In preparation for the upcoming Broadway revival of this musical, I thought I’d offer a review of its often misunderstood film version. Now, this film was not a financial success at the time (indeed, it nearly bankrupted the studio), but that was more because big movie musicals were falling out of fashion at the time (and because the film’s gargantuan production would have demanded a phenomenal level of success to turn a profit anyway), not because of anything wrong with the film itself.
Certainly its source, often underrated because of its overexposure, was one of Broadway’s greatest musical comedies, with a hilarious and endlessly quotable libretto, a fantastic score featuring some of the biggest showstoppers in Broadway history, and the warm heart of its Thorton Wilder source material underneath the farce. The role of Dolly Levi is one of the most coveted star parts in Broadway history, surpassed only by Rose in Gypsy, and has been played by every great Broadway diva from Mary Martin to Pearl Bailey.
And the movie is quite faithful to its source, with all of the show’s famous comic quotes intact in the script and only two songs added, both penned by the stage show’s composer Jerry Herman. The first, a new opening number called “Just Leave Everything To Me”, shares its subject matter and intro verse with the stage version’s “I Put My Hand In”, but is generally brassier and serves as more of a vocal showcase. The second is a ravishing ballad called “Love Is Only Love” that was originally a cut number from Mame. Presumably these changes were made to offer some more vocal opportunity to the film’s star, Barbra Streisand, than the stage show, which was after all written for Carol Channing, offered its star. Apart from “I Put My Hand In”, the only number cut from the film was the embarrassing Bob Merrill interpolation “Motherhood”, which seems like more of a blessing than anything else.
And there’s no denying the cast was luminous, one of the best this show has ever seen. Walter Matthau is note-perfect as Horace Vandergelder, grouchy and misanthropic but so irresistible in his grumpiness that you can honestly understand why Dolly goes to such lengths to snare him. Michael Crawford, in the role of Cornelius Hackl, is called on to play the gangly comic, convey quiet emotional sincerity under the surface, and sing the show’s most beautiful ballad. Charles Nelson Reilly, who played the part on Broadway, did the first two superbly, but when it came to “It Only Takes a Moment”, he just didn’t have the voice to do it justice. Future Phantom star Crawford, on the other hand, has in addition to his comic chops one of theater’s greatest voices, and he unfurls it gloriously here, providing arguably the definitive rendition of one of Broadway’s loveliest ballads.
Marianne McAndrew is a far more appealing and bewitching ingenue than Eileen Brennan was in the stage version (Brennan was a veteran of operetta spoofs like Little Mary Sunshine, and she played Irene Malloy in the same deliberately stiff manner, which did not suit the part at all). Granted, all of the movie leads except perhaps Matthau are giving wildly outsized, over-the-top performances (particularly the hyperactive E.J. Peaker as Irene’s sidekick Minnie Fay), but that’s exactly what this extravagant cartoon of a show calls for. Subtlety has its place in some shows, but in Hello, Dolly it would be missing the point.
And most outsized of all, in the center of it, was Barbra Streisand, the primary bone of contention some people have with the movie. She has exactly the right personality for the part, and she certainly sings the score better than anyone else ever did, but she is miscast for exactly one reason: she was in her twenties at the time and looks it, making Dolly’s entire character and backstory seem completely illogical. But as Harold Prince once famously pointed out to David Merrick, the whole show makes absolutely no sense to begin with, so how much is one more layer of absurdity going to hurt? In any case, Streisand is ideal in every other respect, and gives probably her greatest film performance outside of Funny Girl here, so it’s surprisingly hard to generate a plausible complaint about her.
Granted, Streisand and Matthau famously hated one another, but that doesn’t hurt their screen chemistry nearly as much as you might think. It does detract a little from the very last scene, particularly in the moment when he serenades her with the reprise of the title-song that leads into the finale…you can kind of tell he’s forcing the tenderness there. But since most of their scenes consist of her gleefully tormenting him and him being intensely annoyed with her, their contentious onscreen dynamic does more to make their scenes crackle than it does to undercut them.
The director, the legendary Gene Kelly himself, reportedly hated working with Streisand too, but he did some of the best work of his directing career here. He managed to find a screen equivalent for the stage show’s mega-showstoppers, creating four of Hollywood’s best production numbers in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, “Dancing”, “Before the Parade Passes By”, and the restaurant sequence that builds up to the title number (and features a thrilling cameo by Louis Armstrong himself, which makes no sense with the setting and period, but as I observed, why start now?).
As I stated, this movie was a failure at the time, but it has won a large following ever since it became available on home video, and while it still has its holdouts who carp about Streisand’s casting, most musical-theater enthusiasts would probably now regard it as a classic. And while its reception when it came out still causes it to show a misleadingly low score on most critic aggregate websites, I’d say it has been effectively vindicated by history. In any case, if you need your stories to make sense or consider excess and bombast to be ipso facto bad things, then neither the stage show nor the movie are for you. For the rest of you, this is one of the most glorious musicals films of the Sixties, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.