It takes a woman…
…and not just any woman, to pull off a spectacle of this magnitude. Long associated with the legendary Carol Channing, the character of Mrs. Dolly Levi could not have been brought to the silver screen more effectively than by Barbra Streisand. More than 30 years later, this feast for the eyes and ears still shines brilliantly as one of the musical genre's crown jewels. Long overdue for release on DVD, Fox makes this film look and sound as glorious, if not more so, than the day it was released.
Facts of the Case
The widow Levi (Streisand) is the yenta of Yonkers, New York—everyone's friend, confidant, counselor, matchmaker, and mother. And yet, her life is empty. With the passing of her late husband Efram, Dolly longs for a partner, an equal, someone with whom to share her life and bankroll her lifestyle. Enter Mr. Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), Yonkers' well-known half-millionaire. With her eye on the prize, Dolly sets out to get her man, in the process touching and changing the lives of everyone around her—in big, bold, musical style!
Jerry Herman's Hello Dolly! has been a staple on the musical theatre circuit for almost 40 years. From Broadway and community theatre to high schools and senior centers, you would be hard pressed to find any avid theatergoer who has not seen this show at least once. With Hollywood desperate to keep this revenue generating genre alive, it was only a matter of time before Dolly would step in front of the camera. But who would play the starring role? Ms. Channing was out. The studios were notorious for passing over actors who originated roles on the Broadway stage—Mary Martin's role in The Sound of Music went to Julie Andrews, Julie's roles in My Fair Lady and Camelot went to Audrey Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave respectively, and Angela Lansbury's role in Mame went to Lucille Ball. This time, a rising Broadway and recording star stepped into the spotlight and took command—both figuratively and literally. It seems Barbra's attention to detail created a number of rifts, most notably between herself and co-star Matthau, who did not approve of her backseat directing. However, despite the turmoil, Streisand—in collaboration with such power players as screenwriter/producer Ernest Lehman (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Broadway choreographer Michael Kidd (Guys and Dolls), and the immortal actor/director Gene Kelly (Singin' in the Rain)—would produce a final product bigger and bolder than anything Hollywood had ever brought from the stage.
This is one blockbuster that does not fail to deliver. Having seen the film many times over the years, I'm continually amazed by the way it maintains the intimacy of the stage while transporting its audience into a much grander auditorium. The locations are picture perfect, the sets lavish, and the cinematography breathtaking. These musical numbers, performed thousands of times before, have taken on a life of their own, resulting in a form and style one could never achieve on the stage. The "Sunday Clothes" and "Parade" sequences are enough to convince anyone of the power film and the musical can create. Only Carol Reed's Oliver! and Norman Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof—all filmed within three years of each other—come close in comparison. However, a film cannot succeed on flash alone.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has created a new world for these characters, giving them dimensionality and purpose. Sure, the hokey musical comedy remains, but it now rests upon a solid foundation of human frailty. Each of these characters is missing something in their lives. Dolly is the catalyst that breaks them free from their self-imposed unhappiness and places them on the path to enlightenment, with several stops at embarrassment, frustration, and disappointment along the way. Carol Channing played the role in grand dame style, as only she could, yet Streisand takes the character to a new level, exposing us to the woman beneath the façade—a touching, heartfelt portrait of someone who cares for others often times more than she cares for herself. Here, we bear witness to the rare occasion in which she realizes the time has come to be a little selfish—and the associated guilt that comes with it. In a sense, what Dolly experiences parallels what Streisand was experiencing in her own life—the evolution of an amazingly gifted woman who has truly found and embraced her purpose in life.
Streisand does not and cannot carry the picture on her own. A strong supporting ensemble turns in marvelous performances by the world's most loveable curmudgeon, the late great Walter Matthau and a young, comedic Michael Crawford (Broadway's Phantom of the Opera), who at the time was England's version of Dick Van Dyke. In addition, smaller but no less important turns are given by Joyce Ames as Horace's niece Ermengarde, dance legend Tommy Tune as her beloved Ambrose, and Marianne McAndrew as Cornelius' love interest Irene Malloy, with Danny Lockin and E.J. Peaker as Barnaby and Minnie Fay. Even jazz legend Louis Armstrong makes a cameo appearance as the Harmonia Gardens' bandleader, singing the film's title track.
Hello Dolly helped define the phrase "feel good film." With
luscious musical numbers, hundreds upon hundreds of extras, and a story that is
both engaging and a trifle thought provoking (for those seeking their own path
in life), you can't go wrong.
For fans of this film, the genre, or Streisand herself, this is a no-brainer must buy—especially with a price tag of $14.98. For anyone who hasn't seen Hello Dolly!, do yourself a favor and rent it before the parade passes by. You'll be very glad you did.
This court waves its hand and whispers so long to any charges of criminal wrongdoing by Hello Dolly!. A thank you to Fox for putting this film right back where it belongs. And yet, next time, do us all a favor and dig a little deeper into the archives before finalizing a release of this caliber. This court is now adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Behind the Scenes (1969)
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