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A Damned Exasperating Woman

How does the movie version of Hello, Dolly! hold up on DVD? An assessment of Barbra Streisand's most unlikely film. logo
For a sobering example of how pride can go before a fall, check out the trailer for Hello, Dolly! that's included on the new DVD of the 1969 movie. "Now," we are told, "the most phenomenally successful stage triumph of all time is 100 times more exciting on the screen." Further, we are informed, "Every future entertainment that wants to call itself 'great' will have to live up to Dolly!." As it turned out, the flick received mixed-to-negative reviews and, during its initial release, failed to recoup the huge amounts of money that 20th Century-Fox had spent in making it -- none of which was terribly upsetting to Carol Channing, who should have been signed to recreate her stage performance as Dolly Levi on film but was passed over in favor of the hopelessly miscast Barbra Streisand.

Famous for her superlative talent as a singer and a comic actress but notorious for her lack of awareness of her limitations, Streisand got the Dolly! movie because of her stardom rather than because she was right for the part. (She wasn't.) The irony of her casting is that one of the rare star movie roles that should have been earmarked for a middle-aged woman went instead to a performer for whom puberty was not a distant memory. Signing a woman in her mid-twenties to play Dolly Levi is almost as ridiculous as it would be to sign a 60-year-old for the title role in Gigi. When all is said and done, the age-inappropriateness is so distracting that it overwhelms whatever positive qualities the star brings to the part.

Streisand's youth wasn't her only liability in playing Dolly Levi; her style of singing, often imitated over the past few decades but unique at the time, has little to do with Jerry Herman's score as it was intended to be performed. It's true that, even as heard on the original Broadway cast albums, these songs don't reflect the style of the 1890s with 100 percent accuracy; still, those performances are a lot closer to period than what Streisand does with, for example, the first choruses of "Before the Parade Passes By" and "Hello, Dolly!" Nor does the star zero in on Mrs. Levi in terms of speech: Sometimes she sounds Southern, sometimes she apes Mae West, and sometimes she falls back on her New York Jewish inflections. (There's no reference in the film to Dolly's maiden name, Gallagher, so we're at least spared any attempt on Streisand's part to sound Irish.) One might argue that this willy-nilly approach to the character is defensible in that Hello, Dolly! was based on a farce by Thornton Wilder (which, in turn, had several antecedents) and the characters are not necessarily meant to represent real people. Still, as theatrical eminences grises often point out, even farce must be grounded in reality -- and it's debatable whether or not that description applies to Streisand's performance.

All of the above notwithstanding, there's much enjoyment to be had in watching Streisand do Dolly if you make peace with the fact that she's an enormously gifted star having fun with a role in which she's obviously miscast, rather than an actress presenting a rounded characterization. Barbra is very funny as Dolly -- the movie was made years before she decided that the only way to be taken seriously as an Artist was to lose her sense of humor -- and her singing voice is thrilling, however ill-suited to the material. The performance is filled with shameless but hilarious takes and facial expressions; one assumes that Streisand was allowed to do whatever the hell she wanted by Gene Kelly, another great talent (as a dancer, actor, and film choreographer) whose bad judgment led him to many professional failures (as both a performer and a director).

Barbra Streisand and cast in the "Hello, Dolly!" number
Kelly's ineptitude weighs heavily on Dolly! in that few of the actors seem to be in the same movie. Danny Lockin, whom I saw play Barnaby Tucker on Broadway in the Ethel Merman company, is broad and stagey on film, while several other cast members -- even Tommy Tune! -- give performances that are more film-appropriate. And Judy Knaiz is desperately unamusing as Gussie Granger, a.k.a. "Ernestina Simple." (Jo Anne Worley was up for the role but Kelly went with Knaiz. Now, there's a director who knows what he's doing!)

Another major problem with Dolly! is that never in the film does anyone appear to be singing live -- not only because the performers are unable to convincingly match their lip movements to the pre-recorded vocal tracks, but also because the sound quality of those tracks doesn't jibe with the dialogue. Streisand has never been very good at lip-synching, probably because she never delivers a song the same way twice. (I've always assumed that this was why she sang live throughout A Star is Born, the first movie on which she called the shots even though she didn't officially direct it.) Another poor lip-syncher -- to someone else's voice! -- is the now-forgotten Marianne McAndrew, who's otherwise not bad as Irene Molloy in Dolly!.

The one truly unwatchable performance in the film is that of Michael Crawford. With his thin, anemic singing voice, his awkward body language, his total lack of any romantic/sexual charisma, and his barely concealed British accent, Crawford is a disaster as Cornelius Hackl. It's hard to imagine why he was cast in the first place or how he ever worked again after this movie, let alone snagged the title roles in such shows as Barnum (in London) and The Phantom of the Opera. One need look no further than Crawford and Tommy Steele, both of whom had major careers in the West End, for evidence that the theatrical taste of the Brits is by no means unerring. (Yes, we Americans bought Crawford in Phantom, but at least we wised up to him by the time Dance of the Vampires rolled around!)

What's good about the Dolly! movie? Well, Walter Matthau is terrific as Horace Vandergelder, the Yonkers merchant for whom Dolly sets her cap. (Word is that he and Streisand did not get along during the filming, yet they have a considerable amount of chemistry -- especially in the comic scenes.) The cinematography and production design for this musical tale of New York City circa 1890 are as excellent as one would expect from the masterful Harry Stradling and John DeCuir. Irene Sharaff's costumes are fine aside from one or two ill-advised outfits for Streisand. Though it would have been nice to see Gower Champion adapt his Broadway choreography for the screen, Fox was at least smart enough to get another genius -- Michael Kidd -- to create the film's dances. And Jerry Herman's score is in good hands from an orchestral standpoint: Lennie Hayton and Lionel Newman are credited with musical supervision while no fewer than eight people are listed as orchestrators. Among them is Philip J. Lang, who did the Broadway originals.

Walter Matthau and Barbra Streisand
as Horace and Dolly
Of the two songs heard in the Broadway Dolly! that were reportedly not written by Herman -- "Motherhood" and "Elegance" -- the first was dropped for the film while the latter was retained. (A friend of mine says that the staging and performance of the "Elegance" number in the flick is awful enough to make anyone exclaim, "I never want to see another movie musical in my entire life!" He's right; this unbearably arch number will make your skin crawl.) Added to the tune stack for the movie were two songs: "Love is Only Love," written for but cut from Mame, and "Just Leave Everything to Me."

Finally, it's a great treat to have Louis Armstrong on-hand for one chorus of "Hello, Dolly!" -- a song he had helped to make famous in the mid-'60s, when music of that kind could still get major airplay on radio and TV. During Armstrong's few moments on screen, Dolly! soars into the stratosphere. Admirers of the film will be glad to know that the picture and sound quality of the DVD transfer is first-rate; but, aside from the trailer mentioned above, the only significant bonus is a vintage featurette that focuses on the filming of the massive parade sequence.

Hello, Dolly! was written for the screen and produced by Ernest Lehman, whose credits include two of the most successful Hollywood adaptations of Broadway tuners: West Side Story and The Sound of Music. The flick's associate producer was Roger Edens, a prime mover-and-shaper behind some of the best musicals from the golden age of M-G-M. It's amazing that people of this caliber couldn't see that a film of Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand (and Michael Crawford!) was a really bad idea. Even Streisand has been quoted as having labeled Dolly! the biggest mistake of her career -- though others might say it's a close contest with The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Hello, Dolly! helped in large part to quash the once-common practice of adapting Broadway musicals to the film medium. Now that Rob Marshall's Chicago has almost single-handedly revived the tradition, perhaps Dolly! should be remade. Any nominations for the title role?

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