Sweeney Todd

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 1, 2008 10:02pm | Post a Comment
Sweeney Todd is a villain who began as an urban legend sometime around 1800 and was, a few decades later, the protagonist of a penny dreadful called The People's Periodical, which was published in 1846. The issue was titled The String of Pearls: A Romance written by Thomas Prest, a popular writer who also wrote Varney the Vampire, which I've wanted to get a copy of ever since I was in third grade.

Another popular urban legend of Victorian London was that the unsuspecting victims ended up in meat pies.

There was no evidence of Sweeney Todd having been an actual character, nor that anyone turned up in the popular takeaway dish, but when the story was turned into a play in 1847 the advertising claimed that it was "founded in fact."

Remember that lady that claimed to find a finger in her chili at Wendy's? Of course, she turned out to be a serial scam-artist and got sentenced to nine years. I think if I found an identifiable piece of meat in my fast food chili it would actually be sort of comforting like, "Hey- at least it's not the pig's genitals!" ... but meat-eaters are a crazy bunch with all sorts of hang-ups about what species are good (chicken, cow, fish, lobster and pig) and what are bad (cat, dog, horse, cockroach or person). So picky!


Anyway, back to Sweeney Todd.

A Pathe "news" clip promoting Tod Slaughter

In 1936 the first sound film adaptation (following two silent versions) was produced in England. Most of the "ingredients" of subsequent adaptations are present here: a love interest named Johanna, a meat pie-making Mrs. Lovett and of course Todd, his mechanical barber's chair and straight razors. The film starred Tod Slaughter, an actor famous for his over-the-top performances as murderous maniacs. As this clip above illustrates, his acting has pretty "hammy."
The next cinematic adaptation was 1970's Bloodthirsty Butchers.
In 1973 playwright Christopher Bond wrote a play version wherein new twists were added to the play. In his version Sweeney Todd was motivated by revenge, not greed. A judge wrongfully imprisons Todd and rapes his wife, which leads to her committing suicide.

Six years later Stephen Sondheim adapted it into a musical, which proved quite popular. In 1982 it was filmed and this version is available on DVD. 

In 1997 John Schlesinger filmed a version called The Tale of Sweeney Todd, which is currently only available on VHS.

In 2001, another version of the musical showed up. This one is a pretty bare-bones production from the look of it.

In 2006, another non-musical version was filmed. This version is, I've read, an attempt to inject a bit more realism into the over-the-top tale.

And now, Tim Burton brings us yet another version.

As with most Tim Burton films, a lot of attention obviously goes into the costumes and sets, which look  dark and lovely and pretty much just as you'd expect. And, as you'd also expect, there is ample cream-complected cleavage on display, a blond waif Christina Ricci-lookalike, a damaged woman with dark circles around her eyes, and finally a guy with large, improbable hair who seems to be a version of the guy Tim Burton must fantasize about being.

You can tell Burton casts largely for type, often at the expense of technical abilities. Sweeney Todd is so unmistakably like a Tim Burton film that it's kind of hard to get emotionally involved since every detail from the cast, the look, the subject and everything else is so... predictably and unchallengingly Tim Burton.

Tim Burton and his partners in hair (both blade-wielding hairdressers)

Burton's peroxided Innocents

and some of his his consumptive brunettes

First, since it's a musical, let me talk about the music. This was my first exposure to Stephen Sondheim. I'd heard wildly varying descriptions of his style but with Johnny Depp's thin yet appealing voice, it brought to mind Anthony Newley and his work with Lesley Bricusse. Overall, however, most of the songs didn't strike me as either especially melodic or memorable (except "Johanna") and sometimes the unprofessional voices delivered clever lyrics that I had to strain to hear over the bombastic score. And every number seemed to end in a clamorous crescendo.

I did like the story a great deal, having as I do a sweet spot for revenge, tragedy and 19th urban settings. At the same time, I squirmed in my seat more from the rather slow pace and from the fear that the singing would start again rather than from the grand guignol-style bloody action which unfolded in a manner that seemed strangely remote and dispassionate. It wasn't until the climax of the film when the apparently disparate strands of the film pleasingly yet predictably start to come together that I sensed any sort of heartfelt emotions from the characters. The final scenes were surprisingly touching and then it abruptly ends, just as it's getting good -- a mere two hours after it begins. Ngoc Nguyen, who is never wrong about such things, shared my opinions for the most part, as well as a headache.

So, I'm fairly ambivalent about Tim Burton's take on an oft-interpreted tale. He's made his share of flawless films - for example Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Ed Wood, and Edward Scissorhands. And yet, so many of his films seem lush and pretty but vacant and remote. His choices seem so unfailingly predictable and one-note. His next film is going to be Alice In Wonderland. I do like that book ... but I feel like, come on!  Does he perversely enjoy doing exactly what everyone expects?

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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Stephen Sondheim (2), Anthony Newley (2), Tim Burton (3), Helena Bonham Carter (3), Johnny Depp (9), Urban Legends (1), Musicals (6), Penny Dreadfuls (1), Grand Guignol (1), Sweeney Todd (2), Ngoc-thu Thi Nguyen (26)