Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night" is, next to his film version of "The Magic Flute," the most charming, most buoyant movie he's ever made. "A Little Night Music," the Broadway musical adaptation of the Bergman film, directed by Harold Prince, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim at his best, sent one out of the theater feeling in top form.
It's something more than a shock, then, that the film adaptation of the Broadway show not only fails to raise the spirits; it also tramples on them. The more kindly disposed will leave the theater depressed, a lot of others may be in a rage. Though it's possible to fail with intelligence and grace, the movie, which opens today at Columbia 1, pursues disaster in the manner of someone who, with mindless self-confidence, saws off the limb he's sittin on.
Perhaps the movie's worst sin is to make the critic feel he must play the role of the piously aggrieved scoutmaster, who has to say a lot of boring, obvious things—in this case about the difference between the stage and movies. These are things that Mr. Prince, who also directed the movie, and Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the screenplay from his own Broadway book, certainly know from experience that is more practical than most critics will ever have. The way they have made the movie, it looks like a publicly posted suicide pact. Such a succession of mistakes can't be accidental.
The Broadway show, like the Bergman film, is a wickedly lyric rondel, a romantic, turn-of-the-century masquerade about three mismatched couples who, in the course of a limpid summer night, on a magnificent country estate, more or less stumble into perfect happiness.
They are a beautiful, worldly actress of certain years (Elizabeth Taylor), her lover, a foolish hussar (Laurence Guittard), the hussar's jealous wife (Diana Rigg), the wife's school friend (Lesley-Ann Down), whose much older husband (Len Cariou) loves the actress and whose stepson (Christopher Guard) loves his stepmother.
Looking on are the actress's ancient mother (Hermione Gingold), herself once a famous courtesan, and the actress's daughter (Chloe Franks), plus one lively, pretty maid (Lesley Dunlop), without whom no farce can be complete.
The sum and substance of the show are not the characters but Mr. Sondheim's music and lyrics. They describe the awful and funny torments of hearts that rule minds of the size and consistency of baby peas. It's not exactly a problem play. It's Mozartean comedy in which stylized settings, costumes and even lighting create a world of sweet timelessness.
Having elected to transform the Sondheim show into a film, Mr. Prince appears to have made every decision that could sabotage the music and the lyrics. He has cast the film with people who don't sing very well and then staged almost every number in such a way that we can't respond to the lyrics.
He often photographs the singers in those blandly uninformative close-ups that force us to consider hairlines, necklines and lip-sync techniques.
Mr. Sondheim's marvelous two-and three-part songs, in which characters, often in different settings, share their sentiments, work on the stage since the characters are enclosed by the same proscenium. In the movie, which is set in elegant but realistic locations, these numbers require all sorts of busy cross-cutting that upstages the music, which becomes as effectively fragmented as the images.
It is, of course, possible to hear the songs, but in this movie it seems like-work. "Send in the Clowns" will survive Miss Taylor's game way with a lyric, and so will "You Must Meet My Wife" (Miss Taylor and Mr. Cariou), but "A Little Night Music" shouldn't be a matter of survival. It should be ebullient and fun. It isn't. It often seems to be mean-tempered.
There's no reason why Miss Taylor should be photographed so unflatteringly (unless she gave the orders), or that Lesley-Ann Down and Diana Rigg should appear at times in flesh colors of grayish-green (at least in the print I saw).
Someone should also have had the decency to blip out a word in one of the lyrics that gets a cruel laugh in the way it refers to Miss Taylor, who is an actress of more wit and character than "A Little Night Music" ever allows.
So are Miss Down and Miss Rigg, though they, and Miss Taylor and Mr. Cariou do have one very funny scene. It's a dinner table scene in which everything goes wrong and no one is required to sing.
Of the actors, Mr. Cariou is the only one who registers as a character. The others are animated mannequins. Hermione Gingold, re-creating her Broadway role, gets short shrift from the film, which even nips off her last scene, though that may be just as well. It's become increasingly apparent that less of Miss Gingold is more—and sometimes too much.
"A Little Night Music," which has been rated PG A "Parental Guidance Suggested"), contains a couple of love scenes that are less heated than jurious in the way of farce.