Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Cabaret

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, November 14, 1999

Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay...

Special features

Awards Listing5
Cast Information6

This is the musical that beat the crap out of “The Godfather” in 1972. The music takes place on the stage of the Kit Kat Klub, where MC Joel Grey reigns over a motley collection of strippers, transvestites, vaudeville acts, and, of course, Liza Minelli. Grey, Minelli, and director Bob Fosse made a great movie about the twilight beauty of Germany’s nightclub decade. “Mi cabaret, au cabaret, tu cabaret!”

DirectorBob Fosse
WritersChristopher Isherwood, John Van Druten, Joe Masteroff, Jay Presson Allen
Movie Rating7
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating7
  • Letterbox

This is not actually a musical in the sense that people don’t get up and start dancing and singing their lines. The music all takes place on the Kit Kat Klub stage, except for one very disturbing number at a German party.

The character who really steals the show is Joel Grey’s emcee. His facial expressions and vocalizations set the mood of the entire movie. Apparently there was originally some question that he would even be used at all. He’d been in the stage musical, and the director didn’t want to use him. But the producer put his foot down, according to the documentary: no Grey, no money. Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t ask why the producer considered Grey so important. Though I agree in hindsight, I’d like to know what the original reason was.

Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles, the lead singer at the Kit Kat Klub, sizzles with naive worldliness. She knows what she wants, and while she doesn’t know exactly how to get it, she’s doing her best. And if drink and sex don’t get her first, she thinks she’ll make it. Sally’s first number is “Mein Herr”, the musical tale of a woman who wants to cross Europe “inch by inch, man by man”. Her final number is the eponymous “Cabaret”. All are brilliant. One of the documentaries includes her screen test, which involved her singing Cabaret—something she’d already been doing in her Paris nightclub act. She sings and acts wonderfully in this movie.

The story starts with Brian Roberts arriving in Berlin, whereupon he meets Sally Bowles while searching for an apartment. He becomes involved with the German cabaret scene, teaching would-be gigolos how to better speak English and translating dirty stories from German to English, all to pay the rent and presumably buy drinks at the Kit Kat Klub. Sally Bowles, meanwhile, is trying to work her way into show business.

The camerawork and direction on “Cabaret” are also noteworthy. From the opening to the ending the camera is exactly where it needs to be. And the framing sequence involving the mirrored surface is both beautiful and disturbing, as it should be: it contrasts the nightclub life with the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

This “special edition” has a decent collection of extras. Oddly, the captions on the back of the box appear to be for a different, perhaps older, version. It mentions that the movie is on side ‘A’, and the extras are on side ‘B’. But there is no side ‘B’, and all the extras—very good ones—are accessible via the main menu along with the movie.

The documentaries are quite good, the only complaint I had was that they were too short! There are some great stories inside; Michael York tells the story about taking the casting call advert to his agent. The information said they were looking for a “Michael York type”, and he asked his agent if he thought he should try for it.

Some of the interviews with the producer, Cy Feuer, shed a lot of light on how producers view movies, and how movies sometimes get made. After the first screening, everyone except Bob Fosse, the director, thought the movie “just didn’t work”. So Feuer brought everyone out to Los Angeles and put them into a room, and they went over every scene, each person arguing about why it should or should not stay in the movie. I would love to have seen the cut scenes as extras on this disk. I found that “Cabaret” improved heavily with each viewing, and I wonder if some of the perceived improvements were just a matter of seeing the extra depth from watching it over and over.

The writer of the “Berlin stories” this movie (and the musical) was based on, Christopher Isherwood, was at one of the screenings. These were semi-autobiographical stories; he’d changed the names but they were short stories about his own time in Germany in the thirties. Originally, the Brian Roberts character was gay, like Isherwood (and named Christopher Isherwood!). The moviemakers decided that this was too much for the moviegoing public, so they made Brian bisexual instead. Isherwood was not pleased with the change. Feuer’s reaction was an apparently serious inability to understand why the author of an autobiographical story might take offense at his autobiographical character’s sexual preference being changed on a whim!

Whether because of the changes or despite them, “Cabaret” is a good movie with great performances and is a strong candidate for multiple viewings. I recommend a purchase. “Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome”. Come to the cabaret, and leave your troubles behind!

Recommendation: Purchase

DirectorBob Fosse
WritersChristopher Isherwood, John Van Druten, Joe Masteroff, Jay Presson Allen
ActorsLiza Minnelli, Michael York
Spoken languageEnglish
SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
Special FeaturesAwards Listing, Cast Information, Documentary, Interviews, Trailer
More links