Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Sweet November (1968)





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.

22 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

Somehow you pulled it off, making me want to see a movie I'd skip over in just about any other circumstance.

Greg F. said...

I actually missed Sweet November on Sunday but took it's scheduling as an opportunity to write up Sandy Dennis at the Morlocks. Now I'll have to get a copy and give it a look.

Greg F. said...

Ugh, I meant "its" not "it's" because I'm an idiot.

David said...

Oh my gosh, the tone arm on the turntable knocking off the thing that hit the thing that hit the thing that killed somebody! That's one of my favorite "Columbo" episodes too.

barrylane said...

Is that Errol and Lili Damita?

mas82730 said...

Or: Can Hieronymous Merkin ever find true happiness with Monkey Nipples?

Vanwall said...

I used to watch it all the time on the TV, it was plugged in as a romance into empty time slots by default, I think. Newley was amazingly grounded for him, I thought. The absurdity of the premise is totally forgotten a few minutes in. It played well as a combo with "You're a Big Boy Now", which was another stop gap slotter. Two more likeable films would be hard to find, at least for me.

Aubyn Eli said...

I only caught about 15 minutes of this one on TCM but it intrigued me enough to hunt it up on Youtube.

The "calendar scene" is there, by the way.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGyzLiTxDRg

I do have to give a shout out to Greg. His wonderful tribute to Sandy Dennis is the reason I stopped to check the movie out.

http://moviemorlocks.com/2013/06/30/65937/

gmoke said...

I miss Peter Kastner. He died of a heart attack in Toronto a few years ago.

Skimpole said...

I love "Oliver"! But "The Lion in the Winter" leaves me cold. Hepburn gives a good, if not great, performance, but O'Toole is dreadful. And the only reason why academy voters cared about this discussion of 12th century dynastic intrigue is so they wouldn't have to care about "2001," or "Shame" (my choice for best actress that year) or "The Battle of Algiers" (a 1968 best Director nominee).

Lemora said...

I was 20 years old in 1968. I avoided movies that were "down with the kids" like the plague even then. When I didn't, I was generally sorry for the wasted 2 hours ("Joe," "Taking Off") of my time. I loved "You're A Big Boy Now." I liked "The Graduate" then, but think it hasn't aged well, to put it mildly. I met Peter Kastner and his wife, Wendy at a house in Venice CA, when I lived there and it was a Bohemian village-by-the-sea full of Nazi refugees grown old; Beatniks grown middle-aged; young hippies; and college students. If Carole Lombard could time travel, I'd want to see her do the comedy roles Sandy Dennis played in the sixties ("Any Wednesday",) and all the roles Greta Gerwig does now. And I didn't like "The Lion In Winter" either, even though I loved Peter O'Toole ("What's New Pussycat?") and Katharine Hepburn ("The Philadelphia Story.") If I ever get TCM again, I'll have to catch the original "Sweet November." Sandy Dennis is one of the few actresses who could pull that off. They never should've remade it. That whole era of Hollywood movie-making, where the old guard tried to figure out the counter culture and how to pander to it, produced mostly cringe-worthy results. In 1968, I was watching, for free, movies from the 1930's in the film school screening room at UCLA, where George Cukor or Howard Hawks would be there to take questions from the audience after their films were shown. I found that era much more interesting than the one I was actually living in! (I have never viewed all of "Love Story." Only the part where Jenny has just learned her diagnosis and says to Oliver, "I want time. And that you can't give me." From that until the ending, I reached for the Kleenex. So, I don't know about the earlier cynicism in that movie, but the last third worked. For me, at least.)

The Siren said...

Barry, It is definitely Errol; as for Lily, could well be--your eyes are sharp indeed.

Mas, I have seen Hieronymous Merking. Now THAT is a trippy movie. I didn't like it, but its all-in strangeness commanded a certain amount of respect.

David, yes!! I love that Columbo episode.

yojimboen said...

Flynn and Damita later the same day.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Michel

barrylane said...

I thought I recognized the thighs.

Lemora said...

I just saw "Sweet November." What an unexpected delight! One of the main reasons I love your blog is, I see movies and find out about books (Salka Viertel's memoir) and people (Mr. Hoffenstein) that I probably would have otherwise never known existed. And I realize how much I miss Sandy Dennis. What an original she was! And how well I remember that fragile feminist moment. Also, I liked the chemistry between SD and Anthony Newley, even though his eyebrows and eye shadow were a bit distracting. And I loved Theodore Bikel. I hadn't seen him in years. Another SD gem is "Up The Down Staircase," also from that era. (I think I was wrong about "Any Wednesday," that was Jane Fonda. SD was in the Broadway play.) And now that I know about the Pizzazz People, I have to add Julia Roberts and Betty Hutton to the list. (You beautifully described a condition that heretofore had no precise definition.) And now, to catch that Columbo episode.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lovely review, and descriptions of New York. I've not seen the movie-- like others, I think I've mostly avoided it, though I like Sandy Dennis -- but your prose is the next best thing. Maybe better.

The Siren said...

Lemora, I am tickled to death that you saw & liked. Sometimes I write about a movie like this and think people are going to stone me if they don't agree, so I breathe a sigh of relief if others see it as I do.

Jacqueline, thank you so much! You might like this one, what with your love of great fall atmosphere and all.

Lemora said...

I can see why Pauline Kael and others pilloried "Sweet November" in 1968. I and my friends would've avoided it like the plague. I didn't even remember it! Now, having lost about twelve of my nearest and dearest in the last decade, I can accept it on its own terms. SN exists in an alternate parallel sixties universe. It wisely doesn't tell us what year, or reference any real-world events: The Carnaby Street look for men and women peaked in the spring of 1964 and was mostly over (in California) by 1965, but not really. The apartment set is spot on. (I remember installing Yvonne DeCarlo beads in my own apartment around that time.) And I'm glad Sara was played by Sandy Dennis rather than by the more self-consciously hip Shirley MacLaine, who at that time was in the waning years of her kooky, gamine phase. And the ending was perfect.

Qalice said...

I saw "Sweet November" when I was a teenager and fell IN LOVE with it the way only a teenage girl can. I've been afraid to watch it again,but you've convinced me to dare watching it when TCM dares to show it in the future! Thank you.

The Siren said...

Qalice, welcome. I know exactly what you mean; I have a couple posts back in the archives where I went back and saw something I loved as a girl and was dismayed as an adult. I think Sweet November has a real delicate lovability to it, so hopefully you won't be disappointed. It's on Warner Archive as well.

Janet P. Mullaney said...

So glad to stumble on this encomium to the film, which I also watched on TCM some time in the past because I love Sandy Dennis. It was loads of fun and not formulaic in the least.