Two directors battle it out on celluloid!
In Federico Fellini’s 1952 movie, The White Sheik, his wife Giulietta Masina makes a five minute appearance playing a prostitute called Cabiria. Fellini was so inspired by this small sequence in his film that he later devoted a whole movie to Giulietta Masina’s exploration of this character... Nights of Cabiria.
In 1966, American showman Bob Fosse based his new stage musical Sweet Charity on Fellini’s Cabiria screenplay and went on to release his own movie version of this in 1969.
I thought it would be worth rediscovering these movies for two reasons... one of which is that the way in which the Italian and American directors handle the characters for their native audiences might possibly be quite telling in revealing something about popular tastes in these two countries at the time of their release. Secondly, my own agenda, is that Nights of Cabiria is one of my all-time favourite movies and Sweet Charity is one of my all-time favourite musicals. So I get to have more fun than usual while I’m researching an article ;-)
Both of these films are interesting in that they convey a very tragic story and contrast it with the genuinely upbeat outer personae of a character, Cabiria and Charity Hope Valentine respectively, as they go through some of the worst knocks that life could possibly hit them with. And to Fosse’s credit, selling that kind of grim reality to an audience in a musical is hard, which might explain the enormous box office flop he had with Charity.
Both movies have a fairly upbeat opening. Cabiria starts off with a light, fluffy Nina Rota score playing over some fairly standard title cards. There is very little in the score which betrays the dark tone of where the movie is heading. Fosse takes the same approach with split screen multicolour half-tone shots conveying Charity having a generally good time as she withdraws her money from a bank and heads over to Central Park.
After the titles play out in Fellini’s film, Cabiria is seen... I think “cavorting” is probably the best description... with her “lover” by a river. He grabs her money laden handbag and pushes Cabiria into the river, in the hopes of drowning her, and leaves her for dead. After she is almost drowned, some locals rescue her and revive her. Although it isn’t quite made clear to us yet, Cabiria has had all her savings stolen. Although the events in the sequence are quite grim, and are used to foreshadow the dark pattern of Cabiria’s life, the trappings of her rescue are played very much for comedy. It his here, too, that her occupation as a streetwalker prostitute (as opposed to the “dance hall girl” in Charity) is inferred to the audience when, after identifying her, one of the locals adds the comment that “She lives the life!”
Fosse’s Sweet Charity starts off in much the same fashion with Shirley MacLaine (playing Charity Hope Valentine) singing a song before she meets her lover. In her dialogue with “Charlie” she makes clear that she has withdrawn all her savings from the bank and is carrying it all around in her handbag, which is something the more subtle Fellini film does not make explicit at the outset... instead letting realisation dawn on the audience as the film progresses. After Charlie has pushed her into a lake and made off with all her money, Charity’s subsequent rescue is played even more for laughs in the Fosse version of the film, even if the character herself in this sequence is, if anything, even more distraught and wretched than Cabiria was under the same circumstances in the Fellini movie. The main difference is perhaps that Giulietta Masina makes the sense of impending tragedy of her character arc implicit in her wonderful facial expressions whereas Maclaine’s portrayal of Charity goes for the quicker gut punch.
It is also in this first sequence in the Fosse version that Charity implies her profession to a cop (and again the audience) as being a “Social Consultant at a Dance Hall”. In Charity the aforementioned Dance Hall replaces the familiar street where Cabiria and her friends ply their trade. Interestingly, Giulietta Masina has a couple of dance scenes in Nights of Cabiria and it is in this first sequence at one of her regular spots where she starts some lively and highly conspicuous dancing to a tune playing on a car radio. Although this sequence is fairly light-hearted and entertaining, and truly a joy to behold, it can’t match for the sheer spectacle and technical genius of Fosse’s replacement “Big Spender” routine with its brilliant use of fast zooms, dissolves, rack focussing and movement within some superb shot compositions.
It is in this musical sequence in Sweet Charity that you really start to realise that you are in the hands of a master choreographer... not just with the dance routines which are stunning and in this particular sequence a masterpiece of minimalist body movement, but also the choreography of colour and light and camera movement and editing. In short, a truly cinematic achievement to be applauded and celebrated and remembered far more than it is currently.
The whole of the next section where Cabiria finds favour from a wealthy movie star, accompanies him to a night club and then goes home with him for dinner... only to find herself having to hide and sleep in the next room when the ex-girlfriend comes back to make up with the movie star is played similarly in both movies, although the trappings and details of this sequence in Charity are a lot more elaborate and fun. And perhaps the ambling but poignant sequence in the nightclub where Cabiria does a vigorous mambo, which says everything about the buoyancy of her character, is a good way of looking at the contrast between the two styles of movie making on display here. Cabiria’s dance lasts maybe two minutes. In Sweet Charity, Ricardo Montalban takes Shirley MacLaine to The Pompeii Club and you are at once lost in a swirling miasma of psychedelic colour and movement and a very long (and enjoyable) set piece dance sequence before she accompanies the film star back to his home, where she gets yet another set piece song and dance number in “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”
And here, too, the dialogue makes explicit what Nights of Cabiria lets you slowly realise on your own terms, when Charity comments that she is “caught in the flypaper of life”. There is certainly no thought at this point in the earlier movie in Cabiria’s head of getting out of her current situation as there is in the Fosse vehicle.
It’s the next sequence in Cabiria that really does it for me and it really says something that this entire 10-15 minute sequence was originally not in Cabiria because the producer, Dino De Laurentiis thought it slowed the movie down. He told Fellini, who didn’t want to budge on it for obvious reasons, that he’d destroyed the sequence. He gave it back to him again in the 1980s and the sequence is now restored to the movie... and about time. This is the scene which really is the key to the whole movie... or at least the key to Cabiria... for this viewer anyway.
Known as, “the man with the sack” sequence in movie-lore, this is the scene where Cabiria stumbles upon and accompanies a man making a night cruise of the surrounding areas of Rome (where Cabiria scrapes her living). This character regularly makes his rounds giving food and blankets to the drop outs and homeless of society, sleeping rough and living in surrounding caves. It is in this sequence that Cabiria recognises one of these unfortunates as an older prostitute she used to know “back in the day.” With this too comes the realisation that this is exactly where she is headed if she continues to lead her life the way she is living it. And it is here that the actress Giulietta Masina shows her real talent as she lets the despair slowly creep into the background of her portrayal of Cabiria and it is this scene that gives the ticking clock nature to the character for the remainder of the movie. There is nothing like this scene in Sweet Charity... and no wonder if De Laurentiis had already cut it out of the original release prints of the Fellini film. Fosse probably wasn’t even aware of this scene.
The next sequence of Cabiria sees her accompanying her friends amidst literally thousands of people going to offer worship to the “madonna” at her local church. This is a real circus of a scene and one can well see why Fellini was continually getting into trouble with the religious establishment during the times his films were being made. Cabiria’s long and gruelling football crowd style slog to worship the madonna is contrasted with the next scene shortly after these events where she realises that, despite going through all this show, her prayers are destined to be unanswered.
To paraphrase an old Charlie Brown strip... “You’re on your own kid.”
Again, Sweet Charity really has nothing like this but the church scene is replaced with a new age church musical number, the famous “Rhythm of Life” showcase number for Sammy Davis Jr, perhaps better known to modern audiences as “that song from that Guiness advert.” This is just an excuse for a bit of a song and dance though and there are no real lessons to be learnt in this sequence.
The next little scene in Cabiria is the one that seals the fate for the character... at least in terms of how she is left at the end of the movie. Cabiria wanders into a magic/stage hypnotism show and finds herself accidentally volunteered. She is placed in a trance by the stage magician and finds herself giving away a lot more about her romantic nature and obsession to find a partner and husband than she would comfortably like any audience to know. After the show she is approached by a man from the audience calling himself Oscar who is interested in her in a romantic context and who makes overtures to her which she ultimately cannot refuse.
As the courtship goes on and Oscar gets Cabiria to sell her small hovel of a home (a family is waiting on her doorstep to move in as she is packing up to move out) and withdraw all her money so they can marry and move together to another town, it suddenly starts to dawn on the viewer, but not Cabiria, that Oscar is not all he seems and is, in fact, trying on exactly the same scam that found Cabiria in the predicament she was in at the start of the movie.
We watch as she goes for a walk on a cliff top with an ever increasingly nervous Oscar, who obviously does not want to go through with the deed himself. Cabiria nearly slips over the edge of the cliff on her own accord and it is at this point that she suddenly twigs what is really going on here. In reaction, she throws herself on the ground begging Oscar to take her money and kill her because, by this point, she really is at the end of her rope with her life.
Oscar does make off with all her money but he leaves Cabiria alive and at the end of the film, she has finally hit rock bottom. No redemption has come her way. She has no money and even her home is no longer there for her for shelter.
In place of the stage hypnotist in Cabiria, Charity snags an interview for a secretarial job where she is, quite literally, laughed out of the office. As she is riding down many floors in an elevator to leave the building, she gets stuck in a lift with a claustrophobic gentleman named Oscar.
A slow romantic relationship develops and although more or less the same ending concludes Sweet Charity, at least on the surface, the Oscar as portrayed here is in no way the mercenary and predatory animal the Oscar in Nights of Cabiria turns out to be. In Charity, he doesn’t marry her simply because of... well, cold feet really. He certainly doesn’t steal Charity’s money but at the end of the film the misery is still readily apparent as we watch Shirley MacLaine’s heart slowly and inevitably torn to shreds.
At the end of both movies, Cabiria/Charity is “found” by a group of wandering teenagers/flower children and although the characters have lost absolutely everything... one can see them slightly perk up and put on an outer appearance for the rest of the world. A small token gesture at the suggestion of a possible happy ending which in no way dims the impact of the abject tragedy of the characters in question.
Again, what is implied in Fellini’s more subtle film is made overt in the American movie with an onscreen caption proclaiming “And she lived hopefully ever after...” and I think, in conclusion, I have to say that although I love both versions of the story and although I can recognise and enjoy Sweet Charity as being one of the most cinematically inventive and watchable films ever made, I think the subtlety of Nights of Cabiria coupled with the sheer genius of Giulietta Masina’s comic timing and intense acting performance (and Shirley MacLaine is no slouch either) make for a much more satisfying film experience for me than the Fosse movie.
When I put on Sweet Charity I’m guaranteed to be both amused and to cry at the end... when I put on Nights of Cabiria I know I am going to be alternately laughing and crying my head off all the way through. And that’s not an altogether easy task to accomplish.
Fellini wins 2-1.