“Expensive” is the best word to describe Fox’s lavish production of the Broadway musical success Hello, Dolly!. Despite the early returns from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Fox was having a terrible year, and was verging on bankruptcy. The first three quarters of 1969 saw the studio posting a net loss of $21,978,000, yet they continued to pour money into a last-ditch effort at pumping new life into the Big Screen Musical genre. Hello, Dolly! cost Fox $26,400,000 and lost them nearly as much. For Fox (and virtually every other studio), Big Screen Musicals were dead and it would be several years before the studio would be out of the red.
The Broadway version of Hello, Dolly! starred Carol Channing as the exuberant matchmaker Dolly Levi and was an instant hit. (Originally, the Producers had wanted Ethel Merman in the part, but she turned it down.)* the title song was a hit as well, landing at the top of the charts in May, 1964, with 63-year-old Louis Armstrong becoming the oldest artist ever to have a number one song. Five years later, a special role was created for him in the film, and he sang a duet with the film's star, Barbra Streisand.
After viewing Thoroughly Modern Millie, producer Ernest Lehman decided he didn't want Carol Charming for the screen version, finding her personality too dominating. He considered Lucille Ball and Elizabeth Taylor, but settled on Streisand, whose Funny Girl hadn't yet been released but was certain to be a hit. Walter Matthau was set to co-star and Gene Kelly, star of many a musical himself, was signed to direct.
All the ingredients were in place — the lavish costumes, fantastic sets (the reconstruction of New York's Fifth Avenue in the 1890’s cost $62,000,000 alone), huge cast, great musical numbers and the memorable title song. So what caused this to be the most lavish flop in musical history?
In conducting the post mortem, it is easy to point to this or that element, but it was a combination of many elements that rang the death knell for this film as well as the genre. As had been discovered with pictures like The Graduate and Easy Rider, the movie going audience was comprised of mostly under-30s and young people just weren’t impressed with lavish musicals. Also, many felt that Barbra Streisand, at age 27, was miscast as the matronly Dolly. Costs seemed to escalate out of control. Fox took a gamble, and lost.
Watch closely the young man playing Cornelius Hackl. British actor Michael Crawford, seen here in a rare appearance in American films, went on to star in one of the biggest hit musicals of all time, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. The play opened in London in 1986 and Crawford continued playing to SRO crowds with the American touring company through 1991.
*In 1970, Ethel Merman finally assumed the role that had been created for her and several songs that had been dropped for the Channing version were reinstated. Additionally, there had been an all-black cast version (1967) starring Pearl Bailey.
Dolly Levi: Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It's not worth a thing unless it's spread around, encouraging young things to grow.
Horace: Eighty percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in danger of contamination.
Dolly Levi: As my late husband, Ephraim Levi, used to say, 'If you have to live from hand-to-mouth, you'd better be ambidextrous.'
Horace: Advice is cheap, Ms. Molloy. It's the things that come gift wrapped that count!
There are a lot of lovely, artnouveau interiors and some idyllic, gingerbready exteriors shot in Garrison, N. Y., that masquerades as Yonkers. Gene Kelly, the director, and Ernest Lehmann, the producer who adapted the Broadway book, have thus "opened up" the original show. In every other respect, they have been reverential to the point of idiocy, since, by preserving something basically thin and often witless on a large movie screen, they have merely inflated the faults to elephantine proportions.
Reviewed by: Vincent Canby of The New York Times.
Come back, Carol Channing! All is forgiven! The epic screen version of the charming musical Hello, Dolly! hasn't aged well, but then again, it wasn't so great when it was new, either. An overstuffed extravaganza populated by thousands of extras gallivanting in period costumes, the movie is hamstrung by the miscasting of Miss Barbra Streisand in the lead role. Babs can sing, of course, but the fact that she is 30 years too young to play Dolly Levi derails the entire enterprise. Reviewed by: Don Willmott of Film Critic.
A magical, old-fashioned musical. Reviewed by: Common Sense Media.