IN NEW YORK there are whore houses and there are dance halls. You have to look a little for the former, but the latter are right out in the open, in the seedy west forties near Seventh Avenue.
While the dance hall is a rapidly vanishing institution for the rental of female flesh, some examples of this type of establishment still can be found in the third stories of schlock discount stores and greasy two-bit eating joints. These are places where much-used women dance with strange men for upwards of six dollars an hour. They are not very cheery places, but they nonetheless form the setting for the new musical film Sweet Charity.
So what is a conventional musical comedy doing in a place like the Fan-Dango Dance Hall? Even Charity's own creators cannot come to grips with this question, and the result is a rather schizophrenic entertainment--one with a heart torn between the land of sleazy booze and the safer confines of Shubert Alley.
Charity Hope Valentine is a dance-hall hostess who just wants to be loved and Sweet Charity is the story of several of her unsuccessful attempts to fulfill this ambition. The adventures of the title character contain the sees of the piece's disparity of mood and locale.
Charity lives in two worlds, that of her profession and that of the men she loves. As long as she is in the first Charity has a gutsy sense of realism equal to that of West Side Story or Cabaret. A number early in the picture shows the dance-hall ladies, drenched in make-up and neon light, as they coldly ask each "big spender" to come on to the dance floor for "fun, laughs, and a good time." The song, full of cynical Dorothy Fields lyric, brings home in nightmarish tones that world where money turns sex into the sweaty throbbing of the mindless body.
The desperation of "Big Spender" never disappears from Charity entirely, and that is all in its favor. (Some time later, when Charity and her two cohorts sing a fiery plea for a better life on the Fan-Dango rooftop, director-choreographer Bob Fosse frames it with the "Spender" chorus line, for chilling results.) Yet some of the time--too much of the time--Charity seems hopelessly stuck in the mire of the heroine's never-never land.
Charity has two major loves during the course of the film, a super-sophisticated Italian movie star and a super-straight insurance man. As soon as she enters these men's lives, Charity becomes engulfed in romantic cliché and extraneous musical numbers. Romantic ballads (some not originally in the stage version), a marching ode to love, and production numbers concerned with psychedelic religions and swank night clubs simply do not mesh with the picture's original motif. Luckily, most of these songs are splendid in themselves--but the ultimate effect is one of uneasiness.
MOST OF THE responsibility for this unhappy flaw must lie with screenwriter Peter Stone. While the problem existed just as clearly in Neil Simon's Broadway script, Stone evidently had little desire to correct it. Bold action does not seem to be Stone's forté anyway, since most of the picture's jokes are holdovers from the Simon version and most of its charms traces back to Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (Sweet Charity's original source).
But Stone aside, there is more talent in Sweet Charity than any other musical film around. Most astounding, perhaps, is Fosse, who makes his directorial debut with this film. As a Broadway choreographer, Fosse has been one of the outstanding conceptualists, blending his distinctive angular vision of the human form with the demands of a specific show. (His peak probably was How to Succeed, in which he transformed his chorus line into a human typewriter.) In Charity, Fosse manages to capture his dancers' frenetic contortions while never allowing the big numbers to crowd the actors off the screen. He also is fortunate to have a cast that deserves his loving care.
Shirley MacLaine, alternately smiling and crying as her hopes build and collapse, gives her Charity a pathetic luminescence that perhaps no other singer-dancer-come-dienne could provide. In contrast, Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly offer thoughtful portrayals of Charity's realistic and beaten-down fellow workers.
The rest of the cast, which includes John McMartin as Charity's shy suitor and Sammy Davis as a hippie cult leader, leaves nothing to be desired, either. Nor are any of the production details less than perfect. Ralph Burns' orchestrations, for example, are the first in a long time to preserve the integrity of the Broadway originals without once stooping to the Muzak-styled banality that frequently dogs film musical soundtracks.
Still, for all its excellencies, Sweet Charity never solves the problem of trying to reconcile its subject matter with Broadway romanticism. According to the New York Times, hookers are now being forced to clear out of Times Square. Someone should have forced Charity to do the same.