2003 DVD release.

Coate:  Was it the right choice to shoot Sweet Charity in 35mm (and then optically enlarge to 70mm for some presentations) instead of shooting in a large format (Todd-AO, Super Panavision, etc.) as were several other popular roadshow musicals of that era?

Hall:   As before, I can’t say whether or not it was the “right” decision, but it was the one that most studios were making by 1968.  I’m not sure that all the film’s stylistic effects could have been achieved with 65mm photography, or that they needed it, so I doubt that the film suffered unduly.

Holston:  I guess I’d have gone with Todd-AO, but I didn’t notice any downside to what I saw during its Philadelphia run.  The newspaper indicated it was in Technicolor, 70mm, Panavision, Full Dimensional Sound.

Kennedy:  The 35mm with a 70mm option was done with other musicals of the era, including Finian’s Rainbow.  It saved money, but resulted in a slightly less crisp image.  I find 70mm projection a rare and wonderful treat, so bring it on!

Coate:  What is the legacy of Sweet Charity?

Hall:  I have no idea, except perhaps that the “Rich Man’s Frug” sequence provides a point of reference for contemporary pop culture: see the Bring It On reference above, plus, I think, Glee.

Holston:  A window into 1969’s culture, the next to last (Fiddler on the Roof) truly good roadshow musical, a star in Shirley MacLaine’s filmography.

Kennedy:  I don’t hear a lot of clamor for the film, though it has passionate fans.  The stage version is revived more often, giving musical comedy actresses a meaty showcase.  Sweet Charity deserves to be remembered for classic numbers by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields done with great zest by Fosse “Hey Big Spender,” “Rich Man’s Frug,” “If They Could See Me Now,” “There’s Got to Be Something Better Than This,” “The Rhythm of Life,” and “I’m a Brass Band.” 

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Sweet Charity

 

SOURCES/REFERENCES

The information contained in this article was referenced from regional newspaper promotion, the website In70mm.com, and various issues of Boxoffice and Variety.

 

SPECIAL THANKS

Jerry Alexander, Al Alvarez, Jim Barg, Sheldon Hall, Kim Holston, Matthew Kennedy, Bill Kretzel, Mark Lensenmayer, Jim Perry, Vince Young, and all of the librarians who helped with the research for this project.

 

IMAGES

Sweet Charity © 1968 Universal Pictures.

- Michael Coate

 

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