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The film opens with Joel Grey, as the "Master of Ceremonies," staring into a distorted mirror on the stage of the Kit-Kat Club, then directly addressing the camera to welcome the audience to the club. As he introduces the cabaret's other performers, the scene is intercut with shots of "Brian Roberts" arriving in Berlin. At the end of the film, after saying Auf weidersen and bientt, Grey bows abruptly and disappears behind a curtain. The camera then pans over to the distorted mirror, in which a large proportion of the audience is wearing brown Nazi uniforms. According to the March 1972 New Republic review of the film, the mirror device was adapted from the Broadway musical version of Cabaret, which opened with the audience seeing its reflection in a large mirror as the curtain rose.
The complicated history of the film's literary source began with short stories written by Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986), a British writer who lived in Berlin during the early 1930s. In chronicling his time there, he wrote several short stories, including "Sally Bowles" and "The Landauers." These stories were collected and published as a book in 1939 under the title Goodbye to Berlin. Isherwood also wrote a novella about his time in Berlin entitled The Last of Mr. Norris, which was published in 1935. In 1946, the two books were published together in a compilation entitled The Berlin Stories, which is frequently cited as the literary source for Cabaret. The story "Sally Bowles" was published in book form in London in 1937 and in Argosy magazine in May 1940.
The characters in Cabaret come from both Goodbye to Berlin and The Last of Mr. Norris, although they are changed somewhat. In the story "The Landauers," "Natalia Landauer" is a an eighteen-year-old schoolgirl to whom the character "Christopher Isherwood" gives English lessons, although he does not introduce her to his friend "Fritz Wendel," the German playboy first described in The Last of Mr. Norris. Although in the stories Isherwood and "Sally" do strike up a friendship with a rich baron, only Sally has an affair with him, and her pregnancy and subsequent abortion are the result of another relationship. Despite their fast friendship, the Isherwood character and Sally do not become lovers in the stories.
The real Isherwood, a prominent and open homosexual, while not portraying the character "Isherwood" as openly gay in The Berlin Stories, subtly made it clear that the character is homosexual. The politics of the rising Nazi party, especially as they pertain to the persecution of Jews and clashes with Communists, are featured prominently in the stories and novella. A June 1972 Pioneer Press reprinted an interview with Isherwood in which he noted that the woman who was the basis for Sally was living in London and had a daughter. Modern sources add that British performer Jean Ross was the inspiration for Sally.
British playwright John Van Druten used The Berlin Stories as the basis for his play I Am a Camera (New York, 28 November 1951). The title of the play comes from the short story "A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)," which was part of Goodbye to Berlin. In it, Isherwood described himself thusly: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." Van Druten's dramatic, non-musical play was used as the basis for the 1955 British film I Am a Camera, directed by Henry Cornelius and starring Julie Harris as Sally and Laurence Harvey as the Isherwood character.
In a modern interview, composer John Kander stated that producer Harold Prince had purchased the rights to The Berlin Stories in the mid-1960s and hired Joe Masteroff to create the musical Cabaret with Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. The musical focused more on the relationships between the characters than on politics, eliminated the character of Natalia and created some new characters and situations, such as a romance between "Fraulein Schneider" (called "Fraulein Schroeder" in Isherwood's stories) and a new character, "Herr Schultz." A key addition to the musical was the character the Master of Ceremonies. The musical, directed by Harold Prince and starring Jill Hayworth and Bert Convey, opened in New York on November 20, 1966. It became a smash success, running for 1,165 performances.
In 1968, Daily Variety reported that Cinerama Releasing had paid $2,100,000 plus a percentage of the grosses for the screen rights to the Tony Award-winning musical, and that it would be "the company's first totally financed production since [it] was formed last year as a distributor of major product." According to the news item, the picture was to be the first musical "shown in the Cinerama process" and would begin filming in late 1969. In February 1969, however, Hollywood Reporter announced that Cinerama's deal with Prince was off because William R. Forman, Cinerama's chairman, had met with "considerable interferences" from the lawyers handling the deal and decided to cancel it, although he had already convinced Warner-Seven Arts to "join him as co-producer."
On March 25, 1969, Daily Variety reported that Masteroff, Kander and Ebb had filed a breach-of-contract suit against Cinerama, which, according to a May 1973 Variety article, was settled out of court. On March 28, 1969, both Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety noted that Sidney Beckerman and Joe Wizan, of Beckerman-Wizan Productions, had announced that they had purchased the rights to the musical. On May 28, 1969, Daily Variety reported that Allied Artists and Haven Industries had paid $1,500,000 for the rights, which, at the time, was the largest sum paid by AA for a property. A May 1973 Variety news item stated that AA and Haven had "bought out" Beckerman and Wizan.
In mid-January 1970, Daily Variety noted that the negative costs for the production were to be split between AA and ABC Pictures, presided over by Martin Baum. The article further reported that ABC would produce the picture with AA set to distribute it, even though ABC's usual distributor was Cinerama, and that the budget was set for a "relatively low" $5,000,000. On October 7, 1970, Daily Variety announced that AA had purchased Haven Industries' interest in the property and would partner solely with ABC.
According to modern sources, Baum persuaded Cy Feuer, an Oscar-winning composer and longtime Broadway producer, to produce the film version. Although the film's onscreen credits state that the picture is a "Feuer & Martin production," no other mention of Ernest Martin, Feuer's frequent partner in theatrical ventures, is made onscreen. Martin was mentioned in the January 22, 1970 Daily Variety article, however.
Feuer, who had never produced a film before, suggested hiring Bob Fosse as the director of Cabaret, according to modern sources, despite the box-office failure of his first motion picture as a director, 1969's Sweet Charity (see below). Modern sources assert that before Fosse was offered the job as director, Gene Kelly turned it down. One modern source reports that Prince originally considered directing the film himself but did not because he was about to start work on a new Broadway show. According to Filmfacts, writer Hugh Wheeler "was originally announced as co-scenarist, but ultimately received" onscreen credit as a "research consultant" only. In his autobiography, actor Michael York, who portrayed "Brian Roberts," related that Wheeler rewrote the screenplay after Jay Allen finished it and that he was also on location in Germany to "supervise revisions." Other modern sources add that Fosse was adamant about hiring Robert Surtees, with whom he had worked on Sweet Charity, as the director of photography, but Feuer and the studio executives insisted instead on Geoffrey Unsworth.
According to modern sources, Liza Minnelli had campaigned vigorously to play the part of Sally Bowles in the Broadway version of Cabaret and after losing the part, included the title song in her nightclub act. Although Minnelli, the daughter of famed actress-singer Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, had appeared in several earlier films, Cabaret marked her first onscreen singing role. Joel Grey reprised his Tony Award-winning role of the Master of Ceremonies for the film version of Cabaret. For the film, the character of Sally, who was British in the musical version, was changed to American, and the character of Brian Roberts (Isherwood, called "Clifford Bradshaw" in the stage musical) was changed from American to British. In a modern interview, York noted that the change was due purely to the casting of the lead roles. According to a modern source, when York's availability for the project was briefly in doubt, American actor John Rubinstein was tested for the part of Brian.
The character of Herr Schultz was dropped from the filmed version, while the triangle romance between Sally, "Maximilian von Heune" and Brian was invented. The romance between Natalia and Fritz, which was created by Van Druten for his play but was not in the Broadway musical, was revived for the film version of Cabaret (in Isherwood's stories, Natalia and Fritz never meet).
Several songs from the Masteroff, Kander and Ebb musical were not included in the film version, including "Don't Tell Mama" and "It Couldn't Please Me More," although some of them are heard in the background as instrumental versions played on Sally's record player or in the nightclub. All of the songs sung by Brian in the musical were eliminated for the film, for which Kander and Ebb wrote two new songs: "Mein Herr" and "Money." The song "Maybe This Time," which did not appear in the Broadway show but was featured in the film, had been written by Kander and Ebb for Minnelli, who released the song on her 1964 record album "Liza! Liza!" The film's only song not sung within the environment of the Kit-Kat club was "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," sung by the Hitler Youth in the country beer garden. According to Filmfacts, American tenor Mark Lambert dubbed the German actor who played the Hitler Youth singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." Modern sources note that Fosse deliberately chose to "streamline" the musical and make it more "realistic" by having the songs sung only within the club. The songs often comment on the action preceding or following them, such as when Sally meets the rich Maximilian, and then sings "Money" with the Master of Ceremonies.
As noted in the onscreen credits, the picture was filmed entirely in West Berlin, in what was then West Germany, with the interiors being shot at the Bavaria Atelier Gesellschaft Studios. Hollywood Reporter production charts state that the film was also shot in Munich and according to a July 2, 1971 LAHExam article, Charlottenburg Castle in Berlin was also used, which, according to modern sources, was the setting for Maximilian's country estate. According to a modern interview with York and various crew members, a long production number was shot at the castle over four days but was deleted from Fosse's first cut of the picture, which ran over three hours. York also related that Schloss Eutin (Eutin Castle) in Schleswig-Holstein was a location site. Modern sources add that Fosse was inspired by two German artists of the 1920s and 1930s, George Grosz and Otto Dix, in the set dcor and lighting of the Kit-Kat club. Several modern sources report that dancer and actress Gwen Verdon, who was married to Fosse at the time of production, helped extensively with dance rehearsals and wardrobe selection.
The film garnered excellent reviews, with Variety declaring that the picture was "a career milestone for virtually everyone concerned." Minnelli, who was featured on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week, received mainly raves for her breakout performance. In praising Fosse's direction, the Washington Post critic asserted that he was "on the verge of assuming a major creative role in the evolution of American film musicals." A April 10, 1972 Box Office article, reporting that the film had already made more than $2,000,000 at the box office, noted that it was likely to become the highest-grossing film in AA history. Daily Variety and Variety news items in February and March 1972 reported that due to the film's Academy Award nominations, it was receiving the "largest saturation booking of any film in the [studio's] history."
Cabaret received the following Academy Awards: Best Director; Best Actress (Minnelli); Best Supporting Actor (Grey); Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Film Editing; Best Scoring-Adaptation and Original Song Score and Best Sound. In addition, the picture was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. [Cabaret was the last musical nominated for a Best Picture Oscar until the 2003 film Chicago (see below), which had been adapted from a Broadway musical directed and choreographed by Fosse.] Cabaret, a smash hit at the box office, received Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy, Best Motion Picture Actress-Musical or Comedy (Minnelli) and Best Supporting Actor-Motion Picture (Grey). In 1995, Cabaret was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry and in 2006, was named #5 on AFI's list of the 25 Greatest Movie Musicals.
"Cabaret" became one of Minnelli's signature songs and she frequently included it in her nightclub acts. Her Emmy Award-winning television special, Liza with a Z, which aired on NBC on September 10, 1972, was directed by Fosse and featured new songs written for her by Kander and Ebb. She also performed several numbers from Cabaret. Her costumes from the film became very influential in fashion, especially the black leotard with shorts, black stockings and bowler hat that she wore for the "Mein Herr" number. Modern sources have commented on the resemblance between Minnelli's distinctive, short haircut and that worn by silent screen actress Louise Brooks, and the similarity between the costumes and those worn by characters in other shows and movies directed by Fosse. Fosse won Best Director, Best Producer and Best Choreographer Emmys for Liza with a Z, which, along with his Oscar for Cabaret and two Tonys for the Broadway musical Pippin, made him the only director, as of 2007, to receive all three major awards in one year. Minnelli worked with Kander and Ebb several more times, including on the 1977 film New York, New York and the Broadway musical The Act.
In October 1975, Daily Variety reported that eight parties were suing AA and ABC Pictures for profits allegedly due them from the film's grosses and sale for broadcast on television. According to the suit, ABC-TV paid $4,500,000 for the television rights to Cabaret. Among the plaintiffs were Masteroff, Kander, Ebb and Isherwood. The outcome of the suit has not been determined.
According to a November 1976 Variety article, the film was censored in West Berlin when it was first released there theatrically, with the sequence featuring the Hitler Youth singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" having been deleted. The article stated that the elimination had been made "because of the feeling that it might stir up resentments in the audience by showing the sympathizers for the Nazi movement during the `30s." The sequence was restored, however, when the film was shown on West German television on 7 November 1976.
The musical Cabaret was revived on Broadway twice, in October 1987-June 1988, during which Grey reprised his role as Master of Ceremonies, and March 1998-2004, which starred Alan Cumming as the Master of Ceremonies. In both revivals, songs from the film version, such as "Mein Herr" and "Money," were incorporated. In 1993, the then-current revival of the musical on the London stage, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Cumming and January Horrocks as Sally, was broadcast on British television as a one-night special.