Hello Dolly! (1969) Directed by Gene Kelly. Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau, Michael Crawford. 2 hours, 26 minutes. Rated G.
I have to admit to falling a little bit down the Hello Dolly! rabbit hole. While doing my research, I not only watched the Barbra Streisand film, but read the original play by Thornton Wilder, went to see the Broadway tour revival at the Durham Performing Arts Center with Betty Buckley, watched You Tube clips of Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters, and even watched an on-line analysis of the affinity between Wall-E and Hello Dolly! They rhyme. Wall-E—Dolly. Wow!
Wall-E learns about human connection from “Put on Your Sunday Clothes.”
The musical Hello, Dolly! is one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time. It originated with a flop play written in 1938 by Thornton Wilder, after the Pulitzer Prize he won for Our Town, and before the one he would win for The Skin of Our Teeth. The Merchant of Yonkers, as it was first titled, ran for a dismal 39 performances on Broadway.
He described it as a “broad, low comedy, based upon a Viennese classic of 1845, into which is inserted that wonderful scene in Moliere’s L’Avre (The Miser) where Louise, the marriage-broker, tries to interest Harpagon in a young girl. This time, I’m out for trenchant, not to say, cutting laughter” (Niven 461). This Viennese version was in turn based on an 1835 English play called A Day Well Spent. The 1891 musical comedy A Trip to Chinatown also sports a similar plot. Wilder said of The Merchant of Yonkers, “this play parodies the stock company plays I used to see at Ye Liberty Theater in Oakland, California, when I was a boy” (Wilder xi). All these influences resulted in the creation of Dolly Levi, “one of the strongest, savviest, most exuberant of the long line of remarkable women he created in drama or fiction” (Niven 468).
Matthau with Michael Crawford (who played the original Phantom in Phantom of the Opera) and Danny Lockin
Dolly Levi, a spirited widow of a certain age, is a matchmaker. The match she has her sights set on at the moment is her own, a marriage of convenience with a “rich, friendless and mean” Hay and Feed shopkeeper. First, she has to sort out the romances of three ingénue couples during one exciting day in 1885 New York City.
The director of The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938 was the famed European director Max Reinhardt. He and his wife were fugitives from the Nazis living in the US. Although Wilder resisted, Reinhardt insisted on some musical elements in the play, the Vandergelder Recreational and Burial Society Band, and the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant waltzes, which smoothed the path for a thoroughly musical version of the play down the road. Jane Cowl, the great dramatic star, was never comfortable as Dolly, and the reviews were negative.
Wilder’s first choice for Dolly in 1938 had been Ruth Gordon, and in 1954, her husband, Garson Kanin suggested that Wilder revise and update the play, that Gordon would star, and they would premiere at the Edinburgh Festival, after which, hopefully, the play would arrive on Broadway already a hit. Now titled The Matchmaker, it went on from the festival to a long London run, eliciting rapturous applause. Arriving on Broadway in 1955, it ran for 486 performances, the longest run Wilder ever had for a play. The Matchmaker was adapted into a film starring Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi in 1958 (and with Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine as Cornelius and Irene).
Hello Dolly! made history when it opened in 1964. Starring Carol Channing and opening at the St. James Theater on Broadway, it was an instant smash hit. With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, and directed by Gower Champion, it won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, a record unbroken for 37 years. It ran 2,844 performances, and seemingly every Broadway diva took her turn as Dolly, including but not only Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey (in an all African American cast) and finally, Ethel Merman. The part had been written with her in mind, but she did not want a lengthy Broadway run after her marathon as the star of Gypsy.
Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights to Hello Dolly! while it was still on Broadway, for $2 ½ million, and a percentage of the gross. They were hoping for a gargantuan hit the size of their previous blockbuster, The Sound of Music. Carol Channing, the triumphant star of the stage version was deemed too brassy? Too old? Too not famous? to recreate her signature role on screen. Julie Andrews and Elizabeth Taylor were also turned down, but Barbra Streisand, even though young, was a proven musical film star, thanks to her triumph on screen in her stage vehicle, Funny Girl.
Streisand was hesitant to accept the part. She did feel too young for the part and said, “There is no way I can play Dolly Levi in a way that makes sense of the woman” (Gabler 112). Dolly was already confident and regal, not an ugly duckling turning into a swan, or someone working their way through pain to get to the top. Dolly was not a sensitive enough character to tap into Streisand’s reserves of emotion.
Gene Kelly was chosen as the director. Writer Ernest Lehman said, “Gene had exactly the qualities we needed on the picture. Tremendous energy and vitality, and a maddening cheerfulness” (Hirschorn 291). Michael Kidd would be doing the choreography, leaving the spectacle to Kelly. Lehman struggled with the script, since it’s not that much about Dolly Levi, but rather the young lovers, who are, frankly, rather insipid. Shortly after beginning work on the film, Streisand became anxious about her age and started to panic. Kelly said, “If only there had been more time. I’d have tried to help her work out a clear-cut characterization, but we had a tight schedule, and I left it up to her. With the result that she was being Mae West one minute, Fanny Brice the other, and Barbra Streisand the next. Her accent varied as much as her mannerisms. She kept experimenting with new things out of sheer desperation, none of which really worked to her satisfaction. And as she’s such a perfectionist, she became terribly neurotic and insecure (Hirschorn 293). Barbara needed to be treated carefully, and conversely, Kelly wanted to be treated with a deference she was unable to summon, and they did not always get along.
Making light for the camera.
So much was made of her age; she was 26. I don’t look on this as a major difficulty. Young women are widowed, too. And, during that time when women had little financial security without a husband, she would have been willing to overlook the fact that Vandergelder’s main attraction was his pocketbook.
The disagreements with Kelly were nothing compared to the spats with her co-star, Walter Matthau. “The trouble with Barbra is that she became a star long before she became an actress. Which is a pity, because if she learned her trade properly she might become a competent actress instead of a freak attraction, like a boa constrictor. The thing about working with her was that you never knew what she was going to do next and were afraid she’d do it. I found it a most unpleasant picture to work on and, as most of my scenes were with her, extremely distasteful” (Hirschorn 294).
The biggest blow-up occurred the day after Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Everyone was upset (Matthau was a friend of the Kennedys) and the exterior set in Garrison, NY (standing in for Yonkers) was roasting under tremendous heat. Matthau and Streisand had a huge screaming fight on set when Streisand called for retake after retake, and Matthau thought she was trying to direct him in the film. “You might be the singer in this picture, but I’m the actor. You haven’t got the talent of a butterfly’s fart” he stormed. Kelly was worried that Matthau would have a third heart attack as Streisand rushed to her dressing room in tears, and the producer raced to the set to smooth ruffled feathers. Kelly hated being in the middle of it all, but held the production together. Streisand was 22 years younger than Matthau, they were both tough New Yorkers, was no doubt part of the problem. Streisand gifted her sour co-star one morning with a bar of soap “for your old sewer mouth” and reminded him the movie was not called “Hello, Walter.” When it came time for them to kiss on camera, they refused, and the camera was angled to fake the embrace.
Matthau, Streisand and Marianne McAndrew as Irene Malloy
At the same time Kelly was stressed out at having to direct another dancer and choreographer, Michael Kidd, who was in turn anxious that he would be compared unfavorably both to Gower Champion’s Broadway staging and Kelly’s matchless choreography career. Kelly didn’t want to disrespect Kidd, but knew that, accurate or not, people would assume that he had done the choreography.
Screenwriter Lehman concluded, “It was not, in retrospect, a happy film. There were things going on that were terrible. The intrigues, the bitterness, the backbiting, the deceits, the misery, the gloom. Most unpleasant. It’s quite amazing what people go through to make something entertaining for others. I’m always shocked by it.”
In a way, it was the clashing between old and new Hollywood. One person who worked on the film told Nora Ephron for a profile piece, “It’s a very simple story. She’s twenty-six years old and she’s the biggest star in town. Can you imagine how a big spoiled baby like Matthau reacts to playing second fiddle to that?” (Gabler 114). And part of what doesn’t work in the film for me is that Matthau is just grumpy, not funny grumpy. He was funny grumpy in other films, like The Odd Couple. It seems that Dolly must have some other options, other than him.
Cornelius and Irene are one of the three couples I don’t care about, along with Ambrose ( played by Tommy Tune in his film debut) and Ermentrude, and Minnie and Barnaby.
It’s not surprising that the film went massively over budget. 20th Century Fox had already sold its backlot, so the driveway to the studio was dressed as New York at the end of the 19th century. There were 3,782 men women and children in the massive parade scene. A railway station and several streets were built in Garrison NY at great expense, and the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant was the most elaborate indoor set.
Louis Armstrong had a huge recording hit with the title song to Hello Dolly! The record reached #1 on the Billboard chart, ending the Beatles’ run of three #1 hits in a row. Armstrong wasn’t actually in the Broadway show. To avoid the disappointment so many theater goers experienced, he was added to the movie cast. Barbra worried that he was being exploited for his celebrity, but the day of filming went well. This was his final film, and all of his shots were filmed in just one take.
In spite of all the angst, Hello Dolly! has the look and feel of a golden age MGM musical, which is unsurprising, since Kelly was the architect of some of the greatest. Many of the people behind the scenes had worked on those very MGM musicals. Kelly had been through the wringer with the production, “but he had held things together, allowing Streisand’s talent to shine in full splendor. What could have been a mess had somehow emerged as a work of distinction” (Yudkoff252). The premiere was a triumph, and all the angst somehow forgotten.“Hello Dolly! combines all the best elements of the Metro musical, and Gene, who contributed immeasurably to giving the genre its particular personality, turned out to be the perfect man for the job…he made a contribution to the film whose excellence cannot be overestimated…it is the best film musical of the sixties” (Hirschorn 301).
The costumes were by Irene Sharaff. She was a five time Oscar winner (An American in Paris, The King and I, West Side Story, Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) a record surpassed only by Edith Head. She said, “The best designs are done with a star, not crammed down her throat. When an actress helps give birth to a dress, she’s a better salesman when she wears it.” (Landis 301). The gold gown cost $10,000, because it contains a pound of 14K gold thread. “It comes in very fine tubes, is pliable and can be threaded like beads. Because of some technical lighting problems, the pure-gold material was the only way I could achieve the quality that both the director and I wanted.” (Frock Flicks). They were anxious not to imitate the fiery red dress that had been stage star Carol Channing’s signature on stage. Streisand clearly also influenced the make-up and hair designs, the latter of which evoke the 1960s beehive rather than the 1890s Gibson Girl, and she has not sacrificed her pointy manicure.
This one is sun-faded from the outdoor shooting, I presume. There was some variation n the original colors. This dress sold at auction for $67,000.
This gold gown reportedly cost $10,000 to construct, and sold at the Debbie Reynolds auction for $123,000.
There was one day in Garrison NY when a number of beautiful portrait shots of Streisand in this gown were taken.
The new revival of Hello Dolly! is a considerably different show than the original version, positioning the character of Dolly far more front and center. She appears in the very first scene, instead of near the end of the first act, and actually gets to sing her own celebratory song: in the earlier versions she swanned around as others sang it to her. Although, it doesn’t exactly make sense if she sings it to herself. The roles of the three sets of young lovers are considerably pared down, especially Ambrose and Ermentrude, and scenes and dialogue have been rearranged. For example, one of Vandergelder’s big speeches, which in both Wilder’s play and the first version of the musical occurred early in the first act, now has been shortened and is spoken in front of the second act curtain. I’m in favor of the rewrite, as I’m sure all of the actresses in this revival are. As for Wall-E, it’s somehow very touching that he learns about human connection from the supporting actors in a musical film. According to the imdb, this was the first film ever released on VHS tape, in 1977.
20th Century Fox had made a huge miscalculation about the taste of the American public. They had sunk over $60 million dollars in Star (with Julie Andrews) Doctor Dolittle (with Rex Harrison) and Hello Dolly!, and the losses for those films nearly destroyed the studio. The day of the road show attraction, top ticket price $5.00, was over, and by 1969, audiences craved a different kind of movie. This was the year that Midnight Cowboy won the Best Picture Oscar, and audiences in the Viet Nam era, other than Barbra’s passionate fans, were looking for a different kind of high.
Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hello%2C_Dolly!_(musical) . Thornton Wilder: Three Plays: A Bantam Classic, Hello Dolly! Playbill 2019, Gene Kelly by Clive Hirschorn, Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams by Alvin Yudkoff, Gene Kelly: A celebration by Sheridan Morley and Ruth Leon, Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power by Neal Gabler , https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/01/27/hello-dolly/ Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design by Deborah Nadoolman Landis http://www.frockflicks.com/tbt-hello-dolly-1969/ (Photo from Morley of Kelly and Streisand)