Skip to main content

I’m feeling an updraft in my underpants.

Hello, Dolly!

(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.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .