Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees gets nostalgic for the days when matchmakers were nosy middle-aged women and not computers.
"Life is never quite interesting enough, somehow. You people who come to the movies know that. So I rearrange things a little."—Dolly Levi (Shirley Booth)
Years before it got colorized, musicalized, and Streisand-ized as Hello, Dolly!, Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker came to the screen under its own name. With Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba) as the irrepressible Dolly Levi, the 1958 film The Matchmaker boasts old-fashioned charm and energetic performances from such familiar faces as Shirley MacLaine (Sweet Charity) and Anthony Perkins, during his pre-Psycho days.
Set in 1884 Yonkers, The Matchmaker follows the romantic entanglements of half a dozen New Yorkers. Widowed Dolly Levi has attempted to alleviate her poverty by setting herself up as a matchmaker, but her sole client is the bombastic, tight-fisted businessman Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford), who has already decided to marry lovely young milliner Irene Molloy (Shirley MacLaine). Dolly's true ambition is to become Mrs. Vandergelder herself, so she sets about diverting Vandergelder's attention from his intended. At the same time that Vandergelder is traveling to New York City to call on Irene, his two overworked clerks, Cornelius (Anthony Perkins) and Barnaby (Robert Morse, The Loved One), close Vandergelder's store for the day in order to enjoy a New York adventure of their own. When Cornelius meets Irene, the two are smitten with each other, and Dolly decides to help Cornelius's case by talking him up as a wealthy man-about-town. At one of the city's posh restaurants, all five of the romantic schemers—plus Irene's friend Millie—end up in adjoining booths, and then Cornelius and Barnaby's adventure really begins. As Dolly scrambles to keep Mr. Vandergelder's straying attention, Cornelius and Barnaby try to entertain their dates in lavish style while hiding the fact that they have no money—and avoiding the eagle eye of their employer.
The Matchmaker benefits from a quaint, nostalgic tone, from the period detail of the sets and costumes to the gentle, family-friendly humor. The story is about as unpretentious as can be imagined, and its homey flavor is enhanced by the characters' tendency to directly address the audience; perhaps this is a nod to the movie's theatrical pedigree, but in any case it's an appealingly whimsical way to engage the viewer. In keeping with this somewhat meta-theatrical tone, the characters are drawn in fairly broad strokes. The young actors here are so wholesome they almost seem freshly scrubbed: Anthony Perkins is still worlds away from his famous turn as Norman Bates; think of him as the Quaker teen in Friendly Persuasion and you'll have an idea of the kind of boyish charm he conveys here. He's so good at being the romantic young scamp that his later transformation into neurotic Norman is all the more remarkable in retrospect. (That having been said, a scene in which he disguises himself in a woman's coat and flowered hat is weirdly prescient, although here the disguise is played for laughs.) He and Shirley MacLaine make a charming couple; MacLaine is simply adorable in her bustle gowns and ringlets, all prim modesty one moment, saucily displaying her ankles the next.
Dolly herself, as played by Booth, is warmly engaging. Anyone who remembers Booth's television days as the title character of Hazel will be familiar with that voice like a wrecked trumpet, that lovably squinched-looking face, and especially that sense of a heart as big as all outdoors. It's surprising that Dolly sees something worth loving in loudmouthed, ill-tempered Vandergelder, but it speaks well of her that she does—and she also shows both patience and creativity in going about wooing him. Dolly's character is the most developed in the film; her monologues are surprisingly touching, and it's actually a shame that she doesn't get a bit more screen time in the story, since it is, after all, named after her. Perhaps to capitalize on the attractiveness of the young lovers, however, MacLaine and Perkins are given quite a lot of screen time, so the story ends up being almost evenly divided between the two romances.
The transfer for this black-and-white film is one of the most attractive I've seen for a film of this vintage. The image is remarkably crisp and sharp, with marvelous detail and handsome depth of grayscale tones. There is very little dirt and no sign of age-related wear that I could see. Visually speaking, this is an excellent presentation. Audio is also extremely fine. The depth and dynamism of the mono audio track make it almost as robust as stereo, and the soundtrack is clean and free of hiss or other defects as well. The period music (listeners will recognize excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, among other selections) comes through with great clarity and sparkle. I was extremely pleased with the audiovisual quality of this release.
In keeping with other titles in its line of budget classic releases, Paramount presents The Matchmaker as a barebones disc. I wish I could break the studio of this habit, but as long as they continue to present these classics in their original aspect ratios and in such fine transfers, I don't have the heart to do more than issue a slap on the wrist.
How you respond to The Matchmaker will depend to a great extent upon your receptivity to nostalgia and charm. If these two words signal "cheese" to you, you're probably better off seeking something more sophisticated. But if they sound inviting, or if you're looking for the kind of romantic comedy that you can share with your children, give The Matchmaker a try. Kids will probably enjoy all the physical comedy and sitcom-like shenanigans, and adults will enjoy the clever touches, like the monologue on vices by a whisky-loving (but principled) Irishman. If you like your stories as sweet and old-fashioned as a heart-shaped box of candy, you may find The Matchmaker to be a perfect match.
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