Saturday, May 16, 2009

A DELICIOUS look back at a dilly of a 'DOLLY!'

Barbra Streisand stars as the memorable "woman who arranges everything," Dolly Levi, in Gene Kelly’s Oscar-winning film version of  Jerry Herman's musical classic HELLO, DOLLY! Originally produced on Broadway in 1964, Hello, Dolly! is based on Thornton Wilder’s 1954 play The Matchmaker. In her musical incarnation, Dolly! thrilled and delighted audiences in New York for over 6 years, featuring such legendary "Dollys" as Carol Channing, Ethel Merman and Pearl Bailey.

The setting is New York, just before the turn of the century. Dolly Levi, that seemingly ageless widow and Matchmaker sets out for Yonkers to deliver her hand-picked match for Mr. Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), the "well-known half a millionaire." Vandergelder has his eyes on Miss Irene Malloy (Marianne McAndrew) but, before he leaves for New York City to propose marriage, Dolly has some ideas of her own. With her eye on the unsuspecting Horace, Dolly sets in motion a dizzying plan of "love happily ever after" involving everyone in Vandergelder’s circle.

It’s easier to view Dolly! years later
and enjoy it now for what it really is. After you’ve been removed from the media hype, after the publicity and reviews blend into one another, the film stands not only as a humorous and nostalgic peak at a bygone era in New York City, but a tribute to the bygone era of movie musicals. Reuniting director Kelly with many of the creative people from his days as an actor/director at MGM, the film, with it’s grand artifice, eager cast and exuberant dancing, could easily have been a product of that old golden studio system.

Hello, Dolly! was released in 1969 at the tail end of a trend of big-budget musicals precipitated by the tremendous success of The Sound of Music in 1965. None of these films came close to duplicating its success and, subsequently, were blamed for the ruination of many studio balance sheets. Suddenly, the merits of these films were beside the point. While some deserve their fate of late-night cable obscurity, others, like Hello, Dolly!, do not.

Like most of the other road show musicals of the late sixties, Hello, Dolly! was considered overproduced and out-of-sync with the times. By the time Dolly! reached the movie screen, she had already been played by many larger-than-life ladies of the theatre. Her score, including the title song immortalized on pop charts by Louis Armstrong, was filled with brassy Broadway cheer, An intimate version of Dolly! would have worked against both the material and its leading lady.

Though criticized at the time for being too young, Streisand brought rapid-fire humor, sex appeal and, of course, an inimitable voice to the role of Dolly Levi. Her performance gives Dolly, and the film, an unexpected urgency previously hidden in all the familiar material. As film critic Pauline Kael wrote when the film opened, "she [Streisand] opens up such an abundance of emotion that it dissolves the coarseness of the role. Almost unbelievably she turns this star role back into a woman..." Director Kelly recognizes this as he balances her "big" scenes with those of quiet introspection. Streisand’s delicate reading of "Love is Only Love" (dropped from Jerry Herman’s Mame and re-written especially for this film) reveals a vulnerability and warmth in Dolly Levi that grounds the character and prevents her brash antics from turning to caricature. While she does at times seem to be possessed by the spirit of Mae West, Streisand uses this as a humorous facade for something much deeper and no doubt sensitive.

Until the success of recent films like Chicago, Hairspray and Mamma Mia, the traditional movie musical as a commercially viable genre seemed all but lost. The sporadic attempts at reviving the form (A Chorus Line, The Wiz) were close to disastrous. The lack of a unified team of musical talent (such as at the old MGM or 20th Century-Fox studios) made an actress such as Barbra Streisand all the more rare. Thankfully, Streisand emerged in films at a time when there was still opportunity to feature her musical talents. While still in her twenties, she blazed her way onto the screen like a seasoned pro, but, like her films, she seemed to belong to a different era.

Among Hello, Dolly!’s competitors for the Best Picture Oscar in 1969 were Midnight Cowboy and Z, signaling the beginning of a new wave of more socially relevant films that would bury the likes of such "dated" properties as Dolly!. Now looking back on these films, whatever their merits, they ironically all seem to be part of another world as equally "dated" as Dolly! But now, preserved on Blu Ray and DVD in its original aspect ratio, Hello Dolly! sheds its "dated" reputation and becomes as timeless as its star and the era of moviemaking it recalls. It’s so nice to have her back where she belongs!

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