Hello, Dolly!

February 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

the Harmonia Gardens set of Hello, Dolly!: yes, it was overdone, and gloriously so

I’d always heard Hello, Dolly! described as a massive flop. The musical that killed musicals. That Fox, desperate to recreate the phenomenon that was The Sound of Music, pumped so much money into it that wasn’t returned that several top-level employees lost their jobs and the studio could only afford to produce one movie in 1970. So, naturally, I assumed the movie would be terrible.

I was wrong. The truth is that Hello, Dolly! is a musical for people who love musicals (and with Gene Kelly directing, how could it not be?). If you’re the kind of person who sighs heavily when an dance sequence breaks out or rolls your eyes when you can hear an actor’s slow transition from soliloquy into song, steer clear. If you’re the kind of viewer who laps up extended dance breaks taking place on jewel-encrusted, gazillion-dollar sets, then by all means, dive in.

You probably know the plot: a turn-of-the-century matchmaker meddles in the affairs of others while trying to finagle herself a husband. You probably know the stars, too: Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau’s feud on this set was legendary, building to such heights that Matthau refused to kiss her in the closing scene. (They angled the cameras so it’d look like they were locking lips even while remaining several inches apart.) Even if you’re not a musical fan, you probably know a scene or two, thanks to the Oscar-winning Wall-E, which featured a few clips from “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” (Stores reported selling more copies of Hello, Dolly! the quarter that Wall-E came out than they had for the previous ten years combined.)

Thanks to the experience of its production team, Hello, Dolly! was a throwback to the golden era of musicals. Gene Kelly, who needs no introduction, was directing. Ernest Lehman–who had been involved in the adaptations of The King and I, West Side Story and The Sound of Music–produced and adapted it for the screen. Lennie Hayton, who helped supervise the musical direction, had done the same for MGM through the Freed Unit era. Cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr., had worked on no shortage of classic musicals–Easter Parade, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady. So it’s unsurprising that Hello, Dolly! borrows so liberally from (and plays with!) the tropes of the mid-century musical. Like many golden-era musicals, it adopts a Gilded Age setting to showcase a worry-free world of financial splendor and charm, pretty dresses and horse-drawn carriages. Dolly’s role as a matchmaker allows the musical not just the traditional Rodgers & Hammersteinesque alpha and beta couples, but gammas and deltas too. We get admirably staged renditions of such musical theater stalwarts as the big crowd scene (“Put On Your Sunday Clothes”),  the middle-of-the-second-half showstopper (“Hello, Dolly!”) and of course, the eleven o’clock number (“So Long, Dearie”).

Unfortunately, the production team was so mired in the glory of, well, the glory days that they failed to read the writing on the wall. It was 1969. The big-screen musical epic of Kelly’s youth was done. The frothy turn-of-the-century musical was over. It was the time of Woodstock, Apollo 11 and the Manson family. What would have been referred to perhaps even five years earlier as “grand” and “sweeping” was now “bloated” and “overdone.” Hello, Dolly! was still the fifth-highest grossing picture of the year–but it still lost almost as much money as it took in. Its stories of feuding stars, diva theatrics and blown budgets sunk its legacy at the time . . . but we’re past that now. Maybe it’s time for a comeback.

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