Monday, February 13, 2017

Hello Dolly (1969)

By 1969, the American movie musical was on life support, but Fox saw promise in adapting the 1964 Broadway hit Hello Dolly to the big screen, and was willing to shell out 25 million to do so. Things got off to a shaky start when the producers filled the titular role with 26-year-old Barbra Streisand, whom many felt too young a choice for the decidedly matronly-meddler Dolly Levi. And things only got shakier when Streisand clashed with nearly everyone on the set, particularly co-star Walter Matthau and director Gene Kelly. In the end, it lost a bundle – around 10 million, according to some estimates – and if it didn’t officially end the screen musical it certainly didn’t help its future prospects much either.

But time has been kind to this lavishly mounted epic, and it even experienced a resurgence of sorts through its inclusion in the 2008 Pixar film Wall-E. And truth be told, it’s a delightful entertainment – a fun, frilly throwback, reminding us all of the Golden Age that existed in Hollywood in much the same way that film itself celebrated the halcyon era of the Gay Nineties, before the twentieth century came crashing down, warts, world wars and all

And, as you may suspect, I’ve a story to go along with this review (I see you rolling your eyes). When I was a teenager, my good friend and mentor, Walter Webster, who had directed me in a few musicals at the local theater, Cumberland Players and my high school, Sacred Heart, called me up. He announced his conundrum – he was directing Hello Dolly at another high school and was hit with the news that one of his actors, in the principal role of Cornelius Hackl, had suddenly taken ill and could not fulfill his thespianic requirements. It was followed with a request: could I assume the part? Ridiculous! With one week before opening night? On top of my other academic duties and extracurriculars? In a whole different school where I knew nobody?

“Tell me what to do and I’ll be there,” was my response. That was what you said when Walt asked you for a favor. You didn’t say no.

It was stressful, hard work; I’m not gonna lie. But it was rewarding, too, and introduced me to a show I had heretofore known only for its title song, which I hasd never been the biggest fan of. But as I learned the lyrics and recited the crackling dialogue, I realized how much fun the damned thing was. Its story – adapted from Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker – is not the heaviest matter in the world, but it has no intentions of being so. And Dolly the movie retains that infectious frivolity gorgeously. By the time it’s over , you’re giddy with effervescence, brought down only and the end when you realize no movie like that could ever be made in these cynical times. But, oh, while it lasts.

Dolly Levi is New York’s most famous matchmaker, and in the repressed, late-Victorian world of 1890, her services are in uber-high demand. She’s on her way to Yonkers to see if she can make herself a match with wealthy feed-store owner Horace Vandergelder, undeterred by his apparent betrothal to a beautiful NY millenarian Irene Maloy. And while she’s going to be in the Big Apple to stymie the union, why not help Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengarde, hook up with her beau by inviting them along? (A romance Vandergelder absolutely forbids.) And hey, how about Vandergelder’s employee, Cornelius, who wants to have at least one adventure outside his humdrum life of feed and grain. And his friend Barnaby can come too. All aboard the railroads to NY, as the cast belts “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” the show’s best number.

Dolly’s plan works – overall. By having Cornelius call on Irene she successfully ends any possibility of her courtship with Horace, but now Irene thinks Cornelius is rich, and their date at the posh Harmonia Gardens puts the gawky grainer in a nervous tizzy along with Barnaby, who’s double-dating with Irene’s pal, Minnie. Dolly sets Horace up for a backup date at the same restaurant, with an insufferable woman she knows will sabotage everything, clearing the path for Dolly’s forward march. And then there’s still Ermengarde – and wouldn’t you know? – everyone’s at the same restaurant. A comedy of errors ensues, and Louie Armstrong, culminating in true love for all interested parties, and a wedding for the most interested of all: Dolly. Look at the old girl, now, fellas!

I’ve often said that a musical rests upon its music; every truly great musical also had great music. And while perhaps Dolly itself is not great, its music is, from the disarmingly anti-feminist “It Takes a Woman” to the truly lovely “Ribbons Down My Back” to the first-act showstopper “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.” Smartly, almost all of the original Jerry Herman song score was retained from its Broadway version, and the one replacement, “I Put My Hand In There” for the more Streisand-y “Just Leave Everything To Me,” was wise. And while we’re on the topic, I prefer Streisand’s Dolly to that of Carol Channing (the Broadway performer). Channing’s voice is great for comedy, but a nightmare on the ears, and I’d rather be hearing a melodious voice for two-and-a-half hours than a frog doing a one-joke routine. Sorry, Carol; gotta be honest.

If I have one qualm perhaps it’s Gene Kelly’s direction of certain numbers, turning them into endless dance extravaganzas. Yes, I know, the critique is about as fair as criticizing John Ford for too many shots of Western sunsets, or Hitchcock for overuse of suspense. But really, a number like “Dancing,” although appropriate, just goes on too damned long with twirling skirts and high kicks and the like. (Apparently the choreographer and costume designer did not get along, and no wonder – it must have been a nightmare doing those moves with hoopskirts.) But, alas, it was still the 1800s, and swing dancing and the Charleston were still decades away.

Still, minor stuff. I just love all the visible work that went into this – you can see the labor behind al the costumes and sets and craning camera moves. No digital effects, no offline editing, no screenwriting by committee. Just real, earnest filmmaking. God, I love this era.

Anyway, back to the present. A great film, and not because of Wall-E.

Rating:  ****

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