31 Days of Oscar: “Cabaret”

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Classic musicals are really hit or miss. It depends on how far back you go, who’s in it and what the overall story is about. Some can just end up being fun no matter how much time has passed, while others just take on that dated look that makes it hard to do anything other than laugh.

The Allied Artists film “Cabaret”, based on the musical of the same name by Joe Masteroff, the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood, is nothing short of amazing entertainment! It does everything it should and never truly shows its age. A perk, it seems, of being a period specific film. The last time I saw this, was ironically during last year’s “31 Days of Oscar” on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), and I was just amazed by everything I saw! I went in blind and had no expectations. This time, I was just hoping that the past year hadn’t somehow managed to alter my view of this film. I’ve managed to do that and can only wonder what was I thinking? Fortunately, I’m reassured with this viewing that this film will always manage to entertain and be a favorite. With older musicals, that’s not always going to be the case.

Musical Number Is Up

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The musical numbers were pretty damn amazing! Maybe not as big as others we’ve seen in the past 15 years, but from a conceptual standpoint, and when you look at the film’s scope, they’re grand. The execution, even this time, surprised me. The choreography and the cinematography delivered exquisite and exciting numbers. Granted, which was a bit of a surprise, they were almost few and far between. With star Liza Minnelli always being the focal point of this film, which makes sense, too, as we’re following her, it’s a bit disappointing when you look at how few of the numbers feature her doing some fun choreography. Yes, Joel Grey makes the most of his limited screen time, and is as eccentric as the other performers and characters, but even some of his numbers were limiting. They didn’t have that grand feeling I was hoping for.

And like with most things, there is at least one slight drawback to the musical numbers in this film. They seem to come from nowhere. I get the idea behind having them featured in the Kit Kat Klub, and that they can show that these characters do work there, but that doesn’t prevent them from seeming random. Unlike with most musical numbers in other musical films, I didn’t find the majority of them to serve a narrative purpose. They just existed in the club, and individually told a story, but there was nothing connecting them back to the overall film. Perhaps my limitation is just from the fact that I know very little about any of the source material, or it could very well be that I just didn’t connect it the right way and catch on. Because of this, I can’t fully understand what’s being done. The only number that seems to have a narrative purpose is “Maybe This Time”, and while it’s one of the few I truly love, it’s also devoid of any choreography. So, there’s that interesting tidbit.

However, like with most musicals, I do have some favorites! The aforementioned “Maybe This Time”, “Money, Money”, “Cabaret” and “Mein Herr” are now the ones that will forever be stuck in my head. It’s the writing and execution that does it for me. The rest seems to stem from personal preference and can’t really be explained beyond that. I don’t really hate any number, except in the way I’m supposed to when watching the film, but I just don’t like the others as much. They serve their purpose and make for fun moments that take you away from the drama, but beyond that, there’s nothing saying you should remember them.

Nazi If I Have Anything To Say About It

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As I mentioned before, I went into this film knowing nothing about it. That proves truest when it comes to the backdrop of this film’s story. The growing Nazi presence in 1931 Berlin is nothing if not surprising. Even this time around I was surprised, but that’s because I forgot. However, I have to admit that the unspooling of the Nazi presence was pretty smart. The film starts and there’s nary a mention of Nazi’s or a growing resentment towards Jewish people. So, when character actions and imagery start showing up, it’s small and surprising. Then, as it all progresses and becomes increasingly violent, and in your face, you can now respond to it. There’s more than surprise. Disgust starts to enter into it and never fully leaves. Eventually, whole scenes take place showcasing how Nazism is coming in and making itself quite comfortable. In response, I can’t say that I had any major reaction. I was sad for a moment, but that’s about it. It was all tied to the story.

Thus we have the characters themselves responding. In the case of Michael York, he gets into a few fights and spats, which are great to see, but there are two other characters that seem to serve as the way in to this particular aspect of the story. Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berensen portray Jewish characters, and while they’re a subplot, which almost seems abandoned at a certain point of the film, and random when it returns, as if almost a second thought for the writer, it still succeeds where it was supposed to. You can gage what the Nazi presence meant to those who were most hated by them. You could feel, as best as you can now that almost 45 years has come and gone with this film, and the events depicted are even older and you would’ve needed to be a survivor or descendent to probably truly get it. For a dramatic film like this, it’s not a failure. It really was a solid way at grounding this film, which otherwise would only take on a bit of fantastical and lighthearted feel, which , of course, wouldn’t have been a bad thing, but might not for this film to stand out as much as it has over the past several decades.

Three’s Company

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Like with any good film, there’s usually some sort of romantic component involved. This one comes in the form of a love triangle. A slightly confusing and complicated one, but a love triangle none the less. And now I’ve got “Math of Love Triangles” stuck in my head. Way to go musicals! Not only does it give you the best way in to Minnelli’s and York’s characters, but you also get the chance to meet a man named Max, played by Helmut Griem. In watching these three, like with any character they interact with, it’s out and out fun. I wouldn’t mind accompanying them on a day’s adventure. There’s also a great deal of chemistry between each of these characters and it’s equally shared. Thus their romance and time comes to life. It’s not hard to understand what attracts these people to each other and allows for feelings to be shared. I bought into it quite easily, and when various rocky moments hit, I’m able to properly respond. While I don’t fully feel any of these characters are explored in truly deep or memorable ways, ways that aren’t just superficial, I enjoy them immensely. There’s still something fun about them, which in turn makes all that they do and go through, worth watching.

The standout character, of the three, as one would expect, is Minnelli’s Sally Bowles. I think it’s ironic the timing of my watching this film. She’s a breath of fresh air! That chemistry I spoke of was crucial to her introduction scene, which was also our first glimpse of York’s character. That quick back and forth of dialogue and that larger than life personality just amazed me! I wasn’t expecting that at all. I knew instantly that I wanted to follow her and find out what else she was like. And so I did. I learned so much, and discovered that because of Minnelli’s work, she created one incredible and iconic character. She also stands out because of the time and the type of woman she represents, even today. She’s really got that independent thing down. She’s more a Mary Richards than a Holly Golightly. Sally Bowles is an independent woman who happens to have an upbeat look on life and is an extrovert through and through. There’s no stopping her and her love of life! She’s not tied down like Golightly, which is what I love. She’s got a job she loves, dreams she hopes to achieve, and as we see, she’s willing to make sacrifices, painful ones too. She’s also more than capable of being vulnerable, which really just adds an extra layer to her character. For a character in a musical, it doesn’t appear you can get much better than Sally Bowles. Maybe it’s just the time that allowed for her to stand out even more, or maybe it’s that because of various sources of inspiration (the source material, among other things), Minnelli and those involved in this film could truly craft a multifaceted character that appeals to all audiences.

Originally released: Feb. 13, 1972

Director: Bob Fosse

Writer: Jay Allen

Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson, Elisabeth Neumann-Viertel, Helen Vita, Sigrid Von Richthofen, Gerd Vespermann, Ralf Wolter, Georg Hartmann, Ricky Renee and Joel Grey

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