Cinderella Liberty (1973) is a comic love story about a career sailor who
falls in love with a hooker and becomes a surrogate father to her son. The
source material is the eponymous novel by Darryl Ponicsan about red tape and
bureaucracy in the Navy. When director Mark Rydell was approached by the
studio to make a film of the book, he read it and offered to make a film
based not on the entire book, but on one particular chapter. They took him
up on it and the novelist was hired to do his own adapted screenplay.
Cinderella Liberty's lonely sailor was played by James Caan opposite a then
unknown Marsha Mason.
1973 was the year of Darryl Ponicsan. In a strange twist of fate, he had
not one but two Navy-themed novels made into movies in that very same year:
his own adaptation of Cinderella Liberty and Robert Towne's adaptation of
The Last Detail. Each was nominated for three Oscars (no winners):
The Last Detail
Best Actress (Marsha Mason)
Best Actor (The Joker)
Best Musical Score (John Williams)
Best Supporting Actor (Cousin Eddie)
Best Original Song (John William, Paul Williams)
Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Towne)
Caan arrives in Seattle, and is transferred to the local
Naval hospital for a pilonidal cyst. It turns out that the cyst doesn't need
medical treatment, but red tape prevents him from getting back to his ship in
time to leave with it. To add insult to injury, a frustrated Caan is given a
Cinderella Liberty card. For those who have never been in the Navy, Cinderella
Liberty means that you must be back before midnight lest you turn into a
pumpkin, like Cinderella. It is usually imposed on low level personnel,
certainly not a first class bosun's mate with over 12 years of service. He
does what any good sailor would do: heads to a bar, and tries to get lucky. He
ends up hustling Marsha Mason at pool -- $50 against her body. Caan wins. At
her poverty-level apartment, he discovers that she has an 11 year old black
son, and is a terrible mother. This is not a situation he relishes.
Back on the base, he finds out that his pay records have
been lost, and is sent to transit barracks. To make matters worse, he still
doesn't get liberty, but is stuck on shore patrol, also known as SP duty
(often called Short Peters). Of course when he finally does get a night off,
he has no money because of the payroll mix-up. Hanging out an amusement park,
he finds Marsha Mason's son on a roller coaster, drinking beer and swearing.
Caan decides to take the kid under his wing, and this leads to Caan and Mason
getting back together. Things do not proceed smoothly. She is pregnant, the
Navy won't recognize their marriage, they lose their welfare, and Caan's pay
records are still missing.
He has only one stroke of luck. In an important sub-plot,
he is continually searching for his boot camp company commander to get even
with him. He finally finds his nemesis, who is in transit being discharged
against his will. After punching him in the jaw, Caan discovers that he shares
a lot of memories and more than a little affection with this company
commander, played by Eli Wallach.
IMDb readers say 6.5. Roger Ebert wasn't impressed and only
awarded two stars. His complaint was that the story was simply not believable.
Obviously, Roger was never in the Navy. There were some small problems caused by
the fact that the US government didn't approve of the project and refused to
help. For example, the director had to rent a Canadian Navy ship and repaint it.
And there were some very minor technical errors. For example, Caan's rank is
called "first class bosun's mate." A real sailor would say "BM 1," or "deck ape
first" in colloquial speech. Officially, it would be "bosun's mate first class,"
not "first class bosun's mate."
Those are small matters. Apart from such minutiae, the film
had almost everything both correct and credible.
Some might doubt that a sailor would marry a pregnant hooker
with an illegitimate kid. There was a woman in Oakland, and not a very
attractive one at that, who was known as Seventh Fleet Sally. Sailors, not the
most PC people in the world at the time, used to say that kissing her was like
blowing the whole Seventh Fleet by proxy. She had been married to many sailors.
Also, a friend of mine met a pregnant girl at a party, humped her on the stairs,
and ended up marrying her. They had to hide this fact from the Navy, because
sailors holding a rank of E3 or lower were not allowed to marry without
permission from the Navy.
Again, to someone who has never been in the service, the idea
of missing pay records being a problem sounds strange. In fact, it was not
uncommon. In the Navy there are three groups of enlisted men you try to stay
friends with. Cooks, corpsmen and personnelmen.
Cooks, because they can see to it that your food is not palatable, and also
because they can do you special favors.
Corpsmen, because they can give you assistance in getting medical care. I once
traded a canned ham for an appointment for oral surgery to have my wisdom
teeth removed. They film also incorporated a friendly corpsman, who arranged
dental work for Mason's son.
Personnelmen, because they have the most power over you of all. They can lose
your personal and pay records, often by dropping them behind file cabinets. At
that point, you cease to exist and receive no pay for months. There is no hint
in this film that it was intentional, but such things were not at all
The basic idea of a poor woman hanging around a Navy town
hoping to marry a sailor and gain dependent status for her and her kids is also
very true-to-life, because that means commissary privileges, medical care and an
allotment. When their husbands were at sea, they often became "seventh fleet
widows," which meant they screwed around with whoever was in port. Lest you feel
sorry for the husbands, they had no shortage of female companionship on R&R in
places like Subic Bay, Yokosuka and Hong Kong.
In other words, this script is very authentic, obviously
written by someone who has been there.
Darryl Ponicsan also did an amazing job on the dialogue,
which included lines like:
Base commander Lynn Forshay, when asked if he had ever been
in love: "I tell you Baggs, I don't believe I have. That's because I happen to
be one of those incurable romantics. Every time I meet a girl, I expect to
hear a clap of thunder. I never heard the thunder, but I occasionally did get
Bosun's mate John Baggs Jr.: "Would you call yourself a
"Champagne cocktail-sippin', cock-teasin', downtown barroom whore?"
Maggie Paul: "Second generation"
The script was supported by outstanding execution as well.
The acting was amazing. Marsha Mason garnered her first of four Oscar
nominations for this performance, and won the first of two Golden Globes. Caan
and Wallach were also fantastic, but that is no surprise. Newcomer Kirk Calloway
was brilliant as the hardened young son with deep feelings just beneath the
surface. The cinematography was done by none other than Vilmos Zsigmond, and was
typical of his outstanding work. Music was composed by John Williams, and the
song's lyrics were written by Paul Williams. It is no surprise that Mark Rydell
produced and directed this fine film. It is not the only one of his that I have
admired. He was responsible for The Rose, For the Boys, and On Golden Pond. I
love all three, and On Golden Pond would be in my list of the top 100 of all
Although The Last Detail has emerged over time as Darryl
Ponicsan's most highly regarded film project, and beats Cinderella Liberty 7.5
to 6.5 at IMDb, there is reason to believe that Cinderella Liberty was actually
considered the better film in 1973. Although they fought to an Oscar stand-still
with three nominations and no wins, Cinderella Liberty was the overwhelming
favorite at the Golden Globes. While The Last Detail received only the two
acting nominations for Nicholson and Quaid (with no wins), Cinderella Liberty
received five nominations including best screenplay, and the Big Kahuna itself,
best picture - drama. Four of its nominations were also-rans, but Marsha Mason
won outright for her performance.
Obviously, this is exactly my kind of film. It talks about
things I have personal experience with, and does so very believably. The entire
film was shot in Seattle, a place where I spent a lot of time during my Navy
years. If it is your kind of film, as it is mine, they don't get much