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The Last Great Hollywood Musical
on September 3, 2003
The debates over this film have been raging for years, and now that HELLO, DOLLY! has been released on DVD, they're likely to continue for years to come. Opinions are certain to vary, but let's clear up a few misconceptions right from the start -
After 20th Century-Fox purchased the screen rights to HELLO, DOLLY!, producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman was fairly certain he'd be asking Carol Channing to recreate her stage performance for the film - that is, until he saw her in the 1967 movie THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE; to put it as delicately as possible, her features didn't translate well to the big screen. Fox executives were equally doubtful about Channing, so the search began for a new Dolly. After flirting with (and subsequently dropping) the idea of Elizabeth Taylor, the leading candidate became Barbra Streisand. The powers-that-be suspected (correctly) she was headed for major film stardom, and they hoped a fresh, younger Dolly would give the multi-million dollar project greater appeal. Lehman immediately revised his script, eliminating all references to Dolly losing her husband fourteen years earlier, and - after concluding that audiences wouldn't accept Streisand as an Irishwoman - changing the character's name from Dolly Gallagher Levi to simply Dolly Levi. The studio made the offer, Streisand signed on the dotted line, and Lehman surrounded her with the creme de la creme of the MGM/Arthur Freed movie musical unit - Gene Kelly (director), Roger Edens (associate producer), Michael Kidd (choreographer), Lennie Hayton (musical scoring), and Irene Sharaff (costumes).
Skeptics, however, dug in their heels, and a period of bad press followed; there was outrage a film novice like Streisand had taken a role they considered her ill-suited for. A wave of sympathy engulfed Channing, who received a consolation Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (even though Beatrice Lillie received the film's best reviews when it was released).
The bad press began to wane when Streisand's first film, FUNNY GIRL, was released to critical acclaim, box office success, and a Best Actress Oscar; suddenly there was great anticipation for HELLO, DOLLY! And when the film finally opened in December of 1969, it played to packed (and enthusiastic) houses from New York City to Hollywood. Even critics who questioned Streisand's appropriateness for the role agreed she put on a hell of a show.
After a solid start, however, the film's success was mixed; HELLO, DOLLY! received seven Oscar nominations (including one for Best Picture), but Streisand was overlooked. And though it ranked as one of the top ten box office attractions of the year, it hadn't recouped its production costs by the end of 1970; it was neither the runaway success the studio was hoping for, nor the disastrous flop its critics made it out to be. But to the dismay of naysayers who wanted the film to die an ignoble death, DOLLY kept attracting new fans - first on television, then on video, and later on laser disc. Obviously, somebody had done something right.
Watching the movie now on DVD, it's hard to believe such a good-natured, visually spectacular film could have provoked the feelings of animosity it did (and apparently still does). As for Streisand, I think Lehman was absolutely right to cast her; there may be times when she seems too hip for this wholesome slice of Americana, but her funky irreverence is what makes HELLO, DOLLY! so much fun. Not only is she in excellent voice throughout - if anything, she sounds better here than she did in FUNNY GIRL - but it's hard to imagine anyone else bringing the poignance she does to Dolly's monologue in the park ("Ephraim, let me go"), or being as raucously funny in the dinner sequence at Harmonia Gardens ("You salt your beets, and I'll salt mine"). In fact, her energy and charisma are so dynamic that the film's pace falters whenever she's not around - no disrespect to either Michael Crawford or Marianne McAndrew, but the subplots involving Cornelius Hackl and Irene Molloy, while pleasant enough, are hardly enthralling. Walter Matthau, however, makes a surprisingly effective Horace Vandergelder, and his scenes with Streisand have some genuine comic vitality. If there were offscreen tensions between the two, they weren't apparent when the cameras were rolling.
But more than anything else, DOLLY on DVD offers great opportunities for those of us who just want to concentrate on musical numbers (we know who we are). There are moments worth savoring again and again in "Just Leave Everything To Me," "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," "Dancing" (Danny Lockin and E.J. Peaker are particularly impressive here), "Before The Parade Passes By," "The Waiter's Gallop," and, of course, the title number with Louis Armstrong, but Streisand's best number is probably her simplest - "So Long, Dearie." It isn't hard to understand why her character gets a marriage proposal after that one.
As for the age issue - yeah, it's a little strange to see a woman in her late twenties being referred to as an "old girl." So why didn't Ernest Lehman ask Jerry Herman to alter the lyrics? Hard to say - maybe he didn't think anyone interested in realism would be watching HELLO, DOLLY! in the first place. And ultimately, that's what this movie is all about - pure escapism on a grand scale. The quality is apparent in every frame, so just kick back and enjoy the show.