I conducted my own investigation even though I knew what I would find.
My beloved Ruth Gordon starred as Dolly Levi in the original Broadway run of Thorton Wilder’s The Matchmaker just a year or so shy of her 50th birthday. Good for her. She even earned a Tony nomination. Better for her. (To clarify, The Matchmaker was Wilder’s update of one of his earlier works, The Merchant of Yonkers , but I digress.) Similarly, Shirley Booth, still reaping the benefits of her Oscar triumph in 1952’s Come Back Little Sheba, portrayed the same Dolly Levi in the 1958 film adaptation of Wilder’s hit play at about the same age as Gordon. Fiftyish. No worries. Then, in 1964, Carol Channing took on the Levi challenge in producer David Merrick’s colossal Broadway musical version, famously titled (or retitled) Hello, Dolly! (staged by the one and only Gower Champion). Still in her early 40s at the time and with a few high profile shows to her credit, Channing hardly qualified as an ingenue, even compared to the seasoned likes of Gordon and Booth; moreover, Channing had clearly experienced enough life to be utterly believable as a wily widow–and apparent Jill-of-all-trades–who, after a prolonged period of relative seclusion, finds love and seizes the chance to reclaim her place in the glittery nightlife of New York City, circa 1890. Channing scored a Tony, and soon afterward parlayed her popularity into an Oscar nominated–and Globe winning– supporting role as Muzzy Van Hossmere in 1967’s Throughly Modern Millie, starring Julie Andrews–then at the height of her popularity.
Taking all this into consideration, I have to admit that my mind still reels at the fact that when 20th Century Fox purchased the rights to Merrick’s property, someone in charge (producer Ernest Lehman?) thought it a grand idea to cast no less than blazingly new superstar Barbra Streisand, all of 27 (give or take), as this celebrated–and unequivocally middle-aged–character. Did I mention, by the way, that Streisand was only 27? Did I mention that my mind still reels?
Oh sure, Streisand, to quote Sandra Bernhard (in Without You I’m Nothing), was “hot, hot, hot” at the time; after all, she had just conquered Hollywood via the tremendously well-received big screen transfer of her Broadway triumph as legendary vaudevillian Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, for which she ultimately tied for Best Actress (with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter) at the 1968/69 Oscar ceremony.
In what truly qualifies as an ironic twist, Streisand either through sheer luck or by design snatched Dolly from Channing in a kind of turnabout of the occasion when Streisand lost a Tony for Funny Girl to Channing in Hello, Dolly! But, once again, I digress…
Of course, to the Fox suits casting Streisand as Dolly made genius business sense due to her extraordinary appeal not only as a freshly bankable movie commodity but also as a top recording artist and proven TV draw, thanks to a series of popular well-received musical specials. Channing, on the other hand, despite being synonymous with Hello, Dolly! and with big screen credibility thanks to Thoroughly Modern Millie, seemed too much of a risk, no doubt because she had never carried a picture, and, likely, because she was over 40, rarely considered a selling point for an actress in Hollywood. Plus, the late 1960s were simply a hand-wringing time for the big studios as they attempted to stay current in a very confusing time, socially and/or culturally. After all, glossy, old-fashioned Dolly was released the same year as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, the latter of which was originally rated X and earned the distinction of being the only so rated film to win Best Picture (or, presumably, any other Oscar for that matter).
That doesn’t change the simple truth that Streisand, not even 30, was simply too young to play Dolly Levi, what’s the word, realistically. That has nothing to do with talent because Streisand’s talent has never been in question; however, gargantuan talent doesn’t necessarily guarantee that even a star of Streisand’s caliber is always the best choice for every role. What were those Fox guys thinking? For example, did it ever occur to them that while Streisand might have ensured a relatively strong opening, she still needed to convince the masses that she could effectively play a middle-aged widow if the picture were to have positive word of mouth with the general public? After all, too, too, much of the story hinges on the fact that Dolly and her late husband, Efrem, had enjoyed a deep, loving, committed relationship–she quotes him constantly–and that she has been alone for a considerable period. That just doesn’t play as well coming from a 27 year old. Plus, the filmmakers–perhaps wisely in retrospect–don’t even try to make Streisand look older or more mature. She looks like Streisand. She may even look like Streisand as Fanny Brice. Maybe she looks like Streisand playing Fanny Brice playing Dolly Levi. Yeah, that’s the ticket. (Methinks if this series of unfortunate events were to happen today, there would be a lot of hoopla about transforming the star with special “age” makeup. Blech.)
Yes, here we are at the conundrum of the whole thing. In Hello, Dolly!, Streisand simply looks like Streisand. No attempt is made to obscure her youth and vibrancy. Far from it. Of course, she’s styled to a fare-thee-well. No attempt to add creases to her face, or to dowdy-down her hair even though the script keeps referencing her age, her longevity, her colorful past. The effect at times is discombobulating–but only at times because as miscast as she clearly is, she knows what’s she doing, and what she’s doing is selling Jerry Herman’s wow of a score while also serenading audiences with the full sweet magnitude of her unlikely stardom–a kooky unconventional beauty with mesmerizing talent–and she simply dazzles in spite of the incongruity of it all.
I once read that the late great Pauline Kael had described George Cukor’s monumental 1954 remake of A Star is Born starring Judy Garland, as the greatest one woman show in the history of movies. Something like that. I think Streisand in Hello, Dolly! gives Garland a run for her money in that regard. Literally, of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Just as Cukor surrounded Garland with resourceful supporting players, including magnetic James Mason, Dolly director Gene Kelly, legendary hoofer-turned leading man-turned filmmaker, fills the big, big screen with comic foils, energetic dancers, and scads upon scads of costumed extras, but for much of the movie Streisand seems to exist in a world of her own, and she seizes the screen, dominating a picture absolutely packed with detail in every frame.
Of course, this–what, singularity?–may prove distracting to some moviegoers who prefer their flicks to be plot driven stories in which characters interact with each other in order to advance the action. I mean, that is the gig, typically, is it not? Streisand skeptics may shudder and write the whole thing off to egomania, a charge the entertainment phenom has faced more than once, especially with the likes of her own crowd pleasing remake of A Star is Born (1976) and 1983’s Yentl, producing the former while producing and directing the latter. I fully admit that I’m not much of a fan of either film–and for the same reasons as all the other detractors. (I especially retch at the self aggrandizing A Star is Born remake in spite of Oscar winning tune “Evergreen” that Streisand composed with Paul Williams.) Other Dolly foes might protest on the grounds that Streisand “stole” a role that rightfully belonged to Channing, but that seems, well, unimaginative, meaning that there is no guarantee that Channing would have been cast even if Streisand had turned down the part. Of course, we all know that no less than Audrey Hepburn originally balked at the chance to play Eliza Doolittle in the big screen version of My Fair Lady, hoping her refusal would force the studio heads–Warners–to rethink their decision to NOT hire Julie Andrews who made the role famous in its landmark Broadway run. Nothing doing, the Warner’s people reportedly told Hepburn. If she didn’t take the role, someone else would–and they didn’t mean Andrews. That would never happen. So Hepburn, knowing she was licked and knowing, like Kenny Rogers, when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, switched rather than fight.
Of course, fans of Dolly on Broadway (or its original cast album) might remain steadfast in their contempt due, again, to Streisand’s youth and how obviously miscast she is.
But I love her in Hello, Dolly!
In spite of all that. Yes, I should know better. Yes, I should know that I should know better, but for some reason, I don’t care. Maybe I need a support group, but I think Streisand nails this role in all its glory.
What do I love about Streisand in Dolly? For starters, her comic timing works like a charm. A lot of the lines are actually clever, but Streisand makes them more clever (cleverer?); however, that is not her gift. No, what she actually does is find a way to make even the corny lines sound snappy. And that’s huge. (Again, the effect may read as Striesand playing Fannie Brice playing Dolly Levi, but that just makes the whole thing more fascinating.) Also, please notice–either the next time or the first time you watch–how fluidly she gesticulates. It’s not so much that her hands are always moving, that would be a bit much, but when they do move, every little detail, every bend of the wrist, every flick of a finger, reveals something about the character. Of course, those artfully manicured nails really deliver in the glamour department, all larger than life they are. Plus, I marvel at La Streisand’s energy level, knowing that nothing, or almost nothing, in movies is ever as easy as it seems, meaning take after take after take, but in this case that includes huge production numbers with layers of details (and, as such, more and more potential gaffes to slow down filming), yet Streisand stays lively, buoyant, even in the heat of exterior scenes, or the hot lights of sound-stages, even under layers of period clothes–and that means long dresses, wigs (or a wig, but it’s a doozy of a voluminous Gibson Girl updo), and huge ornate hats. What a dynamo!
Then, of course, there’s that voice. Somewhere along the way in her storied career, Streisand lost sight of her most valuable asset, that million dollar voice capable of elevating almost anything to the highest heights, a mixture of fierce control, yes, but brightened with pure emotion: everything from whispery soft to commandingly loud and clear. Over time, her musical performances became (or have become) too mannered, too strained, for my taste–though it’s obvious that she influenced a whole host of younger singers, such as Celine Dion.
In Hello, Dolly!, Streisand savors the words and melodies of titan Jerry Herman, and it’s a thrill just to hear THAT voice sing THOSE songs. The perfect merger of artist and material. Streisand’s two standouts, besides that rousing title tune, begin with “Before the Parade Passes By.” There, seconds after a rollicking exterior production number, director Kelly directs the camera to find Streisand as Dolly, alone on a park bench, framed by soft rich greenery, a deft touch against her lavender dress, sunlight dappling across her face. Then, she begins, quietly at first. She sees people laughing and dancing in the park, and she wants to join them, but how can she, a lonely middle-aged widow with baggage? (See what I mean?) Dolly has to get things right in her head first before she can proceed with the next chapter in her life, and Streisand’s voice pierces through the malarkey, and Dolly slowly comes to life–in character–until she’s all but breathless with exhilaration at the realization that time–and its parade–have not passed her by. Not yet. From there, Kelly cuts to arguably the biggest, splashiest parade scene in any movie this side of Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome per the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton extravaganza, also an enormously expensive Fox production. On and on it goes, this parade, for what appears to be blocks and blocks in a replica of Old New York City, especially created on the Fox back lot. Stunning. Then, Streisand, that is, Dolly, musters up every single bit of fortitude she has and delivers a whammy of a full-tilt finish. Streisand brings Dolly to rousing life so that she’s now ageless, timeless. The second showstopper for this viewer, again, besides the obvious title tune, is “So Long, Dearie,” a campy, vampy, farewell to her intended–and quite perplexed–suitor. Streisand demonstrates yet again her considerable vocal range while strutting her considerable stuff with electrifying verve, milking every innuendo with aplomb and no doubt more than a coincidental nod to vintage saucy seductress Mae West, all in good fun.
The big screen adaptation of Hello, Dolly! also scores in other ways, not the least of which is Michael Kidd’s energetic choreography. Kidd, already legendarily famous for, among others, 1954’s box office smash–and Best Picture nominee–Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, works on a tremendous scale, and his work here is just as swell as, say, Kelly’s own Singin’ in the Rain, Jerome Robbins in West Side Story (1961) and Oona White in The Music Man (1962), those last two among my particular personal faves, and right up there, as well, with his own Seven Brides.
Now, about that title song. What a piece of work, everything from Streisand regally descending a grand staircase to a gaggle of high stepping chorus boys–outfitted as waiters in a lavish, bustling high dollar restaurant–to no less than the late great Louis Armstrong, already a Grammy winner at that point for his chart-topping cover version of the title song (which he actually recorded just prior to the stage show’s Broadway opening). Armstrong, with his light-hearted, fizzy growl and twinkly eyes, creates movie magic when he serenades Streisand, and she returns the favor with giddy enthusiasm. For better or worse, Armstrong is the only performer with whom Streisand truly appears to connect during this massive endeavor. Or is it simply that he’s the only cast member who has enough razzle-dazzle star power–or is that confidence?–to match the vibrant leading lady? Meanwhile, Kidd is equally in good form in at least two other numbers, including “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Dancing.” Along those same lines, to be perfectly clear, nothing but nothing in this Hello, Dolly! would work without Jerry Herman’s delightful, diamond-hard score and the contributions of Lennie Hayton and Lionel Newman for adapting that score; those two won Oscars, by the way, as did sound engineers Jack Solomon and Murray Spivack.
Actually, Hello, Dolly! did very well at the 1969/70 Academy Awards ceremony, copping wins in three categories from a pool of 7 nominations, including Best Picture (losing, of course, to the more daring Midnight Cowboy as noted). First and foremost among those Oscar victories has to be honors bestowed upon a production design team headed by John DeCuir, Jack Martin Smith, and Herman A. Blumenthal (Art Direction), along with Walter M. Scott, George James Hopkins, and Raphael Bretton. Not a shabby bunch, this crew. Prior to Dolly!, they’d all, save Bretton, won at least one Oscar for such offerings as The King and I (1956), Cleopatra (1963), My Fair Lady (1964), and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Dolly! dazzles most in its exterior sets, a mock up Old New York, all of it created on the Fox backlot, that just seems, as noted, to go on and on forever. If the parade scene doesn’t convince you, take a gander at the milliner (played by Marianne McAndrew) and her perky assistant (lovely E.J. Peaker in a slim, forgettable role) during their first scene. In one sequence they walk across a block, turn a corner, cross yet another street, climb winding steps, and swing back around before reaching their destination. Additionally, dig that park bench scene and the gorgeous fountain Streisand passes (one of at least two among the exterior niceties). Also, what about the entrance to Dolly’s beloved dining establishment, The Harmonia Gardens? Yes, bigger is bigger. So persuasive–and costly–is this mammoth exterior contraption that Fox began renting it, mostly to TV cop shows, I’m sure, in order to recoup its considerable investment. Among the interiors, almost nothing is more lavish than the restaurant’s main set, as gaudy and rococo as one could ever hope to imagine: multiple levels, plush red carpet, chandeliers, gilded everything, statuary, private dining rooms, fussy, well-set tables, elaborate floral arrangements, and, of course, a fountain. Skeptics and period purists may argue that even for Victoriana, too much is too much. I can see that to a point, but only to a point; after all, yes, the milliner’s shop is probably way too spacious and fanciful to read as anything but fantasy, which could be distracting, certainly not the desired effect. On the other hand, some of us relish the chance to revel in what appears to be a fully realized world unto itself, and for me this is a case in which a movie so rich with design begs to be seen on a giant screen. (To clarify, the scenes set in Rochester NY, were actually filmed on location in Garrison, New York with spectacular views of the Hudson River.) Shout outs as well to legendary costume designer Irene Sharaff, already a 5 time Oscar winner at that point (for the likes of An American in Paris, The King and I, West Side Story, and Cleopatra) who earned her 13th out of 14 Oscar nods. The standout look besides those fabulous hats and red-jacketed waiters, of course, is that gold beaded gown Dolly wears for her triumphant scene at the Harmonia Gardens. Exquisite, and no doubt a challenge for Streisand as the dress obviously weighs several pounds (40, per the IMDb, at a reported cost of $8,000.00). Sharaff lost in her category to Margaret Thurse of Anne of the Thousand Days, the year’s most nominated pic, starring Richard Burton as Henry VIII and Genevieve Bujold as tragic Anne Boleyn. Other nominations were accorded to cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr. (a posthumous bid), and editor William H. Reynolds, and good for them. Everything is top-notch.
For all of Streisand and her director’s razzle-dazzle Hello, Dolly! is not without its flaws, and not just the questionable casting of its lead actress–even if she delivers in spite of all that. No, the weakness, as indicated earlier, is that Streisand has no one to play against. The supporting cast is mostly weightless. Sure, future Broadway legend Michael Crawford (a 1988 Tony winner for The Phantom of the Opera) has an agreeable screen presence though his singing voice is a bit thin (obviously, that all changed by the time he conquered the Great White Way with his signature portrayal). He makes the best of his goofy role–I guess–as Cornelius Hackl, a lanky clerk with hopes of finding true love in the big city, but his screen time with Streisand is relatively scarce, and his presumed love-interest–the spurned milliner–is a snoozer. (Note: Crawford and Streisand are approximately the same age though, again, Dolly is supposed to be a mother hen to young Mr. Hackl.) That said, I want to give a shout-out to Danny Lockin as Crawford/Hackle’s sidekick, Barnaby Tucker. Lockin’s enthusiastic performance is marked by some of the most athletic dancing one could hope to imagine. Elsewhere, the aforementioned Peaker, oh so good on so many TV shows in the 70s, is wasted, as is Texas giant Tommy Tune.
“Unfortunate” pretty much describes the decision to cast the blandly pretty Marianne McAndrew in the role of hat maker Irene Molloy, a pawn in Dolly’s matchmaking scheme to land a suitor of her own. McAndrew fails almost from the beginning when she’s asked to launch into a song entitled, “Ribbons Down My Back.” From the outset, it’s obvious that McAndrew is lip-synching, and that in itself is not the real problem; after all, vocals for most movie musical numbers are prerecorded, with the performers pantomiming to their own tracks on-camera; however, what emerges sounds almost nothing like the actress’s speaking voice. Plus, McAndrew seems to lack any feeling for what she’s doing–as though she’s never even sung a note, on her own or with a record, in her whole life. I’m not even sure her lips actually move. It’s the opposite of joyous, for both her and the audience. That noted, McAndrew earned Golden Globe nods for both Best Supporting Actress and Most Promisng Newcomer. Her vocals, per the IMDb, are provided by Melissa Stafford (with possible assist by Gail Maiken).
Speaking of the opposite of joyous, the biggest casting blunder of all has to be that of Walter Matthau as the miserly stick-in-the-mud merchant Horace Vandergelder upon whom Dolly places all her hopes and dreams. It’s a joyless performance though skeptics might argue that Matthau is just staying true to the character–that it’s a thankless part. Maybe. Of course, part of the problem is that Matthau, approaching 50 at the time the movie was filmed, has no discernible chemistry with his leading lady, a huge factor of which can be attributed to an age gap of nearly 20 years, and, again, Dolly, technically, should be played by a more mature actress. (Some texts describe Dolly as being a friend of Vandergelder’s late wife.) The effect is frightening: to think that this vivacious, robust Dolly seems hell-bent on throwing away her youth and beauty on an ungrateful old raisin like Matthau. Unsettling.
Of course, Matthau pretty much registers disinterest during much of the movie. The legend, reported in almost every source I’ve ever read about this particular movie in all my many years, is that the actor couldn’t stand Streisand and made little or no effort to be cordial during filming. And it shows. Luckily, Matthau isn’t in the picture enough to ruin it, only to remind audiences that this is supposed to be a love story every time he appears. The effect, for me, is, “Oh. It’s you. Again. Really?” It also doesn’t help that Matthau is saddled with the show’s worst song, the lamentable “It Takes a Woman.” Of course, Matthau is no singer. That’s the least of it, nor is the problem the schmaltzy lyrics. No, the worst part is that Matthau’s song is too melodically similar to the arguably more famous “We Need a Little Christmas” which found its way into composer Jerry Herman’s other smash musical, Mame. Jerry, you’re cannibalizing yourself. Of course, Matthau probably seemed like a good idea at the time. He’d won Best Supporting Actor for The Fortune Cookie a few years earlier, and he and Jack Lemmon had just come off the smash big screen version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Even so, Streisand, ever a showbiz trouper, keeps plugging away, making the most of her screen time with Matthau, especially during the Harmonia Gardens scene, relishing every line as though she actually believes she could fall for someone as charismatically bankrupt as Matthau’s character.
Also, I think casting any established, middle-aged actor opposite Streisand during that time was probably a bit of a feat, not because she was young, but because she was an upstart, a movie newcomer from New York with a galvanizing talent who was already landing plum parts–and earning major awards for her film debut–in a chummy, company town such as Hollywood. What seasoned vet wants to star opposite that, especially knowing that he would likely be overshadowed as his function would be to merely serve as the straight-man while the diva lands all the gags, the great costumes, the flattering closeups, etc.? Hint: Actors can be very insecure about such things. That noted, a friend of mine recently observed that Dick Van Dyke, a mere five years younger than Matthau, might have been a better fit; after all, Van Dyke at that time was a reliable–hugely appealing–actor who had yet to match earlier spectacular successes such as Bye, Bye Birdie, Mary Poppins, or his self-titled sitcom. Certainly, he didn’t attract much attention for his 1969 effort, The Comic, a fictional rags-to-riches-to rags saga about a silent screen star. I can visualize Dick Van Dyke as a Horace Vandergelder with a slight twinkle in his eye despite exasperation at Dolly’s shenanigans. Matthau just makes me shudder.
So, there we have it. A bravura leading performance by a young powerhouse actress who in spite of her considerable finesse is obviously miscast as decidedly middle-aged busybody. But what would the movie be without her? That noted, I hate that we don’t have Channing’s performance recorded for posterity on film. What else? A major Oscar contender that cost a fortune–and looks it–that apparently ranked among the year’s top grossing films while notably still failing to recoup its for-the-times enormous costs though we may never really get to the bottom of this since–A–Hollywood bookkeeping, especially in the less transparent 1960s, has always been a bit of a shell-game, and–B–the Internet has a way of rewriting history and not always with the most credible sources. Additionally, in spite of its seven Oscar nominations, again, including Best Picture, director Gene Kelly was shut-out even though the movie is technically accomplished. (He and Streisand, however, were honored with Golden Globe nominations.) Maybe Kelly was snubbed by the Academy’s directors branch because he let the budget get away from him, or because he allowed himself to be steamrolled by a presumed diva. Maybe in 1969 Hollywood, the Academy wasn’t as tolerant of actor-directors as it later became, especially given that this project lacks a personal touch and appears more on the order of an impersonal corporatized entertainment that, nonetheless, provided scads upon scads of jobs to numerous performers, artisans, technicians, and other in-demand personnel. Maybe.
^ This YouTube clip appears on a recent Hello, Dolly! Blu-ray but, alas, not on the DVD.
I’ve seen Hello, Dolly! dozens and dozens of times, and I enjoy it as long as I don’t think too much about it. I must say that its unbridled gaiety helped brighten many a darkened day over the past six months, and that’s one reason why I’m happy–and able–to write about it now. Of course, it has become familiar to younger generations by virtue of being referenced in Pixar’s popular–and Oscar winning–Wall-E. Between film repertory series, both old and new, I’ve been able to catch up with some of my favorite musicals on the big screen, those that I’d missed for one reason or another as a child, including Gigi (release before I was even conceived), West Side Story, The Music Man, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and, yes, even Funny Girl. The King and I is next. Oh, how I’d love to see Hello, Dolly! in all its garish late 1960s splendor the way it was intended. It would be so nice to see it back where it belongs.
Thanks for your consideration…
 Technically, Wilder’s play has its origins in 19th century works by Johann Nestroy and John Oxenford; the former, Viennese; the latter, English. Read more from The Thornton Wilder Society.