Wednesday, April 09, 2008

"OH, I'D LOVE TO POLISH YOU OFF!": A TRIPLE SWEENEY! The tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been around for a long time -- since the 19th century, I expect. Sweeney Todd the barber slits the throats of his customers and his partner Mrs. Lovett cooks the corpses into her meat pies! And I'm writing this in response to the new DVD release of Tim Burton's version of "SWEENEY TODD". In fact, I'm going to take a quick look at 3 different DVDs of the same story.
First we have the 1936 barnstormer "SWEENEY TODD" starring the indomitable Tod Slaughter. Now, for those of you who have never seen a Tod Slaughter movie . . . well, I feel sorry for you, that's all. Tod Slaughter has to be experienced to be believed; and you STILL might not believe him. The fellow toured around England endlessly putting on his blood-and-thunder plays with himself as the evilest villain imaginable. Tod Slaughter's laugh itself is worth the price of admission; the most lip-smackingly devilish laugh ever heard on film! The man's acting style could be called OVER over-the-top; he specialized in the mustache-twirling villains you just don't see that often on film. "SWEENEY TODD" is probably his most famous role but it's not his best film; that honour would go to "THE FACE AT THE WINDOW" which is my personal favourite. For those familiar with the Sweeney Todd story from the famous Broadway musical (more on THAT later), this movie will be barely recognizable. For instance, Johanna is not his long lost daughter in this movie but merely a rich guy's daughter Todd wants to marry. The traditional "revenge" motive for Todd is not apparent here. There are also scenes of an African warrior attack on the coast of Africa (the warriors' native dialect apparently consists of yelling "La la la la la la la") that would seem to have nothing to do with the traditional Sweeney Todd story. However, this is more a "Tod Slaughter" movie than a "Sweeney Todd" adaptation.
The age of the film does show quite often and the proceedings tend to creak a bit. And it's quite a bit tamer than you'd imagine; instead of scenes featuring Sweeney cutting the throats of his victims, he merely pulls a lever and tips them into the basement where he can "polish them off" off camera. But any scene that Slaughter is in, one cannot help but watch with eagerness. Slaughter always seems to commit his atrocities with a twinkle in his eye as he lets the audience in on the fun. Tod, of course, is quite wonderful here; in fact, every movie I've seen him in he gives exactly the same performance -- the Tod Slaughter special! And believe me, it's served up with plenty of spice and quite a lot of sauce! Stella Rho as the meat pie purveyor Mrs. Lovett is actually quite good in her role -- but who can help being eclipsed while performing next to Tod Slaughter?!?! The rest of the cast is typically bland and forgettable with the exception of young Johnny Singer as Todd's 12 year old assistant Tobias; Singer emotes quite touchingly when abused by the demon barber. Also, the connecting basement set between Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pie shop and Sweeney Todd's tonsorial parlour (presumable by art director Percy Bell) is also quite memorable and atmospheric. Direction by George King (who seemed to helm ALL of Tod Slaughter's films) is adequate if nothing special. If you've never seen any Tod Slaughter film, you should still see "THE FACE AT THE WINDOW". However, after having seen that, you surely can't resist seeking out "SWEENEY TODD".
In 1982, on the fledgling Arts & Entertainment Network, I had the great fortune to catch the filming of the actual performance of the Broadway smash musical "SWEENEY TODD" with music by Stephen Sondheim. I am SO not a fan of Broadway musicals but this quickly became one of my favourites. It stars Angela Lansbury in her Tony Award-winning role of Mrs. Lovett and George Hearn is unsurpassed in the title role. Man, what a voice! The music by Sondheim is a masterpiece and in this DVD we get to see the ENTIRE play as performed on a stage. One of the great misfortunes is that the original soundtrack cd features Len Cariou (NOT a singer) in the Sweeney Todd role; Hearn took over after Cariou left the play and one can only wish they had waiting until he was aboard before recording it for posterity. Thankfully, several years ago this filmed performance with Lansbury and Hearn was made available on DVD (I'm not sure if it's still in print but it SHOULD be). Lansbury is quite remarkably able to keep up with her part which is quite hard to sing; in fact, she quite routinely lost her voice after each performance. Hearn's voice is a revelation: booming, almost operatic (which is appropriate since this "musical" could really be called an "opera" since almost all the lines are sung). In addition to his fine voice, Hearn also brings serious acting chops to his performance; I quite often get chills watching it -- and I've seen it umpteen times. Betsy Joslyn (who bizarrely was married to George Hearn at the time) plays his long-lost daughter; sadly she has one of the most annoying singing voices I've ever heard but thankfully only has one song in which she sings solo and all the others she sings in a group so THAT way I can just barely stand her. Cris Groenendaal is slightly better as eager young sailer Anthony Hope; the guy can admittedly sing and his rather saccharine performance is appropriate for the role. Edmund Lyndeck is quite excellent as Judge Turpin as is Ken Jennings as Tobias (bizarrely Jennings is more active as a makeup artist on many films than as a performer/singer).
The story is fairly well-known. Sweeney Todd returns to London after being saved at sea by young sailor Anthony Hope. Todd (whose real name is Benjamin Barker) was unjustly sent away to prison for 15 years on a trumped up charge by the evil Judge Turpin and his Beadle. The Judge did this because he had eyes for Barker's wife. Todd encounters Mrs. Lovett (who serves the worst meat pies in London) and learns that, after attempting to seduce Barker's wife she took poison and Turpin took Barker's daughter as his ward. Todd opens a barber shop above Lovett's shop and swears to get revenge. Meanwhile, Anthony encounters Johanna (Judge Turpin's ward and Sweeney's daughter) and falls in love with her. They plan to run away together and ask for Todd's help. Sweeney tells Anthony to bring Johanna to him. Meanwhile, Sweeney informs Judge Turpin of the young sailor's plot in order to lure the judge's neck under his razor. While all this is going on, Todd and Lovett cook up a nice way to get rid of all the bodies Sweeney "practices" on -- by cooking them in her meat pies. Which soon become very popular in London and business is booming. How it all turns out you either know already or will have to seek out the film. While this superb DVD of the Broadway production may be hard to find, the same basic story can be found in. . .
Tim Burton's 2007 movie adaptation of Sondheim's Broadway musical inspired me with both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because it's one of my favourite musicals. Dread because it's one of my favourite musicals -- and quite frankly I didn't think Burton could pull it off. Especially when I heard it would star non-singers Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. I've rather gone off Tim Burton in recent years. I was a great fan up until the release of "MARS ATTACKS" which I found to have a really unpleasant, nasty undercurrent to it. And the thought of making a film musical (in this day and age) seemed very daunting. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the film. While nowhere near as great as the Lansbury/Hearn production, Burton's film adaptation is quite respectable. There are one or two decisions made by Burton I have a problem with: the elimination of Johanna from the song "Johanna" turning the song from a trio of voices to a duet irked me since it was needless. And the strange decision by Burton to reign in Helena Bonham Carter's performance causes her to give a tad too stifled a performance. Also, the great deal of humour present in the musical wasn't translated to the film. Depp is quite excellent in his performance and has a passable singing voice. And young Ed Sanders as Toby can really sing his arse off. Alan Rickman (who proved he could sing in "TRULY MADLY DEEPLY") as Judge Turpin is also strangely muted in his performance but still quite good. Not having seen "BORAT", I didn't even realize that was Sacha Baron Cohen as Signor Pirelli until after the movie was over; but even he gives a slightly muted comic performance in a role which was written to be overtly comic. Actually, one place Burton's long-lost sense of humour resurfaces is during the "By the Sea" number. It seems that somewhere along the line Tim Burton has lost his "whimsy": that quality which was present in "PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE", "FRANKENWEENIE", "BEETLEJUICE", "EDWARD SCISSORHANDS" and even "ED WOOD" but seems to have disappeared by the time he made "MARS ATTACKS" and hasn't been seen since. Johnny Depp's performance, while good, is morosely grim throughout whereas George Hearn brought equal parts murderous rage and sly humour to the part. And finally, the last shot in the film (a sort of grand guignol pieta) is strangely lyrical and beautiful while still kinda disgusting -- and yet poetic; in other words, as only Tim Burton could bring to a movie. All in all, Burton's version of "SWEENEY TODD" is worth seeing -- but for the true, pure enjoyment one should seek out the 1982 version with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury. That one will NEVER disappoint!

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