Hello, Dolly!

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: ‘Marriage broker’ and general life-fixer Dolly Levi has plans to fix the life of grumpy half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder by arranging to have him marry her. To do this, she enlists the services of Cornelius and Barnaby, underlings at Horace’s hay feed shop in Yonkers, to sweep Horace’s intended Irene and her hat-shop assistant Minnie off their feet as they discover, for the very first time, the joys of New York.

Although the genre has made a strong comeback in the 2000s for young and old viewers alike, the last great decade for musical films has to be the 1960s: West Side Story won Best Picture at the start of the decade; My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music took the honours in the middle years. Hello, Dolly! won a number of Oscars but missed out on the big prize, losing to the gritty Midnight Cowboy; and in subsequent years heavyweight films such as Patton and The French Connection took the centre stage. This film, based on a Thornton Wilder play The Matchmaker and with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, may be the last hurrah for the big, old-fashioned song-and-dance musical, then; and its star turn makes sure the decade goes out with a bang.

The story is fairly simple: young widow Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) travels to Yonkers with two jobs on her mind, seeking inspiration from her late husband Ephraim as she goes. The first job is to attract the attention of grumpy shop owner Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) away from a marriage of convenience to milliner Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew), towards herself; the second task is to smooth over Horace’s objections to the relationship between his niece Ermengarde and her beau Ambrose (Joyce Ames and the lofty Tommy Tune).

When Horace leaves to call on Irene anyway, Dolly encourages his employees Cornelius and Barnaby (Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin) to copy his example and head into town; they do so, with the avowed and scandalous intent of ‘kissing a girl’ (it is 1890, after all), encouraged by Dolly to visit a certain hat shop run by Irene and her young assistant Minnie (E.J. Peaker). As luck – or rather, as Dolly – would have it, the whole group turn up simultaneously in the luxurious Harmonia Gardens, Cornelius and Barnaby penniless but entertaining Irene and Minnie regardless; Ermengarde and Ambrose hoping to win money to set themselves up in a polka contest; and Horace, disappointed by Irene’s habit of keeping men in her closet, dating a supposed heiress with an incredible resemblance to one of Dolly’s best friends. It’s hardly conceivable that they will all be kept apart, especially when Dolly is the restaurant’s favourite guest.

If it’s immediately apparent that this tale could be told with considerably less fanfare, and budget, than any of the Oscar-winning musicals named above, nobody told the people at 20th Century Fox, who spent over $20 million recreating late 19th Century Yonkers and New York, and the magnificent Harmonia Gardens set, with loving care. Against these magnificent backdrops and with the help of entirely serviceable tunes, Hello, Dolly! plays out as a mixture of farce and open-air ballet – and here is the first of the film’s snags.

For whilst the songs are perfectly nice – the title number being the most memorable – their extension to incorporate lengthy dance sequences after they have served their purpose becomes tiring after a while. In part, this is purely a matter of taste, and keen connoisseurs of dance will find an awful lot to enjoy in the set-pieces, either the massed dancing in the streets and parks or the astounding acrobatics of the waiters; for me, however, a lot of it is dancing for its own sake (unlike, say, much of the dancing in The Sound of Music) and I struggled to enjoy much of it.

The bigger issue, however, is with the cast. Michael Crawford struggles with his American accent and has a pretty weak singing voice, though he cannot be blamed for the fact that his facial expressions are synonymous (in Britain) with Frank Spencer from the (later) sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Matthau, meanwhile, seems tremendously ill-at-ease, perhaps because he is in a Gene Kelly film but can neither sing nor dance; he would be a disastrous choice were he not so good at being grouchy in the non-singing, non-dancing parts of the film, and his knack for stone-faced comedy stands in welcome relief to his employees’ capering in and out of wardrobes, under/over tables etc.

And finally, you have La Streisand. In just her second film, Barbra plays Dolly with such a staggering amount of overweening self-assurance that you cannot begin to picture her as a grieving widow. Admittedly, part of the problem lies with the character, since Dolly has to be a go-getter to make her way in life; but the film makes such a fuss over her, and Streisand makes such a show of enjoying the attention, that when the film asks (as it undoubtedly does) ‘Don’t ya just love her?’ the only reasonable answer is ‘not particularly.’

It doesn’t help that Streisand is obviously much too young for the role, being twenty years Matthau’s junior, so her conviction appears to be the brashness of youth rather than the direct honesty of experience; fortunately, her strong and unique vocals are excellent throughout, which may not redeem all the film’s faults but certainly offsets some of them.

Hello, Dolly! is the epitome of overblown, and feels like an anachronism when put alongside late 60s historical events such as the Vietnam war or the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But to judge a film against its political backdrop is overly harsh, and much of this one is perfectly passable, and highly polished, entertainment whose nostalgic value would have been immeasurably increased by a less modern central performance. If nothing else, it contains a few minutes of Louis Armstrong, a true American icon, and you can’t complain about that.

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