“Hello, Dolly!” starring Barbra Streisand, in the title role, is the film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway show by the same name. Produced for the screen by Earnest Lehman, the music and lyrics of Broadway legend Jerry Herman are showcased in a larger-than-life musical for the big screen that would dwarf all other film musicals up to the time of its release. Garnering four Oscar wins and four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, “Hello Dolly!” is one of the most successful film musicals in cinema history (however, not successful in terms of tickets sold).
One of Barbra Streisand’s most beloved performances, after “Funny Girl,” is that of the loud, boisterous, glamorous, ostentations, matchmaker Dolly Levi. It’s turn-of-the-last-century Yonkers, New York, where an ambitious young widow for a penchant for arranging, matchmaking, and organizing nearly anything has an idea for a perfect match—for herself! Horace Vandergelder is a millionaire and merchant who deals in chickens and other groceries who is the father of a young lady, coincidentally in love with someone he does not approve of, and manager of two innocent, but fun-loving, clerks. Dolly arrives in town in time to hear that Vandergelder has found a potential match. It’s all Dolly can do to not blow her cover for her actual feelings for him, and keep him from tying the knot with a friend of hers who is the owner of a hat shop. Convincing Vandergelders two clerks and his daughter, with beau, to travel to New York City to find and consummate their matches is all part of Dolly’s underhanded plan to land the millionaire Vandergelder. Comedy ensues as all the characters interact with each other and fumble around trying to find love. But through it all is the indomitable and memorable Dolly Levi.
More infamous for bringing Fox financially to its knees than for being the last major musical directed by Gene Kelly, “Hello, Dolly!” is a bull in a china shop. The film cost nearly as much to produce as “Cleopatra” and made far less at the box office, thus earning the film its reputation as one of Hollywood’s foremost financial flops; but the film continues to endure today and capture the hearts of millions who love the memorable songs and beautiful period costumes.
Like with any masterpiece of cinema, “Hello, Dolly!” is not without casting controversy. But, more than any other film to date (and even up to today, minus Disney’s “Into the Woods” being released later this year), the ones is the prime example of miscasting the lead role. Now, I absolutely love Barbra Streisand; however, she may have had the voice, but the rest of her was not the best for the most coveted female role at that time in Hollywood. The role of Dolly Levi was originally made immortal on Broadway by Carol Channing; but 20th Century Fox cast Streisand shortly after the premiere of “Funny Girl” the prior year to capitalize on her fast-moving and successful career; a smart business decision to cash in on Streisand’s star power. Dolly is supposed to be middle aged, and last checked, 27 is not middle aged. Dolly Levi is supposed to be in her 50s or even 60s. The very essence of the character of Dolly was lost in Barbra’s ability to open her mouth to produce the magic that is her voice.
Critical to a film adaptation of a Broadway musical is that the dialog, musical numbers, and performances need to be played to those sitting in the dark in the confines of the temple, that is the cinema. “Hello, Dolly!” consistently throughout the entire extravaganza plays to the back row of the house. The choreography, the performances, the set decoration, the dialogue, everything about “Hello, Dolly!” is nearly too big and loud for the screen; but again, would be fine on the stage. On an anamorphic widescreen, close-ups tend to be more frightening than mirthful. And, it is hard to believe that the actor playing Cornelius Hackl is the same man who will forever be immortalized as Webber’s original Phantom.
“Hello, Dolly!” is actually a lot closer to “Xanadu” than it is to Gene Kelly’s other masterpiece “Singin’ in the Rain.” The movie is equally over-directed and undernourished. Dolly first emerges from a “studiously” recreated set of New York City, circa 1890, and already she’s fighting for attention with a gigantic set and with her own ostentatious costume. It says everything about Gene Kelly’s priorities and costumer Irene Sharaff’s exhibitionist tendencies that we’re introduced to Dolly’s shoes and hat before we see her face. Because the musical numbers are all scaled somewhere on the spectrum of overstuffed grandiosity, what fun there is in Dolly obtains mostly in Streisand’s loopy line readings—a real comic aplomb that her recent near-desertion of acting has made harder to remember—or else in the kinesthetic leaps and bounds in famed choreographer Michael Kidd’s dance routines. On the other hand, the explosive effusion that characterizes even these stray highlights—zany comic banter, waiters somersaulting over champagne buckets—just reminds us that “Hello, Dolly!” is driven at all times, except in its feeble story structure, by the credo of More Is More.
“Hello, Dolly!” is a prime example of an integrated film musical. It uses the musical/dance numbers to advance the plot and offer some exposition into the plat and the character development of the characters. At times, the music is coming from off-screen somewhere—the soundtrack of a character’s mind—and other times, the music is coming from a band on the screen with a given character. Analytically speaking, the terms for the music coming from somewhere off screen is non-diogetic music, and the term for music coming from some source within the movie is diogetic music. In musicals, the instrumental accompaniment often comes from a source somewhere else, temporarily causing the audience to suspend their disbelief that a character’s songs come with an accompaniment. Sometimes, the source for the accompaniment comes from a source within the movie.
There are also some socio-political undertones in the movie; and like with many musicals, the messages are often subtle (although, not always). Crucial to the development of the modern film musical is blackfaced minstrelsy. And, even in 1969, there are remnants of this practice in the movie. Louis Armstrong is forever captured in Technicolor for a few brief moments during the musical’s title song, which comes toward the end of the musical. Like the minstrels of old, he plays the role of a smiley, fun, vibrant, and comedic orchestra leader at the Harmonia Gardens. Traditional relationships also play a huge role in the film. Dolly’s very existence is that of a matchmaker, glorified as she may be, and she spends her time pairing men with women. The movie also alludes to the fact that men require women and vice versa. Fortunately, the movie does showcase women owning their own businesses and being in some control over their lives—moreso than musicals and movies of the past.
Regarded as one of the greatest film musicals of all time, “Hello, Dolly!” will continue to serve as a tribute to the grand film musical extravaganzas at the end of Hollywood’s golden era. Regardless of which Dolly one prefers in the title role, Dolly Levi is an immortal character in the world of cinema and Broadway. The movie is also a testament to the fact that Broadway musicals do not always transfer to the screen extremely well. But, at the end of the day, the movie served its purpose to entertain and create a place in the heart of all who watch it.