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This charming tough-love romance is yet more evidence why the early 1970s is considered one of the most creative times in Hollywood. Basically a story about a link-up between a sailor and a pool hall tramp, Cinderella Liberty overcomes traditional problems with such material. The "R" rating for once allows such characters to talk as they might, although our nice-guy hero has a thing against profanity. Darryl Ponicsan's story acknowledges the desperation of sailors to find female companionship, especially when on 'Cinderella Liberty,' a shore pass that expires at midnight. Also breaking with Hollywood tradition, the film allows Marsha Mason's hooker to be credibly profane and self destructive, and yet still be worthy of our concern. The movie has its share of emotional compromises but by the last act we're only hoping that things turn out well for our deserving main characters.
It's difficult to argue with perfect casting; James Caan and Marsha Mason have terrific chemistry. John Baggs and Maggie Paul's romance must endure an uphill struggle, as neither the Navy nor common sense holds out much hope for their future together. Maggie and her son Doug would simply be homeless if it were not for her skill at separating sailors from their money. John Baggs beats her at her own tricks in a pool game, winning her favors. A more sentimental film would let Baggs prove his nobility by declining to collect on his bet but Cinderella Liberty wisely acknowledges that sex is the easy part. When it's over, Baggs realizes that he wants a different kind of relationship. Maggie has plenty of reasons to be suspicious yet Baggs repeatedly proves to be both sincere and honest. John finds a way into Doug's good graces, despite meeting the boy over a hostile switchblade.
Cinderella Liberty looks at Baggs and Maggie's entire social situation. Without official records John Baggs Jr. is in a bureaucratic limbo. He has no choice but to stand endless watches as a shore patrolman (with the talkative, amusing Bruno Kirby) and do without pay for weeks. The Navy finally makes an effort to find the missing papers because an irate officer (Dabney Coleman) wants to get Baggs on a ship and out of port, away from ideas of getting married.
Things are even worse for Maggie. A social worker yanks Maggie's welfare and food stamps, claiming that Baggs is 'assuming the role of provider.' After Baggs tells her the full story the social worker reverses her position and tries to help, but the damage has already been done. Even under normal conditions Maggie has difficulty finding ways to feel good about herself. She can't take having her hopes raised, only to see them dashed yet one more time.
A sidebar plot deals with Baggs' growing disillusion with the Navy. He runs into Lynn Forshay (Eli Wallach), a career sailor drummed out for mistreating an important man's son. Forshay has taken a job as a strip club tout and would do anything to get back with the fleet. The conclusion ties up this part of the story rather neatly, while leaving us unsure whether Baggs will be able to keep his newly formed family intact.
Star James Caan was fresh from his celebrated role in The Godfather. Mark Rydell had to make a fuss to get Fox to accept young Marsha Mason as Maggie. It's probable that her debut feature Blume in Love hadn't even opened when she got this part. Ms. Mason is just sensational, projecting the bravado of a proud woman near the edge of collapse. Mason starts with a difficult acting feat, acting the good sport while losing a humiliating bet. How many actresses could portray losing such a bet, and laugh it off this good-naturedly? Ms. Mason is vivacious, genuinely funny and surely the most arresting star discovery of the year. Instead of using acting tricks to reveal Maggie's vulnerable side, Mason simply has the woman endure her problems until she can't take any more. Then she falls apart, all at once. Caan's Baggs can't pick up the pieces every time.
Several heart-wrenching events in the last act turn the light romance into a straight drama. It's still more hopeful than the same year's The Last Detail, a less forgiving story of the underside of Navy life. Cinderella Liberty allows us to leave feeling good about its characters, even though their future is uncertain.
The production has a realistic feel for the life of sailors. The U.S. Navy refused to cooperate with the producers because a major plot point depicts desertion of duty without consequences. To stand in for an American craft, Fox rented a small ship from the Canadian Navy. The rest of the show seems 100% authentic.
Fox's Cinema Classics Collection of Cinderella Liberty comes in a sparkling enhanced transfer that optimizes cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond's edgy camerawork. The disc is a substantial improvement over the original theatrical release prints, which were grainy and green. Pan-scanned 16mm TV prints looked like bad color Xeroxes. Visually, the film now seems alive again. Some dialogue is difficult to make out so closed captions are recommended to hear every line clearly. An alternate audio channel offers an isolated music and sound effects track, the better to appreciate the fine work of composer John Williams.
Director-producer Rydell offers an enthusiastic commentary; he has every right to be proud of his picture. A character listed as "Gutteral Mischief" is played by an actor credited as Marty Augustine. As that's Rydell's character name in the Robert Altman movie The Long Goodbye, we can be forgiven for assuming that it's really Rydell in a cameo. Fox's Cinema Classics Collection keep case slides into a card sleeve printed with identical information, making its function unclear.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cinderella Liberty rates:
From "B", 3.30.07:
The most interesting thing about Cinderella Liberty, of course, is that it's the first example of a filmmaker seriously emulating the style of Robert Altman. I've always wondered -- did Rydell decide to act in The Long Goodbye because he was curious about the director's modus operandi? (Rydell had last acted in the early '60s.) Liberty is quite unlike Rydell's previous films stylistically, and the presence of Zsigmond, Leon Ericksen and the bluesy, diffused score by Williams (who had scored Rydell's two previous films in a very different mode) suggests that the director had learned a lot from Altman. Best, Always. -- B.