DOCTOR DOLITTLE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1967) Twilight Time
1967 could hardly be considered a banner year for 2oth Century-Fox. The then recently ensconced ‘dream team’ of Richard Zanuck and David Brown, under the aegis of returning studio mogul, Darryl F., had been responsible for rescuing a beleaguered (and all but shuttered) backlot after the epic implosion of Spyros P. Skouras’ mismanagement of 1963’s Cleopatra. Thanks to this regime, in a relatively short period Fox had made a miraculous recovery, taken off the critical list and given an invaluable transfusion of necessary funds from the likes of The Longest Day (1963), Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, Zorba the Greek (both in 1964) and the megawatt super hit, The Sound of Music (1965); the latter, ringing cash registers all over the world, eventually to become the most profitable flick in Fox’s illustrious canon of classics. The problem for Dick and David was how to keep all of these pistons firing in unison. Seemingly oblivious to the ‘revolution’ already well underway in Hollywood (the old guard of stalwart veterans, largely responsible for the glamor gala days in yesteryear’s Tinsel Town, now very much in steep decline – dead, dying and/or in retreat), ushering in new titans, whose desire was not to follow in their footlights but rather to establish a seismic shift in both content and the manner by which movies were being made, the Zanucks and Brown chose instead to straddle this chasm, experimenting with the new breed while clinging to the hope The Sound of Music had not been an anomaly, but a reminder the good ole days were still very much vibrantly alive and rife for the picking. It was a miscalculation; the subsequent musicals to round out Fox’s sixties output – Doctor Dolittle (1967), Star! (1968) and Hello Dolly! (1969) – each built like a tank – ruthlessly (and rather unfairly) universally dismissed by critics and audiences alike as suffering from an acute case of artistic elephantiasis.
The accusation is even more unsettling when one pauses from the vantage of nearly sixty years removed from all their media hype, able to reconsider the embarrassment of riches on tap in each of these ill-timed, but thoroughly glossy road show epics for which the adage ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’ abundantly applies. In years to follow, Doctor Dolittle would be branded the biggest transgressor of the lot. It was, in fact, widely rumored at the time its slew of Oscar-nominations had been ‘bought’ by Fox to bolster its sagging reputation – its win for Best Visual Effects begrudgingly warranted, but Best Original Song ‘Talk to the Animals’ since considered a grotesque miscarriage, especially when pitted against Terry Gilkyson’s wildly popular ‘Bare Necessities’ written for Disney’s The Jungle Book. It is hard to imagine an Oscar race more off kilter than in 1967, the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, The Dirty Dozen and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner vying for supremacy alongside such studio-bound confections as Camelot, Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Happiest Millionaire. Dolittle’s pedigree (Rex Harrison to star, Richard Attenborough in a cameo, Arthur P. Jacobs producing, Richard Fleischer directing, Robert Surtees to photograph, and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley to write a melodic score) is impeccable to say the least, as are Mario Chiari’s production design, and, Ed Graves and Jack Martin Smith’s lavish art direction.
No, Doctor Doolittle is decidedly a class act from top to bottom and side to side, filling the 70mm Todd A-O screen with a myriad of gorgeous visuals capped off by its featherweight and family friendly plot, superbly scripted by Bricusse, cribbing from Hugh Lofting’s memorable compendium of Dolittle short stories. As an entertainment, Doctor Dolittle is ‘old fashion’ in the very best sense of that descriptor. That it miserably failed to find its audience in 1967 is more a sign of the times than any great smite on the talent gone into its production. Dolittle is not a perfect film, but so very far from the over-stuffed turkey too many have written it off as then and ever since. Rex Harrison, though in no way ‘looking’ the part of Lofting’s portly physician, is never anything less than sheer perfection. My, what a marvelous actor Sir Rex was then – and such a shame his almost criminal behind-the-scenes alienation of both the picture’s cast and crew led to begrudging animosities lingering for decades thereafter. Great actors are not always good people. But Harrison’s caustic vigor herein just seems more a result of his obsessive quest for achieving perfection than any maniacal or self-destructive egotism. And Rex had the acting chops to back up whatever his seemingly ‘impossible’ demands might have been on the set. I have the deepest admiration for artists who take themselves seriously – even too seriously for most conventional tastes. For Harrison, it was always the quality of the work that mattered. If his reputation, humility and humanity suffered for, or because of it…well, so be it. Rex was an actor’s actor. We will give him his due there, for it is more than warranted and very much on tap and appreciated in Dolittle. Think of it: who else could have empathized so convincingly to sing a love ballad to a seal?
The other inspired performance in the picture is Anthony Newley’s Matthew Mugg; cast largely because of his friendship and collaborative association with Leslie Bricusse who, in kind, favors him with a goodly sum of Doctor Dolittle’s songs. If Rex Harrison’s titular hero is the glue that keeps Dolittle’s episodic narrative clinging artfully together, then Newley is unquestionably its bon vivant, buoying the less successful attempts to provide cohesion to this oft meandering plot, fusing three of Lofting’s books, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, and Doctor Dolittle's Circus into a compendium of mishaps. Newley is the charmer; Harrison, the pragmatist. Indeed, Newley’s inauspicious foray into acting steadily earned him the respect of his peers; his Artful Dodger in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) garnering high praise as he made the transition from child star to bona fide actor in British films throughout the 1950s. His debut as a UK chart-topping pop singer in 1959 launched a second career, capped by a Grammy Award in 1963 for ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ Together with Bricusse, Newley also authored the lyrics to Goldfinger and had a smash hit on his hands with Stop the World – I Want to Get Off – a sold out musical entertainment playing both London and on Broadway. Charming and professional, Newley’s congeniality and patience would be tested on Doctor Dolittle when Rex Harrison took an immediate – and unfair – dislike to his costar; perhaps more than a little concerned Newley might run off with the whole show.
Harrison ought to have concerned himself a little more with his 1,200 non-human costars, representing virtually every conceivable beast in the animal kingdom. There is an old Hollywood adage about animals behaving perfectly except when ‘on camera’. And the set of Doctor Dolittle, with its menagerie of furry creatures, proved a test of endurance for all concerned; ducks, having molted their water-resistant feathers, sinking to the bottom of a pond, a fawn caught snacking on a quart of paint, squirrels chewing through the painted wooden scenery, and, Harrison, enduring swarms of flies amidst a field of sheep piddling and pooping on his trousers and shoes. The sets, constantly tainted by animal droppings had to be hosed down nightly with ammonia (that smelled worse). At one point during Dolittle’s debut song, ‘The Reluctant Vegetarian’ Harrison suddenly stopped singing. When director Richard Fleischer inquired what the problem was, Harrison insisted he heard the word ‘cut’. Fleischer denied having said it; the two men perplexed until Polynesia, the parrot suddenly repeated the word again for all to hear – one of the lighter moments, as Harrison confirmed, “It’s the first time I have been directed by a parrot. But she may be right. I probably can do it better!”
Harrison’s vitriol towards virtually all of his human costars was unwarranted. Dismayed at the studio’s inability to reunite him with composers, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (who had written My Fair Lady expressly for him), the actor held Leslie Bricusse personally responsible for what he considered Dolittle’s lack-luster score. While no one could ever compare the Bricusse songs here to Lerner and Loewe’s magnificence on display in My Fair Lady, he nevertheless managed to instill Doctor Dolittle with some charmingly sweet – if mostly forgettable ballads and one irrefutable pop standard, ‘Talk to the Animals’ – shamelessly promoted by Fox’s PR machine and re-recorded by several prominent singers of their day. At almost every turn, fate seemed to be conspiring against Dolittle achieving the sort of notoriety that helps sell tickets. Its production schedule was notoriously besieged by setback after setback (inclement weather – it rained all the time, animal crises, including a British quarantine on non-domestic imports, a $4.5 million law suit filed by Helen Winston, an early producer, claiming Brucusse’s screenplay had pilfered ideas and whole scenes from her early draft) and finally, technical difficulties with the 8-ton machinery built into the ‘Great Pink Sea Snail’ at a whopping cost of $65,000; frustrations to mount with everyone’s nerves fraying. It did not take long for Dolittle’s initial $6 million budget to balloon to three times as much. Fearing another Cleopatra, Fox urged producer, Arthur P. Jacobs to bottle the ends and bring the production home without further delay.
Plot wise: the picture’s period detail is on full display as we settle in on an idyllic Victorian village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh (actually, Castle Combe in Wilshire); local seller, Matthew Mugg encouraging young Tommy Stubbins’ (William Dix) into flights into fancy as the pair journey for a rare visit with the eccentric, Doctor John Dolittle, toting a sick duck. A former physician, Dolittle has given up treating humans to better comprehend the animal world. His menagerie includes Chee-Chee the chimpanzee, a yellow lab named Jip, and Polynesia, the talking parrot (voiced by Ginny Tyler). In flashback, Dolittle explains to Matthew and Tommy the havoc created by his human patients’ interactions with his ever-expanding repertory of fine furry creatures; his sister, Sarah (Portia Nelson), who also served as John’s housekeeper, demanding he choose one or the other to administer his oath to heal. Dolittle picked the animals, fortified by Polynesia, who teaches him several animal dialects – most useful in the study and treatment of their physical ailments. Matthew may not entirely believe John, but he is willing to change his tune after Gen. Bellowes (Peter Bull) arrives on Dolittle’s doorstep with a sick horse. Dolittle’s complete lack of empathy for the horse’s owner is deemed offensive by both the General and his winsome niece, Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar). She chides John for his rudeness. Afterward, both Matthew and John confess to finding Emma quite lovely.
Now, Dolittle receives a Pushmi-pullyu from Tibet, a bizarre two-headed llama he can think of no better use, except to be exploited in Albert Blossom’s (Richard Attenborough) traveling circus. Blossom is, at first, quite unresponsive to Dolittle’s pitch; that is, until he witnesses the Pushmi-pullyu’s ability to communicate with John and perform a soft-shoe routine on cue. The oddity becomes the star attraction of Blossom’s new show. Alas, Dolittle is met by a wounded seal, Sophie, who longs to leave the circus and be reunited with her husband in the Arctic. As Blossom is unwilling to set the ole girl free, Dolittle dresses the seal in lady’s clothes and quietly take Sophie by carriage to the outskirts of town. There, he serenades her with the poignant ballad ‘When I Look In Your Eyes’ before rather unceremoniously tossing Sophie into the sea. Alas, two passersby have mistaken Dolittle’s philanthropy for tossing an actual woman into the surf. The good doctor is brought up on charges of murder, shocked to have discovered the case will be tried by none other than Judge Gen. Bellowes. Dolittle dispels this rumor when he converses with the presiding judge’s Great Dane. Only now, the vindictive magistrate elects to sentence Dolittle to an insane asylum instead.
Empathetic to his plight, Emma helps Dolittle’s animal friends rescue him. Together with Matthew, Tommy, Polynesia, Chee-Chee and Jip, John and Emma set sail in an earnest search of the legendary Great Pink Sea Snail. Randomly electing to explore Sea-Star Island, Dolittle’s motley crew become shipwrecked in a terrible storm. The worrisome party is met by savages who turn out to be highly intellectual and ruled by the benevolent William Shakespeare X (Geoffrey Holder). Amidst this lush tropical splendor, an unrequited love affair begins to blossom between Emma and John…or is it Emma and Matthew? The fractured ‘love affair’ is, in fact, Doctor Dolittle’s Achilles’ Heel. As originally conceived, the movie ought to have concluded with John and Emma rekindling their romance; Harrison’s doctor to have sung the ballad, ‘Where Are The Words?’ as his confession of true love. Somewhere along the way, the decision was made to have John remain a devoted bachelor; the song then passing to Newley’s Matthew – also, to have been warbled it to Emma as his revelation of grand amour. According to archival memos, both versions were recorded and filmed. Alas, no footage survives, although Newley’s audio recording was featured on the original soundtrack album release. In the eleventh hour of re-purposing this subplot, Bricusse wrote ‘Something in Your Smile’ as Harrison’s declaration of love for Emma – again, the audio surviving, the actual footage, presumably lost to the ages.
William informs Dolittle and his party that strangers are not welcome on the island as the inhabitants blame foreigners for its drift into cooler waters, thus threatening their entire way of life and ecosystem. As a pledge of good faith, Dolittle summons a whale to push Sea-Star Island towards a more tropical climate. Alas, his philanthropy backfires when the whale’s nudge dislodges a massive bolder that drops into a nearby volcano, threatening with its lava spray. For this, Dolittle and his cohorts are condemned to be burned at the stake. Mercifully, the whale’s trajectory has also secured the island against an anchor of dry land in the tropics. The natives need never fear climate change again. For this, everyone is set free. Now, Dolittle receives an unexpected visitor, the Great Pink Sea Snail, come for treatment of a cold. Providing a cure, Dolittle discovers the snail’s shell is watertight and able to carry passengers. He encourages Matthew to return to England, along with Tommy, Emma, Polynesia, Chee-Chee and Jip. Emma pleads to remain. But Dolittle rather magnanimously admits theirs is a love that could never have worked. Besides, he is still wanted by the authorities back home. However, almost from the moment of their departure, Dolittle realizes his truest feelings for Emma. Miraculously, Sophie – reunited with her husband, has found Dolittle and explains how all of England’s animals went on strike in protest of Bellowes’ sentencing. Agreed to a pardon, Dolittle can now return home a free man whenever he pleases. The natives help to fashion a harness for the Giant Lunar Moth – another fanciful island creature, and, in the penultimate moments, Emma and Matthew witness Dolittle’s return to England, flying across the moon on the moth’s back.
Perhaps acutely aware Doctor Dolittle’s appeal was likely limited for adult audiences, Fox launched its most lavishly absurd media blitz campaign; 300 plus items, most geared toward tiny tots and pre-teens. Soundtrack albums, lunch boxes, toys, coloring books, and a re-branding of the original Lofting short stories to tie into the movie’s insignia, in addition to some truly bizarre knickknacks (salt shakers, letter openers, a board game, stick pins, even pet food) flooded the retail market in the spring of 1967. Regrettably, even the enormity of this advertising campaign failed to catch on, most of the memorabilia quickly finding its way into ‘bargain bins’; Fox and its partners losing money hand over fist as Dolittle mania miserably fizzled. In the years before a movie’s back story was lauded in the press, it is unlikely the public’s decided lack of enthusiasm stemmed from any rumors about the animosities brewing on the set; nor, of the recasting of William Shakespeare X (a part originally slated for Sammy Davis Jr., then pitched to Sidney Poitier – both having turned Arthur Jacobs down). Midway through casting, Rex Harrison’s demands so exacerbated Jacobs, he briefly contemplated replacing the star with Christopher Plummer. In fact, Plummer was signed for the part before Harrison settled his differences and agreed to partake, forcing Fox to pay Plummer his full agreed-upon salary, basically to leave the production.
Removed from Fox’s media hype, its chronically delayed 4-year gestation, all the backstage heartaches, and, the public pillorying by the critics (Leonard Maltin famously suggesting “If you have unruly children it may put them to sleep”) Doctor Dolittle can be more clearly seen and appreciated for its very fine craftsmanship. Fair enough, a great (even a good) picture is not made by its expenditures. Lavish appointments do not guarantee a movie’s success either. But Doctor Dolittle, despite its flaws, is a fairly fascinating anomaly in a year that, like no other in Hollywood’s history then, was marked by a decided period put to the ‘good ole days’ and the dawning of a new regime, unencumbered by a celluloid heritage it neither embraced nor sought to emulate; a grittier, more graceless and business-like approach to film-making, predicated on number-crunching and spreadsheets, all the fun of gambling on an artistic whim gone out of the chase: edicts since to stand firm in its place. Though there were aspects of the production that decidedly irked Rex Harrison (as Harrison himself proved irksome to his costars) his performance remains engrossing and peerless; the hallmarks of a legendary talent, never again to enjoy such autonomy after Dolittle’s box office implosion. Likely, Doctor Dolittle will always be regarded as a ‘dud’. Reputation, alas, once impugned has a nasty way of remaining tainted throughout the annals of history. But we should remember the good doctor for another reason and it is mainly this: as the last gasp of that legendary Hollywood establishment, every piston firing in unison to produce an ole-time glamorous entertainment. Is it perfect? No. Is it enjoyable? My God – yes!
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is cause for celebration. Several years ago, Koch Media in Germany released a horrendous looking hi-def presentation of Doctor Dolittle; the Todd A-O image cropped, with grotesquely faded colors. Well, you can forget that! Because TT’s new to Blu reissue has been given a ‘bells and whistles’ 4K restoration by Fox Home Video and the results are nothing less than impressive. Not only is the image correctly framed in 2.20:1, with a lot more information to the left and right edges, but some meticulous color correction has been applied. Prepare to be dazzled, because the full breadth of Todd A-O’s extraordinary 70mm cinematography a la Robert Surtees is on display. Flesh tones are astonishingly genuine. The palette of colors is richer, deeper, more vibrantly saturated and just plain gorgeous to behold. Ditto for ‘bang on’ contrast and black levels, married to a very light smattering of indigenous film grain. You are going to love what you see here. The image is flawless and handsome. The 5.1 DTS is equally a revelation; subtly nuanced, with dramatic peaks during music and SFX; dialogue, quite natural – Leslie Brucusse’s score, never sounding better. Extras are limited to a worth-while audio commentary featuring Brucusse and TT’s Mike Mattesino; also, A&E’s Biography Special on Rex Harrison, plus a theatrical trailer. There is virtually nothing to complain about here. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)