Sweet Charity (1969)

Sweet Charity (1969)

“Without love, life has no purpose.”

When a dance hall hostess (Shirley MacLaine) meets and falls in love with a nervous man (John McMartin) stuck in an elevator, it seems she may finally have a chance at romantic happiness — but will McMartin be able to overlook MacLaine’s colorful work history?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Morality Police
  • Musicals
  • Prostitutes and Gigolos
  • Ricardo Montalban Films
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Shirley MacLaine Films

Bob Fosse’s cinematic directorial debut was this adaptation of the Broadway play he’d also directed, itself directly inspired by Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). While it didn’t do well at the box office (audiences were beginning to lose interest in such big-budget musicals), it remains a colorful, vibrantly filmed outing that does Fellini’s work justice. MacLaine is perfectly cast in the title role — originally played by Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon on Broadway — as a “dance hall girl” who’s first seen (as was Giuletta Masina’s Cabiria) being grotesquely shoved into the water by her brute of a “boyfriend”.

Also as in Nights of Cabiria, Charity heads out and then home with a famous movie star (Ricardo Montalban) who’s just had a fight with his glamorous girlfriend (Barbara Bouchet). She ends up having the night of her life with him:

… before falling asleep in his closet and sneaking out the next morning. When she accidentally cute-meets a claustrophobic man (McMartin) on her way out of a disastrous meeting with a job recruiter, we can understand her hesitation at letting him pursue her:

… but are also totally rooting for the couple. Meanwhile, the entire storyline is filled from beginning to end with colorful musical numbers — including top hits “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” — creatively staged by Fosse:

… who also has fun with freeze frames and other cinematic trickery. Even when the songs don’t directly move the storyline forward, they’re engaging to watch — as with the somewhat random inclusion of Sammy Davis, Jr. and troupe performing “The Rhythm of Life” simply because McMartin decides to take MacLaine to his “church of the month”.

While this film has more than enough heartache to go around:

…. it’s leavened by color, pathos, and humor, and remains worthy viewing. Watch for Bud Cort in a tiny role near the end as a “flower power” hippie who approaches Charity in a park.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Shirley MacLaine as Charity
  • Several rousing musical numbers with fine choreography

Must See?
Yes, for MacLaine’s performance, Fosse’s directing, and several enjoyable musical numbers. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Important Director
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)


One thought on “Sweet Charity (1969)

  1. (Rewatch 10/27/21). A once-must. Though it has its problems as a musical adaptation, the plus factors far outweigh the minus ones. FFs are encouraged to view Fosse’s mainly successful first-time-out as director. As posted in ‘Film Junkie’ (fb):

    “‘Out’ – what a nice word.”

    ‘Sweet Charity’ (1969): ‘SC’ was a box office flop but – because it’s basically so, well, sweet – the actual reasons for the failure are harder to pinpoint than in the cases of some other (sometimes lumbering) musicals of the period.

    Mainly the material seems more suited to the stage (which it came from). Certain dialogue sequences go on a little too long. While half of the songs are terrific, the other half are less engaging. A good part of the film seems to labor under the ’60s-ness tone that now hampers quite a few films of that decade.

    Having recently rewatched the source material (Fellini’s ‘Nights of Cabiria’), it seems commendable that the musical follows the original rather closely. Still, the film can also feel like a slave to Fellini as well as the stage show.

    It’s also debatable whether Shirley MacLaine should have played Charity – or whether the role should have gone to Gwen Verdon, who played the part on Broadway but who also hadn’t been on screen since 1958 (so memorably in ‘Damn Yankees’).

    Ultimately, we find ourselves waiting for what works best in the film: the more successful songs that are raised to perfection through the stunning choreography of Bob Fosse (who also directed, after directing it on-stage). (That ‘Rich Man’s Frug’ section is a knockout novelty number for the dancers!)

    Early on, we get the delightfully sleazy showstopper ‘Hey, Big Spender’. But my favorite (possibly) comes midway with ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’ (with MacLaine ably supported by Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly). I love how that song’s intro is cleverly edited into its preceding dialogue. In its overall feel, the song seems like an homage to ‘America’ (‘West Side Story’) but its wild abandon is still infectious. (Runner-up as a song: ‘Where Am I Going?’)

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