FILM: “Hello Dolly”
DIRECTOR: Gene Kelly
WRITER: Ernest Lehman, based on the musical by Michael Stewart, the play “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder, “Einen Jux will er sich machen” by Johann Nestroy and “A Day Well Spent” by John Oxenford
STARRING: Barbara Streisand, Walter Matthau, Michael Crawford, Marianne McAndrew, E.J. Peaker, Danny Locklin, Louie Armstrong, Joyce Ames, Tommy Tune, Judy Knaiz
There’s no more fitting way to start a Sunday morning than to watch “Hello Dolly” at the Chinese Theater. The colors and energy in all the musical numbers, particularly “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” are magnetized in a movie palace as opulent as the movie itself. The film may be famous in its own right as a Barbara Streisand musical vehicle. However, “Hello Dolly” is arguably more famous for its high $25 million production budget. Despite being in the top five grossers of 1969, the film was a money loser at the time. This signaled the end of the grand 60s musicals that had won countless Oscars and sold even more tickets.
Despite being known as a “flop,” the film is much better than its reputation may suggest. The candy colored confection opens with Streisand’s Dolly Levi doling out her matchmaking services to everyone in her path in New York City. Dolly sets course for Yonkers, New York, where she hopes to marry the rich, yet grouchy, Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau). Horace hires Dolly to take his niece, Ermengarde (Joyce Ames) to New York to find an eligible bachelor. He disapproves of her current suitor, a penniless artist named Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune). Never one to let young love die, Dolly hatches a scheme to have both Ermengarde and Ambrose enter a New York dance competition so Ambrose can win the money and be a viable bachelor. Believe it or not, this is the simplest version of the plot, as it omits many other subplots.
The movie’s greatest asset may also be its greatest liability. Barbara Streisand is at the heights of her movie-star powers as Dolly Levi. She dominates the screen from minute one and perfectly conveys the larger than life persona necessary for Dolly. All scenes involve Dolly waltzing in with a comically over the top gown. From here, she rattles off schemes, plots and diversions at a mile a minute speed that would make Aaron Sorkin spin. In doing so, the film almost forgets to give Dolly her own perspective. At first, her interest in Horace seems purely for money. As the movie progresses, it forgets to define the moment where Dolly’s love for Horace becomes genuine. Even so, she plays needlessly complicated games with the man, rather than be honest about their feelings. Matthau and Streisand have fun, adversarial chemistry. In terms of romantic chemistry, that well runs dry.
Instead, the MVP of the movie becomes Michael Crawford as Cornelius Hackl, an overworked 28¾ year old who takes an adventure to New York with his co-worker Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin). Crawford’s youthful energy radiates. It’s an always welcome diversion once the movie shifts to his character. Dolly sets him up with business owner Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew), who has grown tired of her hat business. Horace originally wanted to propose to Irene. However, she becomes instantly taken with Cornelius, who Dolly falsely builds up as wealthy. Even Barnaby gets a love interest in Irene’s assistant Minnie Fay (E.J. Peaker). Their double date song, “Elegance,” injects the audience with fun the minute they’re back from intermission. In terms of emotional resonance, “It Only Takes a Moment” winds up as the tearjerking song of the film. It’s no wonder Pixar utilized this song for “Wall E.”
For its faults and lapses in storytelling, “Hello Dolly” dares you not to be charmed by its old fashioned heart. All $25 million dollars of the budget are on display in bright, warm colors. Gene Kelly’s impressive direction is always visible. The idyllic town of Yonkers comes to life during “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.” It’s impossible to not have a smile on. The bulk of the second act takes place in Harmonia Gardens, a restaurant set piece that has to be seen to be believed. The amount of choreography throughout truly astounds. In terms of vast scale, there’s nothing like “Before the Parade Passes By.” The movie builds out a full parade route and assembles a cast of extras to fill every nook and cranny of the scene. It’s a show-stopping, jaw-dropping feat that culminates in a beautiful pan out so we can marvel at the scale.
At the end of the day, it’s best to go big or go home. “Hello Dolly” stands out for the musical genre in terms of scale and scope. However, it would be reductive to say it’s all a big show. There’s a beating heart to the project that’s just as big as the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. That’s what makes “Hello Dolly” timeless.
“Hello Dolly” played at the TCM Film Festival on Sunday, April 14th. It is available to stream on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft, and FandangoNOW.