A real peach of a ’70s New Hollywood picture, Mark Rydell and Darryl Ponicsan’s story of a sailor on extended leave is sentimental neorealism — a tough street story, but with the pessimism removed. Poolroom hustler Marsha Mason and sailor-adrift James Caan are a beautiful couple in the making — although the whole world seems against them.
1973 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 117 min. / Street Date July 17, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: James Caan, Marsha Mason, Kirk Calloway, Eli Wallach, Burt Young, Allyn Ann McLerie, Dabney Coleman, Sally Kirkland, Bruno Kirby.
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Film Editor: Patrick Kennedy
Production Design: Leon Ericksen
Original Music: John Williams
Written by Darryl Ponicsan from his novel
Produced and Directed by Mark Rydell
Mark Rydell’s satisfying tough-love romance is yet more evidence why the early 1970s is still considered one of the most creative times in Hollywood. The actor- turned director channels the look of Robert Altman to tell what is essentially a hopeful, sentimental story. Basically the tale of a link-up between a sailor and a pool hall tramp, Cinderella Liberty overcomes traditional problems with such material. The ‘R’ rating for once allows such characters to talk as they might, although our nice-guy hero has a firm rule against profanity. Darryl Ponicsan’s story acknowledges the desperation of sailors to find female companionship, especially when on ‘Cinderella Liberty,’ as is called a shore pass that expires at midnight. Also breaking with Hollywood tradition, the film allows Marsha Mason’s hooker to be credibly profane and self destructive, and yet still be worthy of our concern. The movie has its share of emotional compromises but by the last act we’re only hoping that things turn out well for our deserving main characters.
The stage is quickly set for an intimate realist drama. Set ashore for minor surgery, Navy Boatswain John Baggs Jr. (James Caan) is stuck in the port of Seattle. After missing his boat, he is told that his records have been lost. Deprived of pay and left in reassignment limbo, he gravitates toward Maggie Paul (Marsha Mason), an alcoholic pool hustler and occasional prostitute. Maggie’s eleven year-old son Doug (Kirk Calloway) is well on his way to becoming a juvenile menace. Baggs knows the Navy will discourage him from making a serious commitment to this pathetic family, and when Baggs tries to get Maggie to seriously consider a relationship, she threatens to go back to the bottle and take other lovers. But Baggs won’t give up that easily.
It’s difficult to argue with perfect casting; James Caan and Marsha Mason have terrific chemistry. John Baggs and Maggie Paul’s romance must endure an uphill struggle, as neither the Navy nor common sense holds out much hope for their future together. Maggie and her son Doug would simply be homeless if it were not for her skill at separating sailors from their money. John Baggs beats her at her own tricks in a pool game, winning her favors. A more sentimental film would let Baggs prove his nobility by declining to collect on his bet but Cinderella Liberty wisely acknowledges that sex is the easy part. When it’s over, Baggs realizes that he wants a different kind of relationship. Maggie has plenty of reasons to be suspicious yet Baggs repeatedly proves himself sincere and honest. John manages to find a way into Doug’s good graces, despite meeting the boy over a hostile switchblade.
Cinderella Liberty looks at Baggs and Maggie’s entire social situation. Without official records John Baggs Jr. is in a bureaucratic vacuum. He has no choice but to stand endless watches as a shore patrolman (with the talkative, amusing Bruno Kirby) and do without pay for weeks. The Navy finally makes an effort to find the missing papers because an irate officer (Dabney Coleman) wants to get Baggs on a ship and out of port, away from ideas of getting married.
Things are even worse for Maggie. A social worker (wonderful Allyn McLerie) yanks Maggie’s welfare and food stamps, claiming that Baggs is ‘assuming the role of provider.’ After Baggs tells her the full story the social worker reverses her position and tries to help, but the damage has already been done. Even under normal conditions Maggie has difficulty finding ways to feel good about herself. She can’t take having her hopes raised, only to see them dashed yet one more time.
A sidebar plot deals with Baggs’ growing disillusion with the Navy. He runs into Lynn Forshay (Eli Wallach), a career sailor drummed out for mistreating an important man’s son. Forshay has taken a job as a strip club tout and would do anything to get back with the fleet. The conclusion ties up this part of the story rather neatly, while leaving us unsure whether Baggs will be able to keep his newly formed family intact. Tangent: I call this character fix the Brigadoon Solution, a musical where it should have been used.
Star James Caan was fresh from his celebrated role in The Godfather. Mark Rydell had to make a fuss to get Fox to accept young Marsha Mason as Maggie. It’s probable that her debut feature Blume in Love hadn’t even opened when she got this part. Ms. Mason is just sensational, projecting the bravado of a proud woman near the edge of collapse. Mason starts with a difficult acting feat, acting the good sport while losing a humiliating bet. How many actresses could portray losing such a bet, and laugh it off this good-naturedly? Ms. Mason is vivacious, genuinely funny and surely the most arresting star discovery of the year. Instead of using acting tricks to reveal Maggie’s vulnerable side, Mason simply has the woman endure her problems until she can’t take any more. Then she falls apart, all at once. Caan’s Baggs can’t pick up the pieces every time.
Several heart-wrenching events in the last act turn the light romance into a straight drama. It’s still more hopeful than Darryl Ponicsan’s less forgiving drama of the underside of Navy life, The Last Detail. Cinderella Liberty allows us to leave feeling good about its characters, even though their future is uncertain.
The production has a realistic feel for the Navy life. This isn’t exactly a recruiting film, as the young sailors are mostly assigned to hard menial labor. John Biggs has been in for a long time, but must serve boring watches. The U.S. Navy refused to cooperate with the producers because a major plot point depicts desertion of duty without consequences. To stand in for an American craft, Fox rented a small ship from the Canadian Navy. The rest of the show seems 100% authentic.
The other cliché deftly overturned is the ‘sailor befriends kid’ development. In one scene John takes Kirk Calloway’s Doug to a western movie; we worry that someone will accuse John of being a child molester. Doug eventually gravitates to John because the sailor is more reliable than his own mother.
Correspondent ‘B’ long ago made me aware that in Cinderella Liberty director Rydell seemingly seriously emulated the style of Robert Altman. ‘B’ theorized that Rydell decided to act in The Long Goodbye to learn what he could of the director’s modus operandi. Liberty is stylistically a departure from Rydell’s previous films. The presence of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and designer Leon Ericksen and the different feel of the score by John Williams suggests that the director liked what he learned from Altman.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Cinderella Liberty is a handsome encoding of this relaxing, life-affirming picture filmed in the less attractive portside environs of Seattle. The closest we get to a travelogue is a view of the Space Needle and a snow-capped mountain, both in the distance. The HD image plus improved scanning techniques make this Blu-ray look smoother than the earlier DVD; considering the quality of average release print lab work in the early 1970s, it likely looks a lot better on disc than it did when new.
This is cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond at his best. Flashing the film stock and using filters to soften the image, Zsigmond films at low light levels for the pool hall sequences, getting excellent results. Half-in shadow and lit by colored bar lights, Marsha Mason indeed looks like someone seen across a smoky room, barely a hairdo with a smile attached. Zsigmond makes achieving an artistic effect look easy. It’s as far from the old studio look as one can get.
John Williams’ jazzy soundtrack is a fine accompaniment, that perhaps suggests the good times Maggie remembers from New Orleans, where ‘one can feel the music vibrating in window panes.’ William’s music, with songs lyrics by Paul Williams, is present on a TT Isolated track.
Director-producer Rydell offers an enthusiastic commentary; he has every right to be proud of his picture. A character listed as ‘Gutteral Mischief’ is played by an actor credited as Marty Augustine. As that’s Rydell’s character name in the Robert Altman movie The Long Goodbye, we can be forgiven for assuming that it’s really Rydell in a cameo. An added bonus is an on-location featurette with behind-the-scenes footage.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes attack the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ notion. At one point, Dabney Coleman’s officer describes ‘women like Maggie’ in a string of disparaging obscenities. John later asks Maggie if she’s anything like that description, and her answer is, “Second generation.” The charm of Cinderella Liberty is that it asks us to ponder an important question: are people like Maggie Paul simply ‘broken,’ and doomed to disappoint themselves and others? Or can they be redeemed with a little love and faith?
Written with input from correspondent ‘B.’
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Audio Commentary with Director Mark Rydell; On Location with Mark Rydell, Director of Cinderella Liberty, Theatrical Trailer, TV Spot, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 21, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson