Monday, February 13, 2012

"Cabaret" with Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and Michael York (1972)

It took me a long time to watch this film. I was reluctant to see it at the time it was released in 1972 because I had seen it on Broadway in 1966 when I was about 12 years old. Jill Haworth had the leading role as Sally Bowles, and being 12 years old, I had a huge crush on her. Added to that, I had recently seen "Pookie Adams", and that movie simply did little to make me a fan of Ms. Minnelli's. I have to add that when I watched that film years later, I found it to be very moving. But the Broadway production of "Cabaret", and Jill Haworth in particular, had quite an effect on me, so when "Cabaret" came out as a movie, I simply didn't go to see it. Nothing, at least in my mind, could compare to the show.

Twenty years went by before I took the film out, in VCR format, in 1992. At that time I was hyper critical of the additional musical numbers which had been added to the soundtrack, while lamenting the loss of some of the original songs in the show. "The Pineapple Song", along with "Don't Tell Mama" and "Meeskite", come to mind immediately.

But time has a way of changing ones perceptions, and this movie lends validity to that line of thought. And, so it goes with this wonderful film version of "Cabaret."

If Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli had never done another film, or show, again after this adaptation of the original Broadway show, they would still be immortalized for their performances in this movie. Bob Fosse, the genius Broadway choreographer, is at his best in this film. He even outshines his own work in the stage version with the addition of the musical number "Mein Herr".

At first I was a bit upset at the deletion of Lotte Lenya's role as the landlady, along with her subsequent romance with one of the boarders. But after watching the film again with a more objective mind, I see the wisdom in focusing more on Sally Bowles and her relationship with Brian Roberts, played by Michael York. The screenplay gives a wider range of motion than can be achieved on a theater stage, and so it would have been almost impossible to reproduce the show exactly as it had been presented on Broadway. The pity of it is that it took me so long to acknowledge this.

The story, of course, concerns a young American woman named Sally Bowles, who works as a singer and dancer in one of Berlin's many decadent pre-war nightclubs. Joel Grey plays, as he did on Broadway, the irrepressible Emcee of the Kit Kat Club where Ms. Bowles works. His exuberance in his role leaps from the screen, underscoring the tumult, and decadence, which marked Germany in the days after the First World War. Germany, having been saddled with war reparations designed to keep it from ever becoming a military threat again, had fallen prey to the ravages of the Great Depression. With that fall came two opposing ideologies; one ultra-Liberal, as defined by the Communists and the Kit Kat Club; and the other, ultra-Conservative and defined by the Nazi Party.

Into this foray comes Brian Roberts, a young Englishman who has come to Germany planning to write. In the interim he gives English lessons. And, in the long run, he falls in love with Sally Bowles. When Maximilian von Heune, a rich playboy, played by Helmut Griem, enters the picture, things heat up as the sexual tension builds amongst the three. Brian, who has thought of himself as homosexual after three failed attempts at love with women, is at first confused by his feelings for Sally, who desperately seeks true love. And when his feelings for Maximilian are added to the mixture, he is further confused by all that is happening to him.

Added to the story is the plight of their mutual friend, and Brian's student, Fritz Wendel, played by Fritz Wepper, who fancies himself a gigolo looking to marry for money. To his chagrin he falls in love with Natalia Landauer, played by Marisa Berenson, who is a Jew. He is confused by this turn of events, but proposes to her anyway. She declines citing their religious differences as the reason. This gives way to the secret which Fritz has been hiding all along; he is Jewish! He has only been masquerading as a Christian for social purposes. He is now forced to come clean, hoping that she will understand. His biggest complaint now is that "she has made an honest man of me!"

Still, after all these years, one of my favorite numbers in the show is "If You Could See her Through My Eyes", in which Joel Grey, as the Emcee, dances with his true love, a gorilla. After extolling her virtues, and lamenting that others would never understand his love for her due to their differences, he reveals that "if you could see her through my eyes - she wouldn't look Jewish at all!"

"Cabaret", both the show and film, are based upon the 1951 Broadway play "I Am a Camera", which was based upon Christopher Isherwood's book "Goodbye to Berlin" which is part of "The Berlin Stories." That book begins with the quote, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking."

A delightful film, with excellent performances by the entire cast, this movie has some disturbing parallels to the world in which we live today. An excellent adaptation by the creators of the original Broadway show; with some new musical numbers added by the original composers and lyricists, Fred Ebb and John Kander; make this film as entertaining as it is poignant.

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