Skip to main content

Good heavens! I speak pig!

Doctor Dolittle
(1967)

(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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Look out the window. Eden’s not burning, it’s burnt.

Reign of Fire (2002) (SPOILERS) There was good reason to believe Rob Bowman would make a successful transition from top-notch TV director to top-notch film one. He had, after all, attracted attention and plaudits for Star Trek: The Next Generation and become such an integral part of The X-File s that he was trusted with the 1998 leap to the big screen. That movie wasn’t the hit it might have been – I suspect because, such was Chris Carter’s inability to hone a coherent arc, it continued to hedge its bets – but Bowman showed he had the goods. And then came Reign of Fire . And then Elektra . And that was it. Reign of Fire is entirely competently directed, but that doesn’t prevent it from being entirely lousy.