Judge Clark Douglas is a fashion model trapped inside a slovenly critic's body.
They don't make girls like Charlie anymore!
Goodbye Charlie opens with a scene of wealthy, attractive people cavorting aboard a cruise ship. The camera lingers on a man and woman making out with each other as a host of people dance around them. Slowly but surely, people notice the couple getting hot and heavy and begin to grow disturbed. PDA overload, perhaps? Soon, the truth is revealed: the girl just so happens to be the girlfriend of a powerful movie producer (Walter Matthau, Grumpy Old Men) aboard the ship. The producer grows enraged and shoots the amorous interloper, and the screams of those aboard segue into the film's cheerful title song (accompanied by images of perturbed animated sea creatures).
Once the credits conclude, we get to know a little bit about the deceased. His name was Charlie, and he was generally regarded as a good-for-nothing womanizer. He got around and was well-known, but was so unliked that very few people turn up at his funeral. Charlie's best friend was George Tracy (Tony Curtis, Some Like it Hot), whose grief over Charlie's death only slightly outweighs his resentment towards his devious former pal. After the funeral, something surprising happens: George encounters a beautiful woman (Debbie Reynolds, Singin' in the Rain) who seems to be suffering from amnesia. After a bit of rest, the woman regains her memories and makes a startling revelation: she's actually Charlie trapped inside a woman's body. Without missing a beat, George determines that some higher power must be punishing Charlie for his womanizing ways. "You were the pitcher, but now you're the catcher!" he smirks.
So begins Vincente Minelli's labored-yet-engaging comedy, which explores gender identity issues in a manner that is progressive by the standards of the era but nonetheless feels a shade sexist today. Above all else, the film is a magnificently weird star vehicle for Reynolds, who has a good time early in the film by contrasting her lovely appearance with an intensely macho attitude. Marilyn Monroe had turned down the film years earlier, claiming that the title role was, "not feminine at all." Well…sure. But it's unlikely that Monroe could have pulled off the kind of subtle comedy Reynolds achieves. As the movie progresses and Charlie grows accustomed to her new body, she begins to act increasingly feminine. She finds herself crying all the time, and confesses to having an overwhelming urge to paint her toenails. "Paint your toenails!?" Curtis bellows in horror.
Goodbye Charlie is a strange experience that doesn't always work, but the film's willingness to take as many risks as it does makes it difficult for us to look away. The movie generates some unusual scenes of gender-bending fun, as Charlie delights in the wonders of her appearance ("I'll never have to see a Brigette Bardot movie again!"), shamelessly flirts with a hapless character played by Pat Boone (Journey to the Center of the Earth) for personal gain and wanders around a hair salon slapping attractive female employees on the rear. Similarly strange and memorable: a supporting performance by Walter Matthau, who chews on the scenery while sporting a silver toupee and a ridiculous Hungarian accent. Tony Curtis is technically the film's lead, but his primary role is to look frantic and bewildered (which, admittedly, Curtis does well) while Reynolds walks away with the movie.
Things take a dark turn in the film's final act, which doesn't really work as well as it ought to. I'm a fan of black comedy, but the movie isn't consistently wicked enough to merit the nasty left turn it takes in the closing moments. I can't help but suspect that something a little sweeter would suit the rest of the movie better, but perhaps the conclusion has something to do with the fact that the producers of a big studio comedy made in 1964 would undoubtedly feel a bit uncomfortable granting a man happily trapped inside a woman's body a happy, guilt-free ending.
Most fans of the film will undoubtedly be dismayed with Fox's DVD release. The transfer looks horrible throughout, as the image often seems washed-out and badly damaged. Adding insult to injury, this widescreen feature has been given a pan-and-scan transfer. What is this, 1997? The Dolby 1.0 Mono track is fine, if a little pinched during some of the louder sequences. No supplements are included.
Goodbye Charlie is an intriguing curiosity that offers enough distinctive material to merit a watch. Even so, you're better off waiting for a Turner Classic Movies screening than picking up this crummy pan-and-scan DVD release.
The film is free to go, but the disc is guilty.
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