One critic summed up the film adaptation of the 1967 Tony-winning musical, Cabaret, as “a darkly sexy beast.” It’s certainly dark and sexy, while being immensely musically entertaining; and now, thanks to a restoration and remastering by Warner Bros., you might say a lot of light has been shed on Bob Fosse’s version which borders on a masterpiece and which netted him an Oscar.

The film became a runaway box office smash, grossing more than $44-billion worldwide. It provided a perfect showcase for Fosse’s unique choreography and visual style which defined the film's candor and cynicism. The essential elements of Kander and Ebb’s dazzling score remain, but not everything.

A premium Blu-ray package of Cabaret has just been released [Warner Home Video; SRP $28; to be followed by a standard DVD] with a 40-page book of rarely seen photos. Bonus features are the documentaries “Cabaret: A Legend in the Making” and the brand new “Cabaret: The Musical That Changed Musicals,” a look at how Fosse and Kander and Ebb brought movie musicals back from the brink of extinction.

”Cabaret” is one of the most acclaimed films of its era, and features Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, an eccentric American singer looking for love and success in 1930 Berlin as German life darkens under Nazi rule. More than anything, it’s her apex. She’s kooky, sexy as hell, and, as is the movie, divinely decadent. She races through comedy and high drama with great skill. Hers was a well-deserved Oscar – which would have been hers just on the basis of her stupendous performance of the title tune.

Joel Grey recreated his Tony- and Drama Desk-winning portrayal of the Kit Kat Club’s narcissistic emcee. In the film, he’s more grotesquely painted and bawdy than on Broadway. Michael York, then at his most dashing, plays Brian, a bi-sexual English teacher whose eyes are opened by his underworld Berlin experiences, not to mention his affair with Bowles. Stunning Marisa Berenson is a Jewish department store heiress whose love life is affected by the rise of Hitler and anti-Semitism.

Helmut Griem is appropriately dashing as a German, immensely rich, married baron who toys with Bowles’ affections, but she also uses him to her advantage. Often stealing the movie [pretty hard to do with Grey colorfully painted and panting to the hilt and those Kit Kat Girls] is Fritz Wepper, as a lovesick German hiding his Jewish background.

”Cabaret” took home eight Oscars for Supporting Actor (Grey), Cinematography, Art Direction/ Set Decoration, Film Editing, Sound and Adapted Score. Amazingly, it was overlooked for adapted screenplay. It was nominated for Best Picture. One reason it didn’t win may be because it was an indie and co-produced by the new film-production unit of ABC TV. Also, major studios deemed it too-hot to handle, It was released by Allied Artists, a B-pictures studio.

Veteran stage producer Cy Feuer was lead producer. Joe Masteroff wrote the book for the musical adaptation, with Jay Presson Allen penning the screenplay and literally bringing a whole new approach to it.

Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical “Berlin Stories” and the subsequent play, I Am a Camera (1951), which starred Julie Harris. It was first and controversially adapted to the screen in the U.K in 1955 (starring Harris, Laurence Harvey (playing Isherwood) and Shelley Winters).

Isherwood introduced Bowles in his short story, “Goodbye to Berlin.” However, he didn’t present her as a polished singer but as a hopeless romantic with dreams of stardom. He felt Minnelli was too talented for the role. And when Bowles, in the film, is vulnerable and always yearning to be the new “It” girl, you see his point. Minnelli defines star quality.

In the Broadway musical, Brian is an American writer and Bowles is an English singer. In the film, they’re reversed. In the stage show, Brian isn’t bi- or homosexual.

Minnelli was the first to be cast. After reading the script, she was asked for her opinion by her father, famed director Vincent Minnelli, and Fosse. She opined that she thought Brian should be homosexual. Both agreed.

This, among other things such as the abortion and numerous sexual situations including bisexuality, put the film quite ahead of its time and made it controversial among religious groups. “Bob got away with murder,” Minnelli has stated. “We all did! We took some daring chances. The producers sent notes. Bob read them aloud, then tore them up and threw them over his shoulder. It’s a good thing we were shooting in Germany and not in Hollywood."

Minnelli’s dad had a role in how she approached her Bowles style. “I was getting my inspiration from Marlene Dietrich’s look, and he said, `No, no, no.' He showed me pictures of silent era stars Louise Brooks and Theda Bara. And that’s where the impish hair style, eyebrows, and thickly-lashed eyes came from. When I walked up to Bob as Sally Bowles, just before shooting began, he was quite surprised – no! stunned. He stammered, then after a moment said, ‘It's good!’"

The film differs from the stage production in numerous ways, including the elimination of characters and five songs (some of which, including "Don't Tell Mama" and the poignant “Married,” are heard as background instrumentals on the radio or recordings).

Much credit must go to editor David Bretherton, an Oscar and BATA winner for his work. That said, a disconcerting decision was made to have edits to current events and flashbacks, in the middle of production numbers. Some of the break-aways are only seconds long and you may find yourself and wondering what the heck was that all about?

The restoration and remastering

“Cabaret” hasn't been shown in a decade because of a vertical scratch, caused by accumulated dirt, which ran through an entire reel. The restoration team tried to fix the damage using computer technology. That didn't work. The repair was painstakingly made by hand, frame by frame – 1.4 million of them! The negative was scanned to improve resolution, and sound was upgraded. The restoration is nothing short of miraculous, but it seems that the film has been remastered from several negative sources. Some sequences are H-D sharp, others a bit soft.

TCM presented the world premiere of the restored version at its Classic Film Festival in Hollywood last April. Theatrical showings of the film in 10 cities and the Blu-ray release are a buildup to this year’s Festival.

Fosse was offered the film after Billy Wilder and Gene Kelly turned it down. It certainly would have been a far less sexy and much different film if either had directed.
“Maybe This Time,” which not in the stage version, was written years earlier and performed by Garland and Minnelli, then 18, during Garland’s triumphant 1964 London Palladium concerts. Minnelli recorded the tune for her first album and persuaded Kander and Ebb to use it in the film. Fosse wasn’t so much in favor until he came up with the idea of staging the number in the empty Kit Kat Klub.
The "Nazi youth" lip-synced "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" was recorded by Mark Lambert (Henrik in the original A Little Night Music), who lost the role by refusing to dye his hair blond.


Key Subjects: 
Cabaret, Bob Fosse, Liza Minnelli, John Kander & Fred Ebb, Michael York, Joel Grey.
Ellis Nassour
February 2013