(SPOILERS) Well, I guess Wall•E liked it, so it must have something going for it. Although, that might be to rate Pixar’s prevailing tastes a tad too high. Hello, Dolly! has, so it says here, become one of the most enduring musical theatre hits evah in its stage form. Perhaps its appeal is all in the live experience, then, because, as a movie, it’s a bust. And not even a, bust!
The origins of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s musical date back to John Oxenford’s 1835 English play A Day Well Spent, then turned into a play by Johann Nestroy and then a further play by Thornton Wilder, one he subsequently revised (after the original did diddly-squat business). Notably, Herman’s musicals have been largely resisted by Hollywood. This may have something to do with both Hello, Dolly! and Mame flopping, or it may be that, outside of a devoted and dedicated musical-theatre crowd, they’re a bit rubbish.
It’s easy to argue the tale of an eccentric middle-aged matchmaker – so not Babs’ age at the time – out to get herself hitched to not-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (you know, just like not-billionaire’s daughter Chloe Zhao), while bringing various couples together along the way, lacks that necessary distinctive flavour that prescribes a hit. But you could argue the same of many and various musicals’ elusively appealing subject matter. Certainly, I’d rather sit through this again than the bafflingly feted Funny Girl (although, if pushed not so hard, I’d sooner avoid either repeat visits).
And Hello, Dolly! wasn’t a flop. It only seems like it was, partly because its enduring rep isn’t so hot (in contrast to Funny Girl), but mainly because it cost so damn much that it nearly bankrupted Fox. Again. Since they’d been up that creek with Cleopatra’s wretched carry on less than a decade earlier. Hello, Dolly! wasn’t as expensive, but it made less dough, so the damage was proportionally greater.
Fox had bet the farm, foolishly and cluelessly, on a slew of musicals, in the hope of rekindling that The Sound of Music magic. No such luck. Doctor Dolittle (1967) was a catastrophe, with massive budget overspends on a disastrous production and mammoth amounts of merch no one wanted. It managed nine Oscar nominations, including an acrimonious Best Picture nod in a decade known for such dubious recognition of expensive follies (it won two; song and effects). Star! (1968) outright bombed, despite reteaming The Sound of Music duo of director Robert Wise and star Julie Andrews. It couldn’t even muster a Best Picture nomination (read, buy one), settling for seven noms and no wins.
Hello, Dolly! at least brought in the audiences, since – and this, again, is plausibly my blind spot with regard to Dolly and Funny Girl – Babs was a big draw, and only in her second movie at that. It was the fifth biggest movie of the US year, behind such luminaries as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and – yes! – The Love Bug. And you can see Streisand is doing her best, attempting to drive a production that resists all her attempts to spark it into life (she later referred to accepting the role as a mistake, as she was much too young for it; Skidoo’s Carol Channing had made the lead a hit on Broadway, and I can completely see how she’d fit).
There’s a constant sense of the material marvelling in its own wit and cleverness yet failing to bring that to play energetically. This is in every sense a mechanical, calculated production, with lots of parts whirring and clicking but none of them producing a satisfying whole. Dolly’s self-belief should be much more infectious than it is, yet she seems to be operating in a vacuum. There’s zero chemistry with Walter Matthau’s Vandergelder, and if it seems like they’re acting in completely different spaces to each other, that would be because Matthau detested Streisand. Matthau’s inimitably grouchy, as you’d expect, but there’s no real pleasure from his drollery here. There’s certainly no chance you’re rooting for them to end up together. At best, you’ll shrug.
Of the rest of the cast, Louis Armstrong shares a number with Streisand, and Scatman Crothers can be briefly seen as a porter. None of the young romantics make much impression beside Michael Crawford, who previews some of his Frank Spencer mannerisms in full flourish and only later learned that director Gene Kelly had to fight to prevent his singing voice being dubbed; Matthau also reputedly stopped talking to Crawford after the latter won a bet on a horse named Dolly, so vehemently did he disdain the movie’s Dolly. Danny Lockin, who had appeared in the stage version and for whom this would be his last movie role, met an extremely unpleasant end less than a decade later.
None of the songs are very memorable. The dialogue, as mentioned, thinks a lot of itself, of the sort designed for audience participation (perhaps there should have been a canned laugh track). Ernest Lehman both furnished the screenplay and produced, and with three-for-three on the musical front (The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music) he likely had good cause to feel confident in the project. Plus, the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, on which he first pulled double duties, may have gone to his head somewhat (subsequently, he would pull triple duties on Portnoy’s Complaint, which duly crashed and burned).
Gene Kelly likely wasn’t the ideal director either. Most of Kelly’s directorial outings had made a loss, following his early hits (On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain). He had, however, directed bedroom-farce A Guide for the Married Man with Matthau a couple of years before, which did okay. Kelly knew his way around choreography and capturing it to advantage with the camera. There’s a lovely little foot-following opening shot that suggests something more personal and intimate than the gargantuan production this will quickly become, but the big sequences escape him.
The prodiguous parade scene is emblematic of the picture’s hollow expense; the logistics may be impressive, but it adds nothing but empty dollars to Fox’s bill. I noted, however that Vandergelder may in part attribute his financial success to membership of Lodge 26, Knights of the Hudson, with whom he is marching.
Pauline Kael’s review is evidence of the Babs factor on a viewer; she readily confessed to the picture’s numerous faults but was also besotted with Streisand and worshipping at her altar, so attesting to her transformative effect on the material. I can’t see that, I’m afraid. Hello, Dolly! is far from jolly, and most definitely goes down as a grand folly.