That all this pixie dust and starlight should come to not at the box office was a genuine disappointment for all concerned, and a real strain on Fox’s bottom line. In truth, the fault was not in the film but in the changed mood of cinema lovers who had migrated their tastes to more gritty, dark and ‘real’ entertainments. Lest we forget that 1969 was the year the X-rated Midnight Cowboy took home the Best Picture Oscar. From this vantage, Hello Dolly! must have appeared ever more the quaint relic from another bygone era in film-making, with a faint whiff of formaldehyde. This is indeed a shame, because unlike most over-produced and undernourished musical spectacles from the 1960's, Hello Dolly! is hardly as weighty and never boring, even if it is as elephantine as all the rest.
Johann Nestroy’s German play ‘Ein Jux will er sich machen’ had been the impetus for Thorton Wilder’s ‘The Matchmaker’ from whence Michael Stewart later created the musical show. On stage, the dowager Dolly had been played by such Broadway luminaries as Carol Channing, Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers. The show was a smash that seemed to run forever, thus preventing any filmic adaptations being made for more than a decade. But then came the socially conscious morality musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III and Dolly’s luster quickly faded.
In fact, if any criticism can be heaped upon either the stage show or its filmic equivalent it is that the plot – that of a widow choosing to pursue a second romance after the death of her first husband – is wafer thin; barely an excuse to hang the rest of the show’s elegant trappings. Yet, the glory days of the Hollywood musical had relied on far less to sustain their magic for audiences. Better still, Fox had experienced a resounding success with The Sound of Music in 1965. So, green-lighting Hello Dolly! for a lavish film spectacle was not entirely without merit.
As preproduction began, director Gene Kelly built himself a plush cocoon of time-honored artists both in front of and behind the camera who knew their way around the musical genre blindfolded. Their craftsmanship would ensure that the filmic Dolly came across bigger and brassier than ever, and in hindsight, the film most assuredly does. Hello Dolly! is all bounce and sparkle from start to finish. It is a one woman show given new life by the only woman of her generation who could do this material justice.
Barbra Streisand had given a lightning rod reprise of her stage role as Fanny Brice in William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968) and it had catapulted her movie career with a most deserved Best Actress Oscar win. That Streisand would eventually evolve her talents to exhibit other strengths in film-making – including directing - was as yet unknown. But she approached Hello Dolly! with great exuberance as yet another opportunity for her to showcase her formidable singing talents. Streisand’s optimism was to be repeatedly dampened through the making of the movie after co-star Walter Matthau took an instant dislike to her, at one point shouting “You haven’t got the talent of a butterfly’s fart…and stop trying to be the whole show!” to which Streisand politely reminded Matthau that the film was not called ‘Hello Walter!’ Remarkably, none of this intense animosity surfaces on the screen, though it all but ruined Gene Kelly’s involvement on the project. He had come to Hello Dolly! with great optimism. But by the end of the shoot he could barely wait to get off the set.
Ernest Lehman’s screenplay stays relatively faithful to the stage show. Dolly Levi (Streisand) is a matchmaker extraordinaire who has set her sights on Yonker’s affluent - though stuffy - hay and feed tycoon, Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau). It is Horace’s wish that Dolly take his niece, Ermengarde (Joyce Ames) to New York City to get her away from a penniless artist, Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune) with whom she is desperately in love. Dolly willingly agrees. After all, visiting New York will put her in even closer proximity to Horace, who is on his way to propose to milliner, Irene Malloy (Marianne McAndrews).
Dolly, however, has ulterior motives. Seizing the opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between Horace’s two disgruntled clerks, Cornelius Hackell (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin), Dolly encourages the former to pursue Irene while coaxing the latter to settle on Irene’s rather precocious assistant, Minnie Faye (E.J. Peaker). Cornelius and Barnaby find their way to the millenary and quickly make a damn nuisance of themselves with the ladies. Still, Irene finds Cornelius rather enchanting. Thus, when Horace arrives to propose he is confronted by a lady most awkward and marginally unwilling to accept his advances.
Suspecting that Irene has men hidden in her backroom, but too proud to pursue the matter, Horace instead storms off to join his regiment marching in the 14th Street Parade. Dolly flirts with Horace throughout the parade, but is unable to break his resolve. Instead, she finagles a blind date for Horace at the Harmonia Gardens with Gussie Granger (Judy Knaiz); a low brow gal whom Dolly has rechristened as the Countess Ernestina Simple.
Dolly tells Ambrose to take Ermengarde to the Harmonia Gardens for dinner and a polka contest; then encourages Barnaby and Cornelius to do the same with Minnie and Irene. Next, she arrives at the restaurant herself, presumably to oversee Horace’s budding new romance with Ernestina. Actually, Dolly is there to ensure that Horace’s well-ordered life comes crashing down around his ankles, thereby allowing her to step in and save the day.
Ernestina’s haughty ways infuriate Horace. She leaves him in the middle of dinner, but Dolly suggests that he sup with her instead. Next, she goads Horace into paying attention to the dance competition that Ermengarde and Ambrose have entered. Seeing his niece in Ambrose’s arms an enraged Horace attempts rather violently to dissolve their embrace once and for all. His blundering results in a mishap with another guest and before long the entire restaurant is transformed into a chaotic food and fist fight that ends with a humiliated Horace cast out of the establishment. Swearing off of women forever, Horace is stunned when Dolly also declares that she has had enough of him.
The next day in Yonkers Horace finds himself alone in his hay and feed store. Without Ermengarde to fix his breakfast, or Cornelius and Barnaby to boss around he is a bitter and lonely man. But all is not lost. Dolly arrives with Ermengarde, Ambrose, Cornelius, Barnaby, Irene and Minnie in tow. She tells Horace that the boys have come to collect their salary to start their own hay and feed concern in town. Infuriated, Horace reluctantly agrees to give Barnaby and Cornelius their salaries. But Dolly has a better suggestion: make the boy’s partners in his store instead. That way everyone can dance at Ermengarde’s wedding to Ambrose. Brought to heel by what he perceives as ‘the fate of all fools’, Horace relents to each of their requests, at last proposing to Dolly in a manner befitting her wildest dreams. The film ends with their lavish nuptials.
From start to finish, Hello Dolly! is a deftly executed, charming farce. Streisand, who was heavily criticized at the time as being much too young for the lead, manages a minor coup; transforming what on stage had largely been an overbearing caricature of ‘the glamorous/amorous widow’ into a genuinely poignant portrait of a woman searching for true love. In retrospect, Streisand’s performance is a curious amalgam of stereotypical Yiddish meddling and a winning – if slightly devilish - lampoon of Mae West - but it works.
Walter Matthau is perfect as the malevolently cruel tightwad whose bark is much worse than his bite. Despite his backstage bickering with Streisand, Matthau manages to muster a fair amount of believable sincerity and affection for our heroine on screen. The rest of the cast are really window dressing for what is essentially a one woman show. Nevertheless, everyone is up to snuff and the results are a sheer joy to behold. The minor pairings in the subplot (Crawford and McAndrews; Lockin and Peaker; Tune and Ames) are memorable enough without stealing anything from the spotlight. But the show belongs to Streisand who sings the hell out of her songs – from gusto-filled aplomb during ‘Put on Your Sunday Clothes’ and ‘Before the Parade Passes By’, to poetic romanticism for the ballad ‘Love is Only Love’ – a cast off from Mame perfectly inserted between the playful ‘Elegance’ and robust Waiter’s Gavotte.
The musical numbers are all brilliantly handled, as is to be expected, the most gargantuan undeniably being ‘Before The Parade Passes By’. Streisand warbles an intimate version of the song just after she has thwarted Horace’s proposal to Irene. From here, the camera wildly pans away to the false fronts on the Fox back lot depicting 14th Street in all its glory. Thousands of extras line the street and hundreds more are seen marching in an endless and meticulously choreographed sequence that arguably has no equal. The film’s title song is another outstanding moment for Streisand; gilded in her gold sequined frock and descending the blood-red carpeted stairs into the Harmonia Gardens while serenaded by a gavotte of red-coated waiters and Louis Armstrong in his last screen appearance. Earlier in the decade, Armstrong had recorded his own inimitable jazz version of the title track and it had been a huge hit. Including him in the film is therefore a charming homage to that success.
When the final reel had been edited Gene Kelly could be proud of the last musical he would ever direct. Hello Dolly! is a supreme and very elegant entertainment. At just under 3 hours it extols all of the virtues of the Hollywood musical to absolute perfection while managing to keep the vices that plagued so many like-minded entertainments of the decade at bay. Unlike other Broadway to Hollywood hybrids which – upon closer inspection – have a very rigid adherence to their stage origins, Hello Dolly! is a cleverly ‘opened up’ cinematic experience. It moves like gangbusters with a lilt and a grace that ought to have resurrected the big budget musical to prominence once again.
Sadly, in retrospect, Hello Dolly! proved to be the final nail in the movie musical’s coffin, its disappointing box office ensuring fewer Broadway transplants would follow it. Time, however, does strange things to movies and Hello Dolly! has since proven itself more than just a grand show. It is truly one for the ages. It sings and dances its way into our hearts as few musicals have before or since and it remains a definitive last chapter in a history of that golden age unlikely to be surpassed.
Fox Home Video’s 1080p Blu-ray of Hello Dolly! is – in a word – gorgeous. That glowing 70mm road show Eastman stock looks spectacular. There are a few minor instances where we experience a slight shimmer and/flicker – particularly during the opening and closing credits, but otherwise, Fox has done an award-winning job of resurrecting Dolly in hi-def. The color is radiant. For the first time we can see minute detail in fabrics, hair and even skin. The image is razor sharp without appearing to have been digitally enhanced. Age related and digital artifacts are a non-issue. The ‘wow!’ factor is definitely here. The Dolby DTS 5.1 has rectified the sins of the DVD 5.1 audio that tended on occasion to be strident yet thin. Dialogue to music transitions sound much more natural herein and the score really gives the sound channels a real workout. Good stuff.
Extras are limited. We get a newly produced puff piece on Gene Kelly; very short on production history and glosses over the truth – no mention of the quarrels between Streisand and Matthau, or specifics on anything. It’s okay, just not comprehensive, and that’s a genuine shame. We also get the previously issued vintage featurette shot in 1969 while Kelly was preparing to execute the mammoth parade sequence, plus the original theatrical trailers in English and Spanish. Bottom line: Hello Dolly! is near perfect musical entertainment. The Blu-ray is a must have/must see experience. It’s so nice to have Dolly! back where she belongs!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)