Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Musical Watch: Hello, Dolly! (1969)

Watched:  11/08/2020
Format:  Disney+
Viewing:  Unknown.  Maybe 4th
Decade:  1960's
Director:  Gene Kelly

Hello, Dolly! (1969) has some amazing sequences worth checking out just to see what was going on in the post studio-system era when a surviving studio threw a huge ton of money at a film.  From massive sets to costumes for hundreds (if not thousands), the expense of the thing is hard to get your head around - and every dollar is on the screen.  There's talent galore, including established and rising heavyweights, and even unknown bit players have some moments.

But, it's also a weird film for 1969.  It has one foot in visuals and photography of the era, and a hokey nostalgia for a period that was 70 years in the past at the time and is 120 years in the past now.  The acting, similarly, has one foot in the past of "make sure they know what you're doing in the back row" to late 60's contemporary realism mixed with the absurdities of the movie musical.  Example: I can't stand Michael Crawford's idiotic mugging through the thing - and as Gene Kelly was a solid director,  I have no idea what went into the decision to let Crawford do his thing other than it might have been in place in a mid-50's musical for a minor character. * 

Kelly must have struggled with the film, from scope and budget to everything else.  I read that the choreographer and Kelly were not on speaking terms by the end of the shoot, and I'd be curious to know more.  There are definitely some great dance sequences, but when you compare many of them to Kelly's other features like Singin' In The Rain or On the Town, the choreography s often just... hokier.  But that may be an artifact of whatever was happening on Broadway in the 1960's and a lack of Gene Kelly doing the dancing himself.  This is not an area in which I have a lot of experience.

What the film does have is Streisand and Walter Matthau, who reportedly did not get along.  But, on screen, the mild acrimony works.  Matthau is Matthau, Streisand is playing a sort of vampy version of Dolly Levi, and the two are oil and vinegar, which, of course, work well together in the right circumstances.

This is very early Babs, and - again - I have no idea why she was cast.  I mean - she can sing, dance and act, yeah... but she's maybe 15 years too young for the role here (she's not yet 30).  Dolly Levi's internal struggle is about respecting the love of her life who has now been dead for years, and moving on so she can be a part of life again.  She pulls it off with a maturity beyond her years, but you do not see a woman over 30 on the screen.  But I also have to imagine the studio insisted - she was an up and comer, and getting kids out to see a movie probably meant getting a name in there. 

But, yeah, it's a movie of set-pieces, culminating a bit early in the "Hello, Dolly" sequence that comes part way into the third act, but nowhere near the end.  But there's a parade scene that looks like a logistical nightmare for filming, a lovely scene of dancing in a park on real grass (how?  why?), and backdrops and sets that I still don't understand how they got built.  And so, so many extras all through the film.

Is it any good?  Yes.  It's not my favorite musical, and it shifts into a completely different gear when either Streisand or Matthau aren't in a scene, then lights up again when they reappear.  The supporting characters are straight out of the mid-century period musical playbook, where everyone has an 8 year old's idea of adult relationships and if you're living in a rural area, every situation is met with "gosh!" and "shucks!" and I'm used to it from seeing my fair share of plays and movies, but that's kind of the characters in total, leaving you to wonder what the hell the two women from the hatshop see in the young men from the feed store.  Those guys come off like morons.

Like... look.  I *like* On the Town, and not just because Ann Miller can work a green dress.  Despite some very over the top, kooky characters and cartoonish naivete meant to play to *ahem* Broadway sophisticates, that whole world and package feel cohesive when translated to film.  With Hello, Dolly!, there are just times when it feels like there's three movies happening at once.

Some of this is highlighted by the goofy storyline for the various supporting characters versus the surprisingly touching and grounded story Dolly is experiencing entirely on her own through the film as she struggles with the memory of her deceased husband and what she needs to do now.  And Streisand, who should have been about 15 years too young to get it - nails it.  That's some adult-type stuff, and feels kind of crazy next to "I'm almost 30!  I should kiss a girl!". 

Still, if you want to see Streisand sing her head off, quip like a mad woman and bat her big eyelashes, this is the movie for you.  But it's not going to be my intro to musicals for any of my pals who are skeptical on the topic.

*And this is THAT Michael Crawford, who played The Phantom and is kinda a household name.  

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