Henry Cornelius (director)
95 minutes (length)
May 23, 2022 (published)
The opening shot shows a middle-aged Christopher Isherwood walking through Wyndham Place (a fashionable West End venue and the film’s only real location) to attend a cocktail party and book launch (in this case, a dissertation) organized by its publisher. While chatting with colleagues, one of the guests hands Isherwood the book in question and he is more than surprised to realize that the author is none other than a certain Sally Bowles… Realizing how perplexed he is, they ask him if he knows the author. Smiling and staring out the large window, Chris then tells his colleagues how he met Sally some twenty-four years earlier in Berlin – at the time he was a struggling writer with no ideas and even less money although he can talk a little. German… and he left for the Fatherland’s own Babylon, the year being 1931.
The film then goes into flashback and we see how Chris’ best friend Fritz (Anton Diffring) invites him to a nightclub to watch a performance by “outrageous” English singer Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) whom he fell in love. No sooner are the greetings exchanged than Sally’s boyfriend arrives and promptly dumps her, leaving her distraught and in a flood of tears alone at the table. A downcast Fritz, in desperate need of romance, leaves but the kind and curious Chris joins Sally. It seems Sally has nowhere left to go. Chris Isherwood (the real Isherwood was gay) displays no ulterior motives and so invites Sally to stay in his ramshackle bedroom, gallantly offering her his bed while he sleeps on the couch – of course, seeing how the film went filmed in 1955 any mention of homosexuality would have caused problems with the censors. Soon it’s all on board for the lark as Sally, considerably larger than life with her emerald green fingernails, continues to paint the town red with Chris in tow, never shy about flirting with future sugar daddies. It’s worth pointing out that Chris “writes a famous novel”, although it would have been more correct to say “wants to write a famous novel”, while Sally, an aspiring actress who hopes to make it big at UFA studios, is adamant. be the next big screen sensation! If only she had the discipline… Of course, her antics will indeed serve as the basis for the famous short story.
Meanwhile, Fritz soon finds a stable girlfriend in the kind and wealthy Natalia Landauer (a small role for Shelley Winters) whom Chris is tutoring in English. However, for Fritz, who is Jewish, there will be major problems ahead with the changing political climate in Germany. He does not know that the Landauers are themselves Jews.
Such obvious warning signs are of little concern to our exuberant Sally who is more interested in a decadent lifestyle that she clearly cannot afford. One night, after a night out, Sally persuades Chris to buy her “just one glass of champagne” at an expensive restaurant, but no sooner has she shot her down than he decides to treat himself (at poor Chris’s expense). ) a little more and not only to order countless champagne cocktails. but also caviar (Beluga no doubt). There’s no way Chris could pay for that! Never mind, because Sally has already invented one of her tricks: sitting next to them is a very rich American named Clive Mortimer (Ron Randall) and in no time our Sal has integrated the man in their business and he’s only too happy to foot the bill and then take the pair to other bars and clubs, mind it helps that Sally makes it clear that Chris isn’t her lover – her brother perhaps- be. Soon Clive and Sally are romantically involved and the generous American – “the life and soul” of any party – is only too happy to take the long-suffering Chris with them.
Unlike the 1972 hit ‘Cabaret’ where this particular menage-à-trois exists through bisexual Baron von Heune (Helmut Griem), in ‘I Am A Camera’ Clive’s character is straight – despite this he invites two Sally and Chris (as private secretary) to travel the world with him. Chris in particular is happy about it after a bad argument with the Nazis, in short, he is eager to leave Berlin. However, Clive decides to move on without them – leaving not only Chris disappointed but Sally in trouble as she finds herself pregnant. Chris, who some might find a little too good to be true, even offers to marry her (he had previously made a pass which was rejected). The real Isherwood confessed to some straight flings – but like his fellow gay English poets, Auden and Spender were in Germany primarily for young boys.
Luckily, there doesn’t have to be a wedding because Sally, although excited at first about becoming a mother (what, drinking champagne and forever chain smoking?), then informs Chris that she had “miscalculated the dates” and that she was never pregnant to begin with. Anyone who’s ever read the book itself (especially the long “Sally Bowles” chapter) will know that Sally was indeed pregnant and had an abortion (also depicted in “Cabaret”) – something that just couldn’t be mentioned in this 1955 movie just like Isherwood’s Homosexuality. Despite this good news, Sally decides to go to Paris and promises to write regularly to Chris but apart from a postcard, he will never hear from her again, bidding farewell to Berlin himself shortly afterwards. .
Which brings us back to present-day London and the book launch… after Chris has finished revealing his story, one of his colleagues points out that the author is present and indeed, after all these years, Chris finds himself reunited with Sally Bowles who – despite her newfound notoriety – is poorer than ever! Good that Chris has such a good heart and once again invites her to stay with him…
The film has its moments and is quite heartwarming in places, but really only slightly touches on what Berlin in the 1930s would have really been like – on the one hand we had the Weimar Republic with all its decadence while on the Otherwise the Nazi Party was already on the rise – with an economy in decline and the Jewish people being scapegoated. Sadly, “I Am A Camera” doesn’t display enough decadence to make us believe we’re in Berlin’s Weimar Republic – even Julie Harris looks far too tame and sane to impersonate Sally Bowles. That said, Harris won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Bowles in the original Broadway stage production (which caused a scandal when it opened). The main roles (Harvey in particular) nevertheless offer satisfactory performances even if despite a screenplay by John Collier (author of several inspired short stories and the classic ‘His Monkey Wife’), it is really a missed opportunity thanks to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office who refused to approve any film adaptations unless substantial changes were made. Consequently, most of the play’s dialogue was rewritten to remove all objectionable material, and key plot developments were removed. Despite these edits, the film still received an “X” certificate upon release. On the plus side, we can appreciate spotting a number of faces in relatively small (later to become famous) roles such as Patrick McGoohan as the Swedish water therapist. Malcolm Arnold provides a catchy score for this adaptation of John Van Druten’s play.
Newly restored, I AM A CAMERA is available on Bluray, DVD & Digital with the following bonus material: Peter Parker on Christopher Isherwood and Sally Bowles, Interview with Film Journalist/Critic Anna Smith, Gallery Stills and Trailer.