(SPOILERS) If there’s an obvious and immediate contender for the crown of least justified Best Picture Oscar nominee, it’s surely Doctor Dolittle. Infamous for the campaigning this box office bomb received, leading to nine nominations and two wins, the ignominy is understandable and deserved, even if it’s simply a worst-case and highest-profile example of the kind of behaviour that’s par for the course in the Oscar business. As for the film itself? It isn’t terrible, but it’s so sedate as to be almost inert, a killer for a two-and-a-half-hour family musical.
There are all sorts of problems in that regard. Structurally, it’s a complete mess, introducing Dolittle efficiently enough via Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley, in his first film role in four years; he’d soon follow it with the star hubris that was Gurney Slade writ large, Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?) He brings obligatory sprog Tommy Stubbins (William Dix) to meet the good doctor and his menagerie. But then there’s a flashback in which Dolittle’s sister (Portia Nelson) has had it up to here with him, an interlude in which Dolittle takes a newly arrived Pushmi-pullyu to a circus run by Albert Blossom (Richard Attenborough), and a subsequent trial by General Bellowes (Peter Bull, cast to apoplectic type) for murdering a woman by throwing her in the sea (actually a seal disguised as woman in order to smuggle her out of the circus). Then, sentenced to the looney bin, Dolitte’s broken out, where the main quest can begin, to find the Great Pink Sea Snail.
If the early chapters are rather aimless, they do have incident on their side, along with the two best songs (I like Talk to the Animals, even if Harrison didn’t, although the gusto of Never Seen Anything Like It is probably more fun). Sir Dickie offers a spirited account of the latter, there’s the frankly deranged sequence in which Rex serenades a seal (When I look in your Eyes), which is certainly more potent than his push me, pull him not quite convincingly falling for Samantha Eggar as Emma Fairfax, the niece of Bellowes (the more extensive makings of a romance between them were cut). Of course, we’ve already witnessed Newley, who does an almost Dick van Dyke rendition of an Oirish accent, sleeping with a pig. Dolittle’s trial is also quite entertaining, particularly when he recounts, via Bellowes’ dog, the general’s dinner menu for the previous night.
But Leslie Briscusse, who would later adapt A Christmas Carol as Scrooge and pen tunes for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with Newley, comes unstuck with events on Sea-Star Island. Geoffrey Holder is good value as William Shakespeare the Tenth, but the progression of events is listless and paceless, and Richard Fleischer, evidently set on proving he could tackle any genre he was set loose upon (previous efforts included 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings and Fantastic Voyage, and later ones 10 Rillington Place, Soylent Green and Red Sonja) is unable to inject much life into the proceedings.
Fox had been angling for a big musical, one that would sustain the legacy of The Sound of Music, but Doctor Doolittle was just the beginning of their woes in that genre (successive years would also see them coming a cropper with Hello, Dolly! and Star!) Their thinking in securing Harrison, not one to carry a tune, was sound to the extent that his spoken delivery had been a huge success in My Fair Lady, but he was initially considered too old (and if he was twenty years older than Hepburn, he was twice Eggar’s age). Then he dithered about doing it at all (such that Christopher Plummer was paid for a role he didn’t play).
And then there was the thorny issue of content comprising Hugh Lofting’s 1920 children’s story, some of which was considered racist (although, given reports of his on-set attitudes and insults, that would probably have suited “Tyrannosaurus” Rex just fine). The character of islander Bumpo (considered for Sammy Davis Jr and rejected by Sidney Poitier) was eventually cut completely and replaced with William Shakespeare.
In his The Making of Planet of the Apes, JW Rinzler records how the long-in-gestation Apes and its costs ended up looking like small potatoes compared to Arthur Jacobs’ other Fox production, Doctor Dolittle, “which was now spectacularly over budget, heading towards $18m – triple the budget of Apes, triple the headaches”. The combination of issues with locations (floods, Ranulph Fiennes, St Lucia islanders objecting to a giant snail), effects, animals and stars (Harrison being thoroughly objectionable) had resulted in massive overruns, and the enormous licensing campaign, in part a damage limitation against these debts, seemed like lunacy (to any manufacturers buying in) when tie-ins were ignored by an entirely unpersuaded public. On the one hand, it pointed the way to the likes of George Lucas and his jackpot from Star Wars deals. On the other, if this had been the template for making it work, blanket promotional campaigns would never have taken off.
So, with the picture being shunned by audiences and critics, there was only one course left open: to buyrespectability. In The Academy Awards – The Complete Unofficial History, Jim Piazza and Gail Kinn record how Fox “pulled out all the stops and hosted numerous free dinners to get its box office dud Dr. Doolittle on the list”. Anthony Holden dug further into this in The Oscars – The Secret History of the Academy Awards, noting Truman Capote’s outrage (In Cold Blood had been passed over, despite direction and writing nods): “It simply proves [the Academy Awards] is all politics and sentiment and nothing to do with merit”.
Holden relates that “Once it became clear that neither children nor parents rated the sight of Harrison singing tuneless songs to imaginary animals, the word came down that the publicity department were to pull out all the stops on the film’s behalf”. Indeed, the production’s spiralling costs were almost as damaging to Fox’s existence as Cleopatra half a decade earlier. Whoring for votes was nothing new then and will never be banished, but plying Academy members at screenings with champagne and cocktails and buffet dinners apparently reached new levels – the common “wining and dining” cited is a slight exaggeration – as documented by writer John Gregory Dunne, who was enabled to provide an account of the production from start to damning finish in his book The Studio. Per Holden, “So ruthless was the writer’s exposé of the cynical tricks their trade that some Hollywood publicists still measure their careers in terms of ‘Before Dunne’ and ‘After Dunne’”.
The success of Fox’s approach speaks for itself: nine nominations including Best Picture (also Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Music Score, Scoring of Music Adaptation or Treatment, and Sound) and winning two, Special Effects and Song (Talk to the Animals). Conspicuously absent in the major categories besides Picture (direction, acting, writing) Doctor Dolittle may have been, and a sour taste the whole endeavour may have left, but there’s no denying the film’s TV afterlife and beyond, with enough of it that wasappreciated for it to be adapted into a stage musical.
And Fox, radically reenvisaging the property, was also game to give it another go, this time to huge success with Eddie Murphy, spawning a less successful sequel (and direct-to-video spinoffs). The Murphy movies may not have been trying too hard, but they at least got to the kernel of the material’s appeal – the animals themselves (something this picture only intermittently remembers). Obvious perhaps, but Universal seems to have been scuppered by the same thinking as the original, that a prestige production was the way to go with Robert Downey Jr’s Dolittle (notably, he’s only five years younger than the “too-old” Harrison was), with stories of production nightmares percolating that may not quite compare with Fleischer’s film but are certainly in the ballpark of such profligacy.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.