Saturday, November 19, 2011

Good Golly, Miz Dolly

I grew up loving musicals, but "Hello, Dolly!" was one I only knew for its signature song, immortalized by Louis Armstrong and Carol Channing. It wasn't until "WALL-E" incorporated a couple of clips that I was even aware that there was a film version, starring Barbara Streisand as her follow-up to "Funny Girl." Directed by Gene Kelly, it's an old-fashioned musical in every sense, but sadly it's not a very memorable one, and I'm not surprised it has been largely forgotten over the years.

The opening number introduces Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand), a New York widow who offers matchmaking and a variety of other useful services for reasonable fees. She's hired by the grumpy Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), who owns a prosperous Hay and Feed store out in Yonkers, to take his niece Ermengarde (Joyce Ames) to New York City, away from the attentions of the poor artist, Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune), who has won her heart. Horace intends to travel to the city separately, to court a hatmaker named Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). Dolly is certain that she'd make a much better spouse for Horace, and so starts putting her own plans in motion. Luckily the two clerks at the Hay and Feed store, Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin), are yearning for a little adventure, and it doesn't take much for Dolly to convince them to sneak off to New York City, to romance Irene and her assistant, Minnie Fay (E. J. Peaker).

"Hello, Dolly!" does many things right, so it's hard to have any bad feelings toward the film. Barbara Streisand as Dolly is wonderful, though you do get the sense that the part was meant for an older actress. Streisand's comic timing and acting abilities prove invaluable, especially in her solos and asides, which reveal Dolly's warmth and sentiment beneath her slick exterior. Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin are also irresistible as a pair of overgrown, amusingly innocent clerks who vow not to go back to Yonkers until they've "kissed a girl." The extravagantly staged musical numbers are a treat to watch, especially the acrobatic waiters at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, and the falling-in-love number that sets innumerable doting couples loose on Central Park. The whole tone of the film is pleasantly nostalgic, recreating the turn-of-the-century era in soft colors and bright lights.

And maybe that's why it feels so insubstantial. Two and a half hours and a massive budget were devoted to a fairly simple romantic farce, and though "Dolly" has its charms, it simply can't support the weight of all the spectacle. Few of the songs are memorable. The central romance doesn't work. Walter Matthau is a perfect grump, but not much of a singer and has no chemistry with Barbara Streisand whatsoever. His character is played so dour, with an entire number devoted to examining how little he thinks of women, the audience can't help but wonder why Dolly should want to marry him, even for his money. Times and values have changed, and it feels wrong that a liberated lady like Dolly Levi should consider the miserable Horace Vandergelder a prize simply because he's loaded. There's not much evidence to suggest she's especially fond of the old curmudgeon otherwise.

Some of the blame for this must go to the director. Gene Kelly is great at delivering his big showstoppers, but he sacrifices too much story and character, when there's not much of either to begin with. The second act is noticeably truncated, and some of the players like Ermengarde and Ambrose are so woefully underutilized, one wonders why they appear at all. Cornelius and Barnaby are a lot of fun, but so broadly comic they often feel like sidekicks upgraded to lead roles when other stars didn't show up. Another weak spot is the humor. During the big numbers, the visual gags and physical comedy come off very well. More dialogue-based attempts levity, however, tend to fall flat, like a running joke that involves Dolly having business cards ready for every conceivable kind of service. The film is not very adept at dialing down for the smaller moments when they become necessary.

Nostalgia is always a tricky card to play, and in the end "Hello, Dolly!" can't escape being a 1960s musical in love with the earliest days of the twentieth century, that fails to say anything particularly noteworthy about the era it celebrates or provide a story universal enough to hold the attention of modern audiences. Looking back, I realize that I frequently got "Dolly" confused with "Mame" and "Gypsy," two other musicals of the same era with big leading female roles, but far more heart and substance to them. "Dolly," gets an A for effort, but the film plays better as a fond old memory of a movie musical than the genuine article.

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