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Hello Dolly!

Posted by keith1942 on May 25, 2013

 Hello dolly

This classic musical from 1969 was screened at the National Media Museum’s Widescreen Weekend in 70mm, on a curved screen and with a six-track soundtrack. The print was one of the original Roadshow versions running 148 minutes, [shorter version only run for 118 or a 129 minutes]. We also enjoyed an introduction from film critic Wolfram Hanneman. He reminded us that the 2008 Pixar animation Wall-E features an old VHS version of the film, which has given the musical something of a second life. Produced at C20th Fox, it was really almost the last in a 1960s cycle of big-budget adaptations of Broadway successes. The stage version had an immensely successful first run and has been frequently revived.

Wolfram talked about the casting, with the Dolly Levi character at one point or another planned for Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, Shirley MacLaine and Julie Andrews [Halliwell notes Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, all of whom performed in the stage version]. In the end Barbra Streisand played opposite Walter Matthau. Wolfram also recounted some of the feuding between these two stars during g the production, with at one point the camera angle having to be oblique as Matthau refused to kiss Streisand. Other aspects of the production worked better with Harry Stradling’s cinematography standing out, as well as Michael Kidd’s and Gene Kelly’ choreography and supervision of the dance sequences.

Watching a good quality print on the large screen was a treat and the film does look and sounds great. However, Hanneman’s tales of the production problems are borne out watching the film. This is a production compromised by casting. Walter Matthau is believable as the grasping capitalist (Horace Vandergelder), but his transformation late in the film is not. Streisand (Dolly Levi) belts out her show stopping numbers with real panache, but she is not believable as a marriage broker and neither is her fixation on marrying Matthau. Of the other possibles I thought Carol Channing [the original star on stage] would probably have been the best bet.

Visually the film is at times impressive. The opening shot, which uses a special effect to change from a colour still to a moving 1890’s New York Street, is masterly [and a nice touch for a turn-of-the century story]. The colour in the 70mm print looked good throughout and there are fine camera set-up and tracking and crane shots. At times the camera work recalled Vincente Minnelli: Stradling had worked with him on The Pirate (1948) and was to again with On A Clear Day You Can See For Ever (1970). And of course the director Gene Kelly had done some of his best work with Minnelli.

What marks it out from the other musicals of the 1960s is the dancing. From Gigi (1958) onwards the Hollywood musicals focussed on the songs, and often there were no proper dance sequences at all. But Hello Dolly! has some very fine dance sequences. They recall the earlier work of Michael Kidd [choreographer] and Gene Kelly. A number take place in exterior locations such as streets or parks; also a preference in Kelly musicals. There are several actual location used for musical numbers [another Kelly trope) though most of the New York scenes are studio based. Similarly the sequences often use everyday objects as props for the dancing: hats in one catchy sequence. The outstanding sequence in the film is the evening spent by the star protagonists at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. The glittering and vital mise en scène is again reminiscent of Minnelli. And there are series of eye-catching dance and musical numbers.

The plotting of the film is a lot weaker. Developments rely on contrivance and the motivations of character are not always convincing. The original musical was a popular success on Broadway but the onstage story seemed to have creaked a little. Thornton Wilder, from whose play it was adapted [itself an adaptation of earlier works], tends to gentle irony whilst theirs version seems heavily satirical. And whilst the supporting performers, especially Michael Crawford (Cornelius Hackl), are convincing the comedy seems rather forced. And there are more casting changes, Marianne McAndrew as Irene Molloy is no longer a widow, which again weakens the plot.

The film does fit into the cycle of musicals from the late 1950s onwards where the classical utopian drive of Hollywood seems diluted or lost. The increasing tendency to rely on period settings and actions would seem to indicate a loss of faith in possible utopias of the future. And Hello Dolly! performs unevenly when placed against Richard Dyer’s utopian sensibilities.  There is energy aplenty, especially in the dancing and at the Harmonia Gardens. The Gardens also have abundance, something that is found across the film, except in Vandergelder’s store. The best of the dancing has intensity, and as in all her work Streisand has remarkable intensity.

Transparency is much more problematic. Neither Vandergelder nor Levi [at least in this version] offer this virtue, in fact they are deliberate opaque and misleading in relation to other characters. And the supporting cast follows their lead, at least to a degree. The most problematic sensibility is community: the Harmonia Gardens is completely fractured by the class divide, which the plot vainly tries to paper over. And the finale of the wedding is unconvincing, certainly in relation to its supposed community.

It strikes me that transparency and community are the sensibilities that are most frequently problematic in musicals of the late 1950s onwards. The key film here is It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). On the Town (1949) has a dynamism that drives on its characters and their day in New York. The ‘tomorrow’ of the end seems a certain prospect. But by 1955 the happy ending is unconvincing and relies on quite obvious plot manipulation. I had the same feel in the closing moments of Hell Dolly!

Academy Awards for Music Direction, Art Direction, Set Decoration.

Academy Award Nominations for Best Picture, Best Photography.

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