With perverse irony, 20th Century Fox threw many millions into the elephantine disaster of Hello, Dolly, depending on Barbra Streisand reviving musicals never fully recovered after a series of late sixties expensive miscalculations, including Star! and Darling Lili from Julie Andrews. There are other musicals more lacking of wit, grace and real music than Hello, Dolly but how many of them end up as vehicles for Barbra? Three more: the no-brainer On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, the drugged-up mess A Star is Born, and the appalling Funny Lady. If viewers have no trouble seeing the antique hopelessness of Dolly as a musical, did not Fox see it while in production? Apparently the name Gene Kelly was enough to prevent the executives from halting his 1940s traffic managing as redux of Meet Me in Saint Louis and The Harvey Girls. According to producer-adapter Ernest Lehman, Kelly utilized the threat of physical violence against him if he dared interfere. There was, of course, such confidence in Barbra, on the basis of Funny Girl, that nothing else mattered except her presence and singing. Barbra’s speedy New Yorker sass is infinitely more tolerable than Baby Jane Channing batting her lashes and croaking out inanities, but, on the other hand, by overpowering everyone Barbra becomes a wry gilded anachronism—a textbook case for being too good to be a matron, a dizzy matchmaker, an unconvincing love interest for craggy-faced Walter Matthau who, to put it mildly, not only doesn’t bring much to the party but dared to end it early when, in his long-running joke to induce better response from his co-stars, informed the diva she “didn’t have the talent of a butterfly’s fart.” (She quotes him a bit differently—“You may be the singer in this picture, but I’m the actor! I have more talent in my farts than you have in your whole body!’’—in her huge volume of gossip My Name is Barbra.) When selected over embalmed Channing, few outside of Broadway objected because most of us assumed the musical would be built around Barbra. This movie’s been constructed around her, all right, like a giant mausoleum and comes fully loaded with nerdy, sexless, sweetened up gargoyles like Michael Crawford and Marianne McAndrew—an unnerving cross pollination of Sally Ann Howes, Barbara Parkins and Joan Hackett—unwittingly sabotaging its structure. (Watching Ann-Margret’s test for the part you perceive this risky casting might have likely helped and not hurt.) Unlike the reviewers at the time who did somersaults to avoid panning Barbra, even winning a few consolation votes as best actress from the Kael brigade within the National Society of Film Critics, the public sensed the real problem: via the mirage of swelling ego Barbra allowed herself to be cast in another stale contraption. She “suggested” and was granted a bit of latitude here and Mae West there, inspired Irene Sharaff to create some splendid gowns accentuating a natural bustle, and she delivers the best version of “So Long, Dearie” we’ll probably ever hear. But in the almost manic performance, we wonder what it is she’s on for her to be this intothe creaking mediocrity. Might have been able to get past the stupefying miscasting and sets (Harmonia Gardens is like a football field-size update from John De Cuir’s own deluxe banquet on Liz’s barge in Cleopatra), the rotting athleticism Michael Kidd passes off as choreography (the only one to survive is giraffe Tommy Tune) and the ugliest costumes imaginable for a supporting cast had there been more singing for Barbra. How did it come to be a studio would pay five million for a puerile musical and not insist Jerry Herman write several new numbers for the movies’ greatest voice? He wrote one and gave her a leftover from Mame. So miscalculated is Dolly the boob heads storyboarding and editing didn’t bother to provide the decency to give her a full-throttle rendition of “Before the Parade Passes By,” during which the camera inexplicably zooms away from her as she’s revving up for the number’s finish. Even on the big screen you’d need binoculars to find her among those dumb blobs of marching bands. Singing the title song and reaching the lyrics “bridging the gap,” our thoughts may not be as generous as her Affirming Actions: the gravel-throated Louis Armstrong, the only honest performer in this garish junk yard, comes close to unintended condescension—a quota. Barbra was hired to give the decaying material her special brand of electricity; what she renders is power of a different kind—wattage derived out of desperation. There’s a certain justice to the panoramic church setting finale: Barbra officiates at a High Mass celebrating a near-total waste of talent. No roadshow engagements in Chicago or its suburbs, where it opened first at the UA Cinema 150 in Oak Brook and at Northbrook’s Edens seven months after the N.Y. and L.A. prems, and then later at the Loop’s cramped Marina Towers. Filmed in TODD AO, reportedly projected via Dimension 150 unannounced in Oak Brook.
Oscar wins: best art direction/set decoration, sound, scoring of a musical picture. Nominations for best picture, cinematography (Stradling), costume design, film editing.
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER (Revised 11/2023) All Rights Reserved.