So the Siren decided to plant herself in front of TCM and watch whatever was on, within reason, and what was on was the original 1968 Sweet November. Now the Siren had never bothered with this film due to her impression that it was one of those "guess you had to be there" kind of 60s movies. She was afraid this would be the The Knack or I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, but what the Siren got was a landlocked, mod spin on One Way Passage.
Unsurprisingly, she liked it a lot.
Sandy Dennis plays Sara, who meets super-cute with Charlie when she's trying to cheat on her written driver's exam. It's Charlie (Anthony Newley, one year past being one of the only reasons to watch Doctor Doolittle) who gets tossed out. Charlie is a box manufacturer, one of several metaphors that this movie shamelessly belabors. They eat a hot dog together (sexual metaphors too). Sara asks out of nowhere if Charlie has any tattoos: "eagles sprouting lightning, or snakes, or uh, a battleship?" Charlie responds glumly, "I'm not big enough for a battleship."
They go to an exhibit about the wonders awaiting everyone in the 1970s (ha) and wind up at her apartment. There, Sara quizzes Charlie about his three-piece woolen personality; "Hurry-hurry, ding-ding," she summarizes.
We know Sara is no common girl because she wears trapeze dresses and white patent go-go boots. She makes a living subletting apartments. Her own place is a Brooklyn Heights carriage house with a gazillion artsy tchotchkes scattered around and the bed swung up top near a skylight, reachable only by a sort of repurposed fire escape. Other features include an open-plan fireplace and a generous backyard. (It's like finding a kooky bohemian who got a great rent deal on Castle Howard.)
Charlie doesn't appreciate that fab layout, of course; he grabs the sides of the catwalk like a passenger on the sloping deck of the Titanic. Sara explains her peculiar lifestyle. She takes up men for one month only, men who seem to need her help finding their true selves. An example being the one who was "quite conservative politically. He didn't believe in foreign aid. Do you know, he wouldn't even spend money in New Jersey."
Sara asks Charlie to be "my November": For one month, he'll stay with her and learn to live, live, live. Charlie will shop for mod clothes, he'll write poetry that rhymes (Sara's hippie-ish ethos doesn't extend to free verse) and he'll mingle with Alonzo the vegetarian sign-painter (played by Theodore Bikel, who has a special place in the Siren's heart for starring in her favorite Columbo episode).
There's a complication, one you can see coming. While Charlie is learning to live, he discovers that Sara is dying. He doesn't care, he loves her--he's even learned to navigate the stairs--and he wants to stay. The scene that truly kicked the Siren in the solar plexus was when Charlie brings a huge stack of calendars, all turned to the page for November, and tells Sara it will be November for as long as they are together.
The love story is wholeheartedly sincere, which helps explain why the Siren found Sweet November so much lovelier than the frequently sour, po-faced Love Story of 1970. If you are going to make a tearjerking romance, however much comedy you put in the mix, the only way to do it is full-out. You can't play the cynic for the first reels and then hand out handkerchiefs for the remainder. One Way Passage understands this, Love Affair understands it, Dark Victory understands it, hell, even Alexandre Dumas fils understood it. This movie isn't in that league, but it's trying. It doesn't condescend.
Sandy Dennis, she of the one-word-forward, two-words-back vocal delivery, makes Sara's impulsiveness authentic, her implausible decisions plausible. Newley belongs to a class of actor the Siren groups under "the Pizzazz People": performers like Mickey Rooney or Sammy Davis Jr., who have so much show-biz in them that the heart is not on the sleeve, it's planted in the middle of the forehead like a third eye. Somehow putting the pizzazz-y Newley next to the fluttery Dennis results in chemistry--the Siren truly believed this terminal girl and her box manufacturer were having a good time when the camera cut away from her bed.
Michel Legrand composed the score; in a better world, he'd do the background music for everyone's wistful love affairs. It was shot in Technicolor by Daniel L. Fapp. No matter what you think of the movie, anyone who loves New York would have to get some pleasure out of the utterly gorgeous exteriors, so many of them long gone. This is a magical New York, like the one in Barefoot in the Park and Breakfast at Tiffany's, where the streets are clean and the characters are straight out of characterville. And the movie gets another thing right. November may be gray and dull in other places, but in New York it's dramatic rain alternating with the purest of blue skies, cool weather turning colder, but gradually. Forget spring, no New York month is more romantic than November.
There isn't a lot of Sweet November writing out there, although the IMDB page reveals a devoted cult; one commenter recalls seeing the movie with her man just before he shipped out to Vietnam. The Siren liked Leslie Dunlap's little tribute to the original, in the midst of explaining why she found the remake so dire: "I love Sweet November... I love its quirky optimism, its metaphors for sex, its trippy intimations, its flirtation with adolescent narcissism, its ending. In 1968, Sandy Dennis captured a fragile, experimental feminist moment in which heroines picked up men without a hint of fear. In the blink of an eye, that moment was over."
Maybe the Siren wouldn't have dug Sweet November when it was released. It's such a time capsule, destined to be retro as hell from the day the cameras started rolling. 1968--they made this one year after Bonnie and Clyde, and the same year as Faces and If... and Rosemary's Baby. Sweet November is as defiantly old-school as 1968's Oliver! and The Lion in Winter (both of which, for the record, the Siren also loves). Unlike those last two, Sweet November wants to be down with the kids. It isn't--even the Jerry Wald-esque font of the credits gives the game away--but then again, as Dunlap says, it is.
The Siren has never seen the 2001 film, but one look at the original will tell you any remake was more doomed than Sara herself. This movie should have been left as it was, filed next to the portable 45-record player and the lace-trimmed Peacock Revolution shirt; perfectly imperfect, hopelessly old-fashioned and yet utterly of its time.