Yes, it is difficult to justify “Hello, Dolly!” as great art. But it is a work of great entertainment – it is a product of an era when people looked up at a screen and saw “movies” instead of “cinema.”
The key problem that many people express with “Hello, Dolly!” was the unlikely casting of Barbra Streisand in the eponymous role of the 1890s matchmaker Dolly Levi. The role, of course, was conceived for a late-middle-aged woman – Carol Channing famously originated the part on Broadway, while Mary Martin starred in the West End premiere. A skein of old-time movie queens played the role in the post-Channing Broadway run and in various touring companies, including Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, and Dorothy Lamour. Offbeat casting included Pearl Bailey in an all-black Broadway version plus comic actresses Phyllis Diller, Dora Bryan and Molly Picon in other stage versions.
Streisand, however, was 27 when Ernest Lehman signed her for the film version. Lehman would later state he initially considered Channing for the film, but he was concerned about her spotty track record as a film performer. After viewing Channing’s performance in the 1967 film “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” he felt that the star’s stage-bound vivacity could not translate into a motion picture. Ironically, Streisand had even less film experience than Channing – her one film at that point was the adaptation of her Broadway hit “Funny Girl,” but that was still in post-production when she was signed to play Dolly Levi.
For her part, Streisand was surprised at the offer – oddly, she thought the role would be best suited for Elizabeth Taylor, even though the two-time Oscar-winner was years removed from late middle age and possessed no musical abilities (a fact that was cruelly confirmed a decade later with the film of “A Little Night Music”).
But if Streisand’s Dolly was youthful in comparison to her stage predecessors, she brought the energy and visceral excitement of youth to the epic production. Her Dolly is a kinetic force of nature, belting out Jerry Herman’s classic tunes with a pop diva power that gave new resonance to the score. Her singing takes dares in the extremes and pays off with bold profits – from the astonishing sendoff of “Before the Parade Passes By” (the longest maintained single note in film musical history) to the comic viper attack of “So Long, Dearie” to the sex kitten acknowledgement of her male admirers in the title song.
Even in the film’s one gentle ballad, “Love is Only Love” (added to the film version by Herman, who originally planned it for his show “Mame”), Streisand mines the raw emotions of the lyrics to detail the fragile connection of mind and heart. The film’s crowning moment, when Streisand is joined by Louis Armstrong to sing part of the title song, is a true classic experience – a grand old man of jazz and a brassy upstart of 1960s pop play off each other with mischievous glee.
Streisand reportedly did not get along with her co-star Walter Matthau, who was cast as the curmudgeonly “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder that Dolly recklessly pursues. (Matthau was also too young for his part, though he received no criticism for his casting.) Whatever friction took place off-screen may have helped fuel their respective performances. A critical eye can dissect their joint scenes and witness how they try to upstage each other – a Matthau grimace is met with a Streisand eye roll, met in turn by a Matthau scowl, and so forth. Not surprisingly, the film shows slight signs of lethargy whenever either star is not present.
“Hello, Dolly!” came at the tail end of an era where studios (in this case, 20th Century Fox) spared no expense in putting on an extravaganza. In this pre-CGI era, the recreation of 1890s New York was achieved by actually recreating the city’s downtown skyline. The song “Before the Parade Passes By,” takes the metaphoric link between fading opportunities and an expiring march, and visualizes it with a magnificent display of colorful floats and period-clad marchers and spectators. The film was shot in the wide screen 65mm Todd-AO format, and much of its original visual pizzazz is lost when viewed in today’s letterboxed DVD screen.
Earlier in the year, I was part of a panel discussion regarding the films of the late 1960s. While other panel members highlighted scenes from groundbreaking classics of the era – “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider” – I showed a clip from “Hello, Dolly!” By today’s standards, it stood out strangely. But that is only because the notion of the big musical entertainment is not considered chic – and the very few film musicals being made today are more visually aligned to MTV’s visual style than the traditions of Hollywood’s song-and-dance classics.
What we also forget is that while today’s film scholars would peg “Bonnie and Clyde” or “Easy Rider” as symbolizing their era, the audiences of four decades ago actually sought out the traditional productions – the so-called groundbreaking efforts could be counted on fingers, and the top grossing U.S. film of 1969 was not “Easy Rider,” but was Disney’s non-cutting edge romp “The Love Bug.”
Indeed, detractors love to insist out that “Hello, Dolly!” was not a commercial success at the time of its release. Indeed, it only earned back $18 million of its $24 million budget (quite a princely sum for 1969). What is not mentioned, however, is that when the film was in wide release during 1970, it was among the year’s top ten grossing films; it later recouped its costs through international theatrical, television and home video sales.
For those who’ve never seen “Hello, Dolly!” and those who may have seen it once but barely recall it, this 40th anniversary offers a chance to return and enjoy its charms. Yes, it is old-fashioned – but, really, when it comes to fun movies, what’s so bad about being old-fashioned? “Hello, Dolly!” exists as diversion and amusement, and on both points it more than satisfies.