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USA 1969
Directed by
Gene Kelly
146 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Hello, Dolly!

Based on a play, The Matchmaker, by Thornton Wilder about a widowed matchmaker in old New York who uses her professional wiles to convince a wealthy merchant to marry her, the musical version of Hello, Dolly! by Ernest Lehman, (book) and Michael Stewart (music) opened in 1964 and was a huge success, spawning the hit song of the same name made famous by Louis Armstrong. The same success was not accorded to the film version which was widely panned and has largely sunk from sight. It is however much better than its lowly status would indicate, at least from a non-purist point of view. Partly the problem may have been that the lavish production (it was the most expensive musical made to that time) delivered in grand classical style by Gene Kelly was well out-of-synch with an America undergoing the throes of social crisis.

Although it managed to pick up three Oscars (for art direction and set decoration, best music and sound), at a time when Hollywood itself was about to be set on a new course by the success of directors such as Coppola, Scorsese and Friedkin, the film was widely decried as a bloated stylistic dinosaur. Today the excess is not just less offensive but one of its charms with glorious production design (the street parade number is still breathtakingly over-the-top in scale) across all departments and fine wide screen photography by Harry Stradling Sr.

The other major criticism at the time was the casting of Barbra Streisand in the lead. Only 27 at the time she was a good 15 years too young (Carol Channing had played the role on Broadway) but she had just had a huge commercial success with Funny Girl, her first film, for which she won an Oscar (sharing it with Katherine Hepburn for The Lion In Winter) and Fox considered her bankable property. They were wrong. for most critics objected to her inappropriate age and sassy interpretation of the character. But once again, now that the stage version is no longer the benchmark, Streisand's energetic and humorously vulgar performance is one of the film's main strengths. Even Walter Matthau's grumpy Vandergelder, manages to appeal as a contrast to Bab's effusiveness.

The songs by Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman are clever without being particularly memorable, the title song (Armstrong makes a brief appearance singing it) excepted, of course. Commendably however, with the possible exception of 'Love is only Love' they spring organically from the story  Michael Kidd's choreography is equally high quality if more athletic than graceful, notably with the extensive preface to the Hello Dolly number, the two parts together constituting the high-point of the film as it did the stage show. Once this point has passed the film struggles to maintain its energy level with the polka number immediately following going nowhere and after an amusing belter from Streisand, So Long, moving hastily to a rather lame finale.

Overall, the sub-plots involving Vandergelder's two clerks, Cornelius Hackl (an oddly cast, too old Michael Crawford) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin) and his niece Ermengarde (Joyce Ames) and her artist fiancé (Tommy Tune) are, certainly by today's standards, over-exposed and dated in their faux naif spiritedness. 

Nevertheless, Hello Dolly is an enjoyable and undeservedly maligned musical.




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