Guest Review: Come to the “Cabaret”

Cabaret started out as a Broadway show.  Actually it started out as a series of stories written by Christopher Isherwood about life in Berlin, post WWI, just before and immediately after the coming of the Nazi party.  The original play ran on Broadway for three years to the tune of over 1,000 performances, good enough for it to squeak into the top 100 of longest-running Broadway shows in it’s first run alone.  Time has been kind to many of those ahead of it.  When it closed in 1969 the play would have been ranked in the top 20 in terms of number of performances.

Cabaret as a film was a resounding success.  It made $42,000,000 against a budget of only $2,000,000 good enough to rank it sixth in the top 10 moneymakers of the year.  What beat it out?  Well, The Godfather, of course, but also The Poseidon Adventure, What’s Up Doc?Deliverance, and Behind the Green Door. (And in case you were wondering, yes, I did include that tidbit just so I could mention Behind the Green Door in this article).

At the Oscars that year, Cabaret went head-to-head and toe-to-toe with The Godfather, both films acquiring 10 nominations in various categories, but Cabaret came out on top with eight Oscars, while The Godfather only went home with three.  Of course, The Godfather was the winner of the big one as Best Picture, but still…

One of the most impressive Oscar wins is the one that went to Joel Grey, who took home Best Supporting Actor.  In order to acquire the gold statuette he had to beat out not one, not two, but three competitors from that same Godfather dynamo.  (Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall). Eddie Albert was also in the mix for his role in The Heartbreak Kid, but I’ll bet he was a distant 5th in the voting, among that crowd.

I have stated on numerous occasions that I don’t particularly care for musicals.  The reason being that it just seems so unrealistic.  It never happens in real life where somebody will stop what they are talking about and do an exposition in song instead.  (At least, it never happens in the crowd I hang out with, anyway).  But Cabaret and Victor/Victoria both appeal to me and there is a major reason why;  in both movies the songs are just an added feature.  You could take out the songs and the movie would not suffer plot-wise.  Try that with West Side Story.

To be honest, however, there are a handful of musicals I like even with the fact that said songs are necessary to progress the plot.  I like Fiddler on the Roof.  And of course, you would have to have been living in a cave to NOT know I that I adore The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Cabaret has some pretty good songs.  The best ones are the ones that feature Miss Liza Minnelli, but even the opening Joel Grey song “Willkommen” is a toe tapper.

Cabaret (1972):

In 1931 Berlin, life is apparently rather decadent.  The free love movement of the 1960s almost pales by comparison.  Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli),  a very free-spirited American woman, is a cabaret singer living in a rooming house with, among others,  a prostitute as a fellow rooming house boarder. Into this mix comes Brian Roberts (Michael York), a reserved British professorial student.  Brian makes a living by teaching rich German students English, while working towards a degree.

Sally immediately tries to put the moves on Brian, but he is very standoffish about it.  Sally thinks he may be gay, and Brian for his part does not try to dissuade her from the belief.  He in fact states that he has been with a woman three times and each experience was a failure. Despite this, Sally continues to try, on occasion.  And eventually does succeed. (So, “Maybe those three women were just the wrong women.”)

Brian begins teaching a young rich Jewish girl, Natalia Landauer (Marissa Berenson), and another of his students, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) develops a crush on her. But his attempts at trying to woo her are seemingly doomed to failure, because she insists that her future husband must also be Jewish.  And therein lies the rub, because Fritz is a Christian.  Or maybe he’s not…

A new man arrives on the scene, Maximillan von Heune (Helmut Griem).  He begins to woo Sally and Brian develops a resentment against the rich playboy.  But later, after Max has moved on to other conquests, part of the truth is revealed in a conversation between Sally and Brian:

Brian: “Oh, screw Max!”
Sally:  “I do.”
Brian: (laughing) “So do I…”

Later, when it becomes apparent that Sally is pregnant, and since she has been having relations with both Max and Brian (and possibly others) and therefore doesn’t know who the father is, Brian gallantly offers to marry her.  Which she initially accepts.  But because the thought of being a settled down wife to a professor instead of the free-spirit life she prefers begins to bother her, she has an abortion, not telling Brian about it until afterwards.  And this causes their relationship to deteriorate.  Brian, it seems, despite loving Sally’s free-spirit attitude just can’t accept it as it is.

Throughout the film, the ever-apparent rise of the vicious Nazi party becomes omnipresent.  But most of the characters see them as harmless and ineffective, which gives some shadowing of how such a group could actually come to power.  But Cabaret is not initially meant as a window into the darker side of Germany’s history.  Rather it is a look at the more decadent pre-Nazi history.

Whatever one’s view of the lifestyle that people chose to adopt in those Weimar Republic days of Berlin (and truthfully, they aren’t quite as decadent as some other periods of history), Cabaret is a wonderful movie on so many levels.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.
  • TLC

    I hate the movie Cabaret! Our girl scout/brownie leader took our group of 6,7 & 8 year old girls to this horrible movie! We all hated it especially since we told we were going to a Disney movie. Just hearing the name of the movie sickens me.

    • Tom K.

      @ TLC: So, your daughter’s Brownie Scout Leader deceived you AND the other parents and took the young girls to Cabaret instead of the promised Disney Movie. The Scout Leader sounds like one of those Manipulating / Controlling people; not the best example for the girls. Did you quickly withdraw your daughter from the “Troop” ?

      • Alf Messina

        I think the writer WAS one of the 6-7 y.o. girls, and she was so incensed that she hasn’t been able to step back and see what a brilliant miracle of a movie CABARET really is. 8 Oscars, all deserved, my choice as the best musical movie of all time.

  • Rick

    I have to disagree when you state that you could take the songs out of CABARET and it wouldn’t make a difference. They are essential because Sally is a singer, and a talented one. (At least in the film). The songs define her. We all know she has a messed up personal life and daddy issues, But heck, she has the talent to get out of the Kit Kat Club. Maybe she won’t end up a star at UFA but she can do better We’re rooting for her. Compare the Sally in the film with the original Sally on Broadway, as played by Jill Haworth. Miss Haworth couldn’t carry a tune if she had a backpack. The theater critic of the NY TImes had this to say about Miss Haworth “a damaging presence, worth no more to the show than her weight in mascara.” The point I’m making is that the songs are essential in defining who Sally Bowles really is: either a person with talent or without it.

  • JoeyS

    Enjoyed your review of CABARET, but I always have to chuckle when a friend who will sit enthralled by the most over-the-top, outlandish science fiction or action movie, complains that musicals are “just not realistic”. As a fan of musicals -on stage or screen- I have often heard that complaint, along with the one about how “real people” in “real life” just do not “burst into song”.
    Well, that’s true. Real people do not burst into song – at least not usually. But if I want to watch real people for entertainment, I can sit in the grocery store for a couple of hours.
    When we watch a movie, we employ “suspension of belief” which should be just as easy whether it’s WEST SIDE STORY or STAR WARS. Both movies create their own worlds and invite us – and our imaginations – to come along.
    It is important to understand that characters in musicals are not always “aware” that they are singing. There is a word for this: non-diegetic. When Sally Bowles sings “Cabaret”, it is a diegetic song. The character knows that she is singing to entertain her on-screen “audience” of characters in the Cabaret.
    On the other hand, when the character Eliza Doolittle sings “I Could Have Danced All Night” in MY FAIR LADY, she is not “aware” that she is singing, but her joy is being expressed through the song for US, the real, live audience watching the movie. We can share her emotions more fully through the music and lyrics. In this case, “I Could Have Danced All Night” is a NON-diegetic song. And, as in the best musicals, it also advances the story.
    Maybe this would be a better world if so-called “real people” did break out in a song and dance once in a while. But, things being the way they are, what’s wrong with watching them sing in the movies?

    • Quiggy

      Never quite had it shown to me in that manner. I do like sci-fi and action movies, and yes, they are just as unrealistic. But I never went to one expecting realism in the first place. To me a musical is a drama with potentially realistic actions and reactions. I go to into dramas expecting, more or less, realism. The dramatic action of, say, Kramer vs. Kramer, is potentially real, at least to me. But if Meryl Streep had suddenly burst out in a version of Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” I would have lost some interest.