From ABC Pictures
Directed by Bob Fosse
Since I have started my 50 Favorite Films list, I have jostled the positions of my top 12 a number of times. Well, actually, that's not quite true. I have not touched number one. That position has never been in doubt. But all other 11 films have sat in more than one position and it practically kills me to assign any of them a number because they all feel like number 2, but here we are with Cabaret in the fifth position.
This one, like a few others, I find utterly faultless. I just watched it, looking for things to pick at and found nothing. But I don't revere this film simply because it was impeccably made but also due to two other events that are indelibly etched into my Cabaret playbook.
We know I love musicals but what only a few of you have known is that I briefly knew Liza Minnelli for a time in the 50s when she lived as part of the Holmby Hills crowd that I, too, was also attached because of my friendship with others who lived in the ritzy neighborhood, particularly Art Linkletter's son, Bob. Liza, famous at that time only for her lineage, has been remembered in my mind, however, not so much because of anything she said or did then but because Sally Bowles had already inhabited her. We just didn't know that then. I do now and have known it since first seeing her in the film. That she would win an Oscar for playing it is as easy to understand as it was that Yul Brynner had done the same for The King and I. Actor and character become one. They inhabit one another. No one else could possibly play these roles as well although they try. I was dying to see her in this film.
It was opening at a beautiful Century City theater so I was excited about seeing it in the lap of luxury. And then there was my grandmother. At 70+ years old, she just happened to be visiting from Illinois and I had a helluva time talking her into going with me. I told her it was a sweet little musical and starred Judy Garland's daughter, for God's sake. The truth is she didn't want me to go and I was determined to do so and the only sensible alternative was to take her along. Never mind that she hadn't been in a movie theater for over 20 years, didn't really like movies in the first place, and though we didn't know it at the time, she would never go to another.
My memories of her clenching my hand, covering her eyes, excessive wriggling in her seat and saying things like oh, my goodness after an actor delivered a line are hardwired in my brain. Here's an example. Sally, Berlin's favorite bohemian, and Brian, her bisexual boyfriend, are in a tug of war over who might be the top dog in the affections of the wealthy Maxmilian. Brian gets frustrated with Sally's gold digging ways:
Brian: Oh screw Maximilian.
Sally: I do.
Brian (after an astonished laugh): So do I.
I thought I was gonna lose Grandma. Maybe it was also about mentioning syphilis twice or the cross-dresser standing at a urinal (or a urinal at all) but as we were walking out, Grandma offered that was such a dirty movie. She wouldn't have been ready for today.
Cabaret was based on at least a couple of prior incarnations. It started as one half of gay writer Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. It became a dramatic film in 1954 starring Julie Harris and Laurence Harvey called I Am a Camera. Later it became a successful Broadway musical. The screen version is not an exact copy of any of them and in fact many of the Broadway songs are not in the film and new ones were written for the movie.
It is worth noting here that Cabaret is a musical-drama. I mean when they aren't singing, it's a serious story, not the lightweight fare fed to us in many musicals. With the exception of one song, all others are sung on the stage at the Kit Kat Club by Minnelli and Joel Grey. No one dances on the streets of downtown Berlin nor does anyone sing to one another in bed. We could call this the musical for people who don't like musicals.
Grey, by the way, is the only one to come from the play. He would win a Tony for the play and an Oscar for the film. He played the emcee of the Kit Kat and is never out of stage makeup for the entire film and we never learn anything personal about his life. He is simply the emcee and a little bit the conscience of the film.
You know what it's about but for the three people reading this who don't, let's review. We're zooming through this so sit up and pay attention.
It's 1931 Berlin and the Nazis are just coming into power. Before that happens, the city is enjoying a sort of last hurrah of divine decadence, as Sally is given to saying. We open with Brian arriving at the train station and while interspersed with some musical numbers on the Kit Kat stage, he arrives at a boardinghouse where he meets the manic, driven and desperate Sally, an international woman of mystery, as she also likes to say.
Brian is in Berlin to complete a doctorate in philosophy but must teach English to make ends meet. In this regard, a subplot and another love story is introduced between Fritz (played by Fritz Wepper), a penniless suitor who's concealing he's a Jew, and Natalia (played by Marisa Berenson), a wealthy Jewish girl who's beginning to be assaulted by the Nazis.
One of the film's many amusing scenes (yes, comedy along with music and drama) is when Sally attempts to seduce Brian, who says he's only tried it with three girls and it never worked out. Their getting to know one other is played out against Sally singing Maybe This Time, my favorite song and new to the film. Have a look:
Meeting the wealthy, married Maximilian changes the course of Sally and Brian's relationship. There is a dance scene with the three of them that is rather yummy. Sally, of course, is completely besotted with Max's wealth. It's here that we are treated to the cleverly-staged Money, Money. Brian goes along with it all, obviously a little titillated by Max himself. Interspersed with this segment is a racy little ditty, Two Ladies, sung by Grey back at the Kit Kat, highlighting a menage a trois.
It becomes obvious after spending a weekend together that Brian and Max have had a bad time and Max ends his plan to join Brian and Sally on a trip to Africa, for which he would treat them. In short order, Sally finds out she's pregnant, declaring she doesn't know who the father is (Grandma...? You're hurting my arm.) and the two decide to try to make a go of it. They watch Natalie and Fritz get married which seems to make Sally and Brian both realize the folly of their ways. Can corny, stuffy Brian really become an acolyte in Sally's crazy world and can Sally, who longs to be a great film star, really settle down to domesticity in Brian's ordered world? Sally has an abortion and that really cements the parting. It ends as it began with Brian leaving Berlin. Sally returns to the Kit Kat and belts out the title song.
It wasn't all about Sally and Brian. Lots of care was given to the drama of the threat of nazism quietly ingratiating itself to the public while its dirty plans were being laid out. Max says early on that the nazis are just a gang of stupid hooligans but they do serve a purpose. Let them get rid of the communists and later we'll be able to control them. There were scenes, not only of Natalia's harassment but also beatings to Brian and the Kit Kat manager, to show the progression of the gang but none was more impressive to me than the scene at the outdoor beer garden and the singing of Tomorrow Belongs to Me.
There were ponies frolicking in the fields, dogs running around, kids playing, Beer steins covered checkered tablecloths as Max and Brian sat among the patrons. And oh those patrons... simply one of the most memorable crowd scenes captured by a movie camera. Those German faces, most with frowns, certainly on the older people, all decked out in appropriate village attire. I was transported.
And the song begins... the sun on the meadow is summery warm... the stag in the forest runs free... and the camera shifts to a beguiling Aryan boy, shimmering in blondness with cherry red lips that offer perfect enunciation. Shots of the audience show hope and promise in those faces. The songwriters claimed little more than rousing German patriotism was intended when they wrote it. It's difficult to believe.
As the camera pans down the boy's body, we see the look of nazi brown and the spider emblem on his sleeve. Before he gives a salute at the end of the song, the lyrics have turned darker and I have never forgotten one older man's face from the crowd, a patchwork of disgust and sorrow. The morning will come when the world is mine... but soon says the whisper, arise arise... tomorrow belongs to me.
There has long been great debate surrounding this song but I found it my second favorite. It was the umpteenth time a song helped moved the dramatic narrative further along. The young nazi was played by Oliver Collignon but the singing voice was that of Mark Lambert. It was the only song in the film not sung at the Kit Kat Club. I thought the entire scene... written, photographed, sung, populated... had the right touch.
Kudos to the sets in this film. The Kit Kat Club with its seedy look, the small stage, those chorus girls, their look, the slight props, the kinky customers. Also the rundown boardinghouse was sheer perfection, certainly capturing a time and place, made perfect for the shenanigans taking place within.
In addition to the fabulous Minnelli and Grey, the other leads were well-cast. Michael York was inspired casting as Brian as was the blond (with blonder mustache) Helmut Griem who was Maxmilian. Marisa Berenson and Fritz Wepper were perfect and the supporting players all polished their performances.
Cabaret owes everything to Bob Fosse, its insanely talented director. He was a show business legend by this time, having acted, choreographed, danced, sang and directed in both film and on the stage and even some television. He was not altogether a popular choice to direct Cabaret, having only directed one previous film, the underwhelming Sweet Charity. But direct Cabaret he did, bringing his overwhelming talent and personality into just the right project. He changed, altered, cajoled, threatened, schmoozed and guided the project to its soaring heights.
Fosse would win the Academy Award for 1972's best direction... and get this: he beat out The Godfather's Francis Ford Coppola, an astonishing if not unimaginable feat. Since The Godfather won best picture and most directors of those best pictures also (rightfully) win, it is particularly amazing that Fosse won. Cabaret also won seven other Oscars... the two for Minnelli and Grey, but also photography, editing, song score, art director and sound. It stands as the most Oscar-winning picture in history to not also win best picture. I would truly be annoyed but how can one fault The Godfather?
In closing, I'll say it again... I found this film to be faultless. The public and critics loved it as well and it holds up today just as it did in 1972. The film ends with the emcee saying these lines and so shall I:
Ladies and gentlemen, where are your troubles now?
I told you so.
We have no troubles here.
Here life is beautiful...
the girls are beautiful...
the orchestra is beautiful...
Dancing Girls III