Sweet Charity, copyrighted 1968 but released in 1969, was one of the big expensive musicals of that era that ended up killing the genre as audiences had seemingly lost interest in them. Based on a stage musical which was based on the Fellini movie Nights of Cabiria, Shirley MacLaine plays the title character Charity Hope Valentine- a somewhat ditzy and na´ve woman who just wants to be loved but is more often taken advantage of. She works in New York as a "dance hall hostess," basically a euphemism for prostitute although since this movie is rated G dancing is all we see her do. The only explanation she gives for being in this position is "the fickle finger of fate" and is sure that she'll move on to something better any day now while her co-workers Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly) seem to laugh at that. Charity's other big hope is finding a perfect man who will sweep her off her feet but hasn't had much success there either- as the movie begins we see her in the park with current flame Charlie (Dante D'Paulo) who pushes her off a bridge and runs off with her purse, never to be seen again.
The main episodes in the movie consist of a chance encounter with a famous movie star (Ricardo Montalban) who invites her to join him at a swanky club and then come home with him- although she spends most of the night in the closet while he makes up with the girlfriend he'd fought with earlier. Later after a futile visit to a staffing agency where she tries to find a better job but simply doesn't have any of the skills they're looking for, she gets stuck in an elevator with Oscar (John McMartin) who has quite a few quirks of his own, claustrophobia being one of them. After finally getting out, he gets up the nerve to ask her out and it seems things might finally start going right for Charity.
The story is rather sad, or a bit funny if you're a masochist, but the musical numbers are the real highlight of Sweet Charity and the movie would be much shorter without them. Most songs from the stage play remain but a few were dropped and replaced with ones written just for the movie, including the opening "My Personal Property" where Charity sings about how she loves the city. "Hey Big Spender" is a signature song performed by the entire group of "dance hall" girls. Another trademark song is "If My Friends Could See Me Now" but I found its execution here rather low-key. My favorite number here is one that could have been completely cut from the movie with no effect on the storyline- "Rhythm of Life" performed by Sammy Davis Jr. as "Big Daddy," a sort of hippie preacher with his congregation of followers who convene in a garage at night. Oscar takes Charity here on a date, saying that he's been trying out a few different religions through the "Church of the Month Club." It's completely wacked-out but the segment I've replayed most often. The first instance I saw of this movie was a clip from an early demonstration laserdisc from DiscoVision, which included part of "The Rich Man's Frug," an impromptu dance sequence at the club Charity goes to with Montalban early on. It's a truly bizarre moment with the city's "elite" parading across the stage and also could have been left out completely if running time were an issue, but when I first saw that I had to find out what movie it was from and see the entire thing.
Of course this is yet another movie that might be better looked at decades later than when it was first released. Although it wasn't well-received initially, it's a great time capsule now with the exaggerated styles and culture of the late 1960s. It's not quite on the level of Valley of the Dolls, but is still a movie that has to be seen to be believed- but one can also imagine the large amounts of money spent making it only to play to un-filled theaters, prompting the industry to turn its back on the genre and only occasionally re-visit it since. Director Bob Fosse had shot two different endings- one following the play and another that ends a bit happier, thinking that the studio might prefer that one. The original ending is the one that was most widely seen, but Kino includes both versions on this two-disc release. Aside from the endings both versions appear identical, but only the original "Roadshow" edition includes the overture and intermission break. Although Universal's previous DVD included entr'acte music before the movie's second part, this Blu-Ray only has a few seconds of silence in between while the "Alternate Version" has no break in between at all.
Universal's 2003 DVD was adequate for that format, but it was still screaming out for the Blu-Ray treatment and finally gets it here. The transfer is very clean, with no hints at all of dirt of scratches. The picture is more detailed than the DVD but still not incredibly sharp, it seems to have had the focus pulled back intentionally just a smidge and the color palate is also a bit limited consisting mostly of reds. I didn't notice any compression artifacts or banding; this is likely the best Sweet Charity will ever look.
The magnetic audio track is encoded in 5.1 DTS Master Audio; the DVD was in 4-channel Dolby Digital with a single surround channel. In both instances the surrounds have been used quite sparingly and you'll likely forget they're even there. They were definitely active when I closely examined them during the musical numbers, but weren't really noticeable in my normal viewing position. The fidelity seemed improved from the DVD, with much of the music sounding a bit closer to the master recording than from a film soundtrack which may or may not be a good thing. Both versions also include an alternate 2-channel track but this is in mono on the roadshow version- this may have been intentional to recreate the mono tracks on the 35mm general release prints, but the 2-channel track on the alternate version is a proper stereo mixdown. Both versions also include hearing-impaired subtitles.
Carried over from the DVD are two vintage featurettes, appearing to be old film transfers on analog video with noticeable dot crawl. The first is "The Art of Exaggeration: Designs for Sweet Charity by Edith Head" which confirms that much of the ridiculousness we've just seen was intentional even back when it was made. A few pre-production costume tests are shown here. The second is "From Stage to Screen- A Director's Dilemma" which talks a bit about the show's background and shows how Bob Fosse handled his first directing work. The same 4x3 transfer of the movie's theatrical trailer is also included, along with 16x9 standard-def trailers for Irma La Douce and What a Way to Go (both starring MacLaine), Clambake and Daddy Long Legs. The Alternate Version includes a commentary track with Kat Ellinger, who tends to go a bit off-topic but is an interesting listen if you stick with it. A printed insert with notes from Julie Kirgo rounds out the package. I should note that both versions of the movie have been given Kino's usual 8 chapters which aren't nearly enough; Universal's DVD had far more with every song chaptered.
It seems like Sweet Charity is one of those movies that just can't quite be done right on home video, as the DVD accidentally had a few lines of dialogue omitted which are reinstated here but now the intermission music is gone. This is still a large enough improvement in quality from the DVD to warrant upgrading, and this movie should be in your collection in one form or another if you're a fan of overblown musicals or the late 1960s.