Once upon a time playwright Thornton Wilder wrote a sweet, innocent little romantic-comedy farce set in the 1880s called "The Merchant of Yonkers" (1938), which he later revised and retitled "The Matchmaker" (1954). It was a modest stage success, followed by a charming motion picture version in 1958 with Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine, Paul Ford, and Robert Morse.
In 1963 the play's title was changed to "Hello, Dolly!" and along with the addition of lavish sets, costumes, music, and lyrics, it became the longest-running Broadway musical up until that time. It was a smash hit.
Then, in 1969 Hollywood got hold of the musical, added even more performers, bigger sets, fancier costumes, and in what had to be one of the biggest casting blunders in the history of cinema (on a scale with putting Lucille Ball in "Mame" a few years later) signed a young Barbra Streisand to play the leading role. Why was that a mistake? Because the leading character in the story, Dolly Levi, is intended to be a much older woman, presumably in her fifties or so, whose husband of many years has died and left her penniless. She supports herself as, among other things, a matchmaker, a woman who arranges marriages for people; and who at the moment is attempting to arrange a marriage for herself to the town's richest citizen, the grumpy Horace Vandergelder, a fifty-something local merchant. Ms. Streisand was in her mid twenties at the time of the production. The movie bombed.
If one looks hard enough and listens long enough, one can still discern a few faint echoes of the sweet, innocent little romantic-comedy farce Wilder originally wrote, but such remnants are far and few between. Mainly, in "Hello, Dolly!" one gets to witness a huge, bloated, overly extravagant, big-screen spectacular and ponder the reasons why a young, attractive, and highly marriageable Dolly Levi would be chasing a middle-aged Walter Matthau as Vandergelder, unless she was only after his money. The mind boggles as the whole point of Wilder's tale is lost.
So why was Streisand miscast in a part so obviously unsuited to her age when Carol Channing, who had played Dolly on the stage, was so good and available, and others, like Elizabeth Taylor and Julie Andrews, were considered for the role? At the time, Streisand was the biggest singing star in the world. The thought of box-office receipts will do that to filmmakers.
The time setting for the movie is 1890 and the locales are Yonkers, New York, and New York City. The primary plot involves Dolly's attempts to insinuate herself into Vandergelder's life; and the subplots involve Vandergelder's attempts to keep his niece Ermangarde (Joyce Ames) from eloping with an artist, Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune); and Vandergelder's clerks, Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin), pursuing their own romantic adventures with a milliner, Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew) and her assistant, Minnie Fay (E.J. Peaker). I was disappointed that "pudding" did not come in the script.
Needless to say, a plenitude of songs and dances populate the proceedings, most of Jerry Herman's tunes being quite less than memorable. They include, in chronological order, "Just Leave Everything to Me," "It Takes a Woman," "Out There," "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," "Ribbons Down My Back," "Dancing," "Before the Parade Passes By," "Yes, New York," "Elegance," "Love Is Only Love," "Hello, Dolly," "It Only Takes a Moment," "So Long, Dearie," and a finale that reprises practically everything. Fortunately, Ms. Streisand is in resplendent voice for her numbers.
The showstopper, of course, is "Hello, Dolly," which the filmmakers milk for everything it's worth, extending it for almost a dozen minutes. It's sung at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, in the play a modestly fashionable place but in the movie a veritable palace. Everything in this movie is bigger than life. When Dolly enters the restaurant, she's given a welcome that would have been the envy of the Queen of Sheba. In the middle of the big number, Louis Armstrong makes an appearance as a bandleader and sings along with Streisand, but a moment later he's gone from the scene. Why? First, because he had made a hit single of the tune in 1964 and the filmmakers wanted to capitalize on it, and, second, because he signed on for only his part of the song, finished it in less than a day's shooting, and left.
Which brings us to the leads. This was only Streisand's second film, following her hugely successful big-screen debut in "Funny Girl." She was understandably apprehensive about taking on the role and apparently rather difficult to work with on the set. She certainly appears coyly aware of her talents, mischievously mugging and winking for the camera at every opportunity, possibly a nervous condition intensified by her real-life stage fright. In fact, her character is so smug and overbearing, it's hard to see why anybody, let alone Vandergelder, would want to marry her. On the set a feud developed between Matthau and Streisand, and Matthau refused to have anything to do with her except during their scenes together. Streisand later said that accepting the role of Dolly was the biggest mistake of her career.
But if anyone saves the show it is Matthau, who is actually the best thing the picture has going for it. His singing and dancing aren't too accomplished, but he is the epitome of the grumpy old man. While everyone else in the movie overacts, it is Matthau who communicates his grouchiness most naturally and unaffectedly rather than through the exaggerated gestures and mannerisms that afflict the rest of the cast.
The other saving grace the movie exhibits is the high energy quotient of its choreography, understandable as the dance sequences were staged by Michael Kidd and the movie was directed by Gene Kelly. Still, with a cast of thousands and sets so enormous they filled most of the Fox studio lot, the production is much too big to be manageable. When things slow down in "Hello, Dolly!," it's like watching an elephant stop to pee. This happens much too often, and it's not an appealing sight.
Mostly gorgeous. The most enjoyable part of the widescreen anamorphic picture is simply looking at it. Colors are beautifully bright in a typically vivid Fox transfer. Images display good definition; just look at the deep reds of the band and waiter uniforms and note that there is little or no bleed-through at all; and hues are almost always natural and realistic, especially flesh tones. Perhaps the only minor distraction is in wide shots, where the colors tend to dull slightly, but it's hardly anything to worry about. There is virtually no grain anywhere to speak of, few halos, and negligible moiré effects. Now, if only the movie itself were as well executed as the video.
The audio situation is ironic. Given that this movie won Oscars for Best Sound and Music, you'd think Fox would have remixed the soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1, but no. We get the movie's original two-channel stereo track. Occasionally, some surround information strays in the direction of the rear speakers, but it seems almost by accident. In any case, it's good two-channel stereo in terms of frequency balance, even if it loses something in left-to-right stereo spread.
Not only did Fox not bother to remix the soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1, they didn't bother to put much in the way of extras on the disc, either. There are only two bonus items of note, a seven-minute promo for the film made at the time of production and a widescreen trailer. So much for respecting what the Fox people call on the back of the keep case one of "the world's most cherished films." For what it's worth, there are also twenty-eight scene selections and several promos for other Fox releases.
Despite its being nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and winning for Sound, Music, and Art Direction, I have the feeling that "Hello, Dolly!" is one of those films from the late sixties that helped nail down the coffin lid on musicals. It's so extravagantly overproduced, most of the tunes so eminently forgettable, and the acting so overstated, it's a wonder the movie musical as a genre survived through "Cabaret" a few years later and was ever revived by "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago." If you're a Streisand fan, the film is a must. If you're not a Streisand fan, the film might easily be passed over without its adversely affecting your life one whit.