Friday, January 05, 2007

BEHIND THE SMILES

“Arranging Everything”
except debacle and conflict
on the set of Hello Dolly!

by Nick Zegarac

“In the years when Hollywood musicals were a popular genre being churned out in abundance, (Gene) Kelly’s ebullient performing prowess and venturesome spirit put him at the head of the pack; now he tends to be remembered as the Astaire-not, a chesty hoofer with a slant smile who danced the Hollywood musical into its coffin.”
– John Updike

Sadly, Updike’s critique of the Kelly magic is remarkably on point. But in retrospect, it seems particularly fitting as an epitaph to the wrap up on Hello Dolly! (1969); an ill-timed expensive venture poorly received by the critics upon its initial release. In fact, the costly financial burden generated from this flop threatened to push the balance sheet of 20th Century Fox into the red. Yet, removed from all its hype and prestige, Ernest Lehman’s musical production of Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Matchmaker’ is one of the greatest American films to debut in the latter half of the 20th century.

On stage, Hello Dolly! had been a grand old time show of immeasurable grace and bombastic charm, sweeping the Tony Awards in ten categories. The gestation of its musical origins derived from Austrian playwright, Johann Nestroy’s 1842 play, Einen Jux will er sich machen which American playwright Thornton Wilder (right) eventually reconceived as The Matchmaker.

A straight forward light-hearted tale blessed with winning songs by Jerry Herman, the somewhat simplistic plot of Hello Dolly! concerns a middle aged matchmaker employed by wealthy hay and feed merchant, Horace Vandergelder to secure him a bride.
After setting Horace up with lady milliner, Irene Malloy, Dolly decides to snag Horace for herself instead. She sends Horace’s two unsuspecting clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker to court Irene and her shop assistant Minnie Fay, while baiting Horace with a phony countess, Ernestina Simple. After a humiliating dinner arrangement, Horace is all set to go back to Yonkers a bachelor.
But then he spots his niece, Ermengarde dancing with her fiancée Ambrose Kemper, whom he’s forbidden her to see. In the resulting brawl that breaks out, Horace is disgraced. He returns home, intending to disown Ermengarde and fire his two assistants. Ah, but then there’s Dolly – weaving her wily matchmaking magic in and out of Horace’s vial little thoughts and making everything better for everyone, but chiefly for herself. She and Horace marry and Barnaby and Cornelius are made full partners in Horace’s business. So much for plot.

Gregarious character actress Carol Channing, who had premiered ‘Dolly’ on Broadway - and was still playing her in revivals when Fox decided to green light the project - was quietly overlooked for the film lead. So too did Fox discount such stage luminary Dolly’s as Betty Grable and Ginger Rogers who had made their own smashing successes of the part on tour. Not that this sort of studio blind-sightedness was unique.

Of the transitions from stage to screen, few Broadway transplants had made it to celluloid with their original casts in tact. For example, Gertrude Lawrence was replaced by Deborah Kerr in film version of The King and I (1956), as was Mary Martin supplanted by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965), and Andrews herself replaced by Audrey Hepburn for the big screen adaptation of My Fair Lady (1964).
So Fox’s reluctance to cast any of the prior Dollies as their star was perfectly in keeping with the Hollywood tradition.
It has been nearly forty years since director Gene Kelly reluctantly committed himself to the project, and yet, the film remains fresh, vital and engaging: no small feat considering the arduous production schedule, numerous setbacks and behind-the-scenes feuding that daily dogged the project.
STARDUST & EGO

Gene Kelly, the innovator who had taken the stagy conventions of the Hollywood musical in the mid-1940s and willed a new and progressive art form from its conventional paper thin ‘boy-meets-girl’ scenario (that had served as satisfactory fodder for at least half of the genre’s output during its glory days); Kelly, who’s ego often matched his talent; whom most today hold synonymous and dear with a wet umbrella and torrential downpour from that iconic moment in Singin’ In The Rain (1952); Kelly had, by the late fifties seen the artifice of musical entertainment crumble beneath his feet at MGM as television replaced the big budget film musical as America’s favorite escapism.

Throughout his profitable tenure at MGM, Gene Kelly had made enemies, both of his collaborators and bosses. Of L.B. Mayer, Kelly once declared, “I didn’t like him. He didn’t like me. It was mutual.”
Indeed, Mayer was often furious with Kelly when viewing the daily rushes, to discover that one of his greatest stars and biggest money makers had defied studio edict by doing his own dangerous stunt work without the benefit of safety nets or wires. Yet Kelly could be difficult on his own and generally without cause, but very much with considerable ego to fuel his confrontations.
By the late 1950s, even those who had worked diligently by his side, as co-director Stanley Donen, had grown weary of Kelly’s desire to ‘hog’ the screen. Nowhere was this vanity more obviously exercised than on the set of It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) the second to last (and some have argued, the best) of Kelly’s Cinemascope musicals. Determined to pivot the plot in his favor, Kelly neutralized his costars musical moments to all but a handful. Ill-timed and even more poorly received, It’s Always Fair Weather marked a decided downturn in MGM’s illustrious career as purveyors of the grand musical art of the day.

Despite Kelly’s lack of respect for Mayer and others, his days at MGM made him a recognizable and outstanding star. Determined to push the musical envelope in new directions, and also, to exude control behind the camera, Kelly and co-collaborator Stanley Donen shared director credit on several of Kelly’s greatest musicals – including Singin’ In The Rain.
Had he remained under contract to producer David O. Selznick (who initially invited Kelly to Hollywood after his success in Broadway’s Pal Joey), there is little to suggest that the world would have come to know his genius. For Selznick disliked musicals and most certainly did not desire to produce one himself.

In the interim between Kelly’s departure from MGM - that abruptly came about during the cost-cutting last days of 1957 following Les Girls (an undistinguished piece of fluff and boredom) - and his resurfacing as Hello Dolly’s director, Gene Kelly had garnered considerable respect for his efforts in non-musical entertainment; most noticeably in Marjorie Morningstar (1958) and Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (1960). Although Kelly continued to appear both on television and in the movies throughout the decade, he had increasingly grown bored with his roster of assignments.
Then came Dolly.

HER NAME IS BARBARA
“A human being is only interesting if he’s in contact with himself. I learned you have to trust yourself, be what you are, and do what you ought to do the way you should do it. You have got to discover you, what you do, and trust it.”
– Barbra Streisand

Fox had an even greater incentive in overlooking these obvious choices: the overwhelming zeitgeist of critical and financial success that had accompanied the town’s latest golden child; Barbra Streisand. The gifted chanteuse had dazzled the stage with her debut in Funny Girl, a success she carried over to William Wyler’s big screen adaptation for Columbia/Horizon Pictures in 1968.

Streisand had also achieved unprecedented popularity as a regular guest on several well known television variety shows including Ed Sullivan, and, had starred in her own TV specials; My Name is Barbra (1965) and Color Me Barbra (1966). In choosing Streisand for his Dolly, producer Ernest Lehman and Fox made what seemed to be a very shrewd business decision – a talent with formidable singing experience who was already a pre-sold commodity to audiences. She was guaranteed box office. Streisand’s Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl shortly before the commencement of shooting on Dolly began cemented her complicity in bringing this grand show to the big screen.

Depending on the source consulted, there are conflicting viewpoints as to exactly who was responsible for the miserable working relationship between Streisand and costar, Walter Matthau on the set. What is certain - and fact - is that the daily clashes between these two began almost from the moment they arrived to begin work, and, quickly thereafter escalated to a level of professional animosity that became the stuff of legendary backstage squabbling.

Cast as Dolly’s love interest Horace Vandergelder, Matthau was aware that Streisand had a knack for scene stealing. In point of fact, the stage play is a showcase for a powerful and demonstrative female lead. That is precisely the quality Streisand – even in her early years – was well known. Matthau was also acutely concerned that the film was shaping up to be another ‘Streisand’ flick and perhaps felt somewhat apprehensive about playing ‘second fiddle’ to this fresh young newcomer.
As a matter of record, it seems that Streisand began the film with at least a hint of optimism that was readily diffused and later shattered by Matthau’s constant ‘tolerance’ rather than respect for her. Reportedly, the breaking point that began their artistic struggle of wills derived from Matthau bluntly telling Streisand during one of their many strained moments on the set, “you haven’t the talent of a butterfly’s fart!” adding “stop being the whole show”, to which she curtly reminded Matthau that the title of the story was not ‘Hello Walter!’

Confronted by the press in later years with the ‘rumors’ of their behind the scenes bickering, Matthau was perhaps more adroit – and certainly more forgiving - when he replied, “I'd love to work with Barbara Streisand again…in something appropriate. Perhaps Macbeth.”

Gene Kelly, who had had misgivings prior to beginning the project, but then had looked forward to the filming when Fox committed a then epic $25 million to produce it, quickly digressed in his role, from director to peacekeeper between his feuding costars.
He was also not pleased to discover that Streisand had been freely giving interviews to reporters in which she stated that although Kelly was adept at plotting the film he knew absolutely nothing about characterization.

In the sweltering heat, Kelly’s quiet distemper incrementally grew until he, like Matthau, was left wishing he could place both body and thoughts elsewhere and forget that such a thing as ‘Hello Dolly!’ ever existed.

SETTING A STANDARD
– PRODUCTION DESIGN & THE MASTER BUILDER


When 20th Century Fox threw its money and hopes behind Hello Dolly! executive logic may have superseded more blind faith than wisdom. For although the Hollywood musical continued to yield such artistically rich and financially successful movies as My Fair Lady (1964) and The Music Man (1962) more often than not, the public’s estimation and response to these elephantine spectacles had lost much of their appeal. What worked for an audience in The Sound of Music (1965) or Mary Poppins (1964) inexplicably failed to catch on in Dr. Doolittle (1967) and Star! (1968).
Generally speaking, the artistic tightrope in translating a Broadway smash to the big screen is best crossed by retaining as much of what made the original stage show successful, while ever so slightly ‘opening up’ the scenery to take advantage of the infinitely greater proscenium and presentation that film production allows.

Hello Dolly! is a film brimming with spectacular turn-of-the-century recreations and breathtaking visual splendor concocted by production designer John DeCuir. Undaunted – and perhaps driven by blind perseverance to outdo their previous flops, the artisans and craftsmen at Fox converted the façades of their front offices into four square blocks of New York City, circa 1900 – complete with elegant courtyards and fountains, ornate gingerbread construction and a functioning elevated train.

The expansive and expensive set serves to showcase the film’s most over-inflated production number; Before The Parade Passes By. It begins with Barbara Streisand contemplating her reintroduction to the world after being a reclusive widow for several years. She sings with throbbing emotion that builds to a crescendo amidst a bevy of willows. From here the camera wildly pivots to an overhead shot of the spectacular New York set, brimming with thousands of extras recreating the 14th Street Parade.

The spectacle of the parade itself (below) is stifling; an ever-changing cornucopia of mere moments, it is a pantheon of marching bands, jugglers, military men, women’s temperance movement participants, firefighters and even the trademark Clydesdales pulling a carriage of Anheuser-Busch lager.

Production designer, John DeCuir, who had previously conceived and supervised the building of lavish palace sets for Fox’s Cleopatra (1963), once again lived up to the nickname that writer/director Joseph L. Mankewicz had bestowed upon him – ‘the master builder.’
Shifting focus from exteriors – both on the Fox backlot and in Yonkers (properly aged and restored to its turn of the century splendor) – DeCuir’s absurdly lavish interior for the Harmonia Gardens (below) restaurant delivers sumptuousness in production design that surpasses all expectations in excellence.
The Harmonia Gardens set is a cavernous, multi-tiered promenade with ornate architecture, elegant finery, curled ostrich feathers and gurgling fountain towers. Elegant beyond all refinement, the set serves as mere backdrop to introduce the film’s title song which Streisand delivers in an elegant gown of gold, cooing to her waiting flock of red-coated waiters.
Jazz great, Louis Armstrong, who had previously made a considerable success of improvising the film’s title track as a hit single, unexpectedly appears as the conductor of the Harmonia orchestra; a moment of sheer musical delight, but one that serves as a reminder that Hello Dolly! is a product of the 1960s - not a vintage time capsule.

Michael Kidd’s intricate choreography further exemplifies the gilded age of stylish artifice; recapturing that bygone forgotten age when the length and cleanliness of one’s glove – as a matter of form – outweighed matters of state as societal interests.


LEAVING EVERYTHING TO…HISTORY?

“Every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment to moment on the razor edge of danger and must be fought for.”
– Thornton Wilder
Amidst this intricately realized patina of gingerbread pomp and gilded procession, the tender charm and wit of the period should have been decorous to one of 20th Century-Fox’s most triumphant spectacles. Yet, two great misfires prevented the film from becoming anything more than a costly footnote on the Fox ledgers.
First, Fox was still reeling from the expenditures on Cleopatra (1963) which had nearly bankrupted the studio. Great luck and good timing prevented Fox from entirely disappearing off the map with the debut of The Sound of Music (1965); one of their most glorious screen successes. Unfortunately, executive logic and largess reasoned that more money spent on more musicals would ‘obviously’ mean more profits.
Tragically for all, as a genre the Hollywood musical had run its course. By 1969, Fox had invested heavily much too often in properties like Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Star! (1968); undeniably good-looking song and dance spectacles that echoed a decidedly tinny clank at the box office registers.

Even as the on the set fireworks cooled, the premiere and subsequent theatrical release of Hello Dolly! was an unqualified disaster. Initial ticket sales were abysmal, despite an ambitious marketing campaign from Fox’s publicity department.
As Dolly Levi, Barbra Streisand received some of her harshest – though largely unwarranted - notices from critics. While it is certain that at the age of 26 Streisand was not old enough to embody Thornton Wilder’s perception of the middle aged widow who can fix practically anything, Streisand’s interpretation of Dolly remains one of the most genuine and engaging of her entire filmic career.
For beneath Streisand’s outward bombastic ambition, what had on stage mimicked a somewhat overblown caricature of the nosy dowager, on screen reverts into a genuine woman of sincere flesh and blood. What Streisand lacked in years she made up for with heart. Her magnificent vocals on “Love is Only Love”, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and, of course, the title track throb with a musical intensity none of the Broadway incarnations had.

With so much going for it, and so much riding on the film’s success, Hello Dolly! ought to have hit pay dirt with a bull’s eye. Instead, the film proved to be Fox’s most cataclysmic misfire since Cleopatra. In a last ditch effort to secure renewed interest and box office, Fox campaigned hard for a slew of Academy Award nominations. The film’s failure to win all but two statuettes cemented its reputation as a colossal bomb and relegated its viewing to truncated late night television.
Yet, Hello Dolly! is not like other failures of the decade. The film is remarkably fresh and frank, moving effortlessly through its three hour plus running time and making the most of every set, costume and bit of dialogue to spare as it gushes lush overtures and waves a fond farewell to the Hollywood musical on the way to its’ own final fade out.

The heavy handedness and painfully coy atmosphere that plagues so many 60s musicals like Oliver! (1968) Star! (1968), Doctor Doolittle (1967), Camelot (1967) and Paint Your Wagon (1969) is wholly absent from Dolly’s mélange and to this credit is largely due to Gene Kelly. For all his behind the scenes angst and consternation, Kelly delivers an adroit and jovial procession that never once seems strained or dull. And then, of course, there is Barbra Streisand’s centralized performance; an uncannily unique departure from the expectation, and engaging despite the readily publicized fact that she is entirely too young for the role.

The personal animosities behind the scenes are nowhere to be found in the performances from either Streisand or her costar, Walter Matthau. Rather, there is a quaint sugary sweetness – though never saccharine - patina that permeates the entire production, particularly as Horace’s heart melts under the duress of Dolly’s unapologetic plotting to make him her own. In the end, the branding of Hello Dolly! as a colossal flop was premature; if anything, time has proven the film to be a marvelous artistic achievement.
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).

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