Julie Andrews imparted to Mary Poppins a kind of primal power, like she could address the weather and the earth by a first name no one else knew. She had this virtuous self-obsession that swept her movie like a subtle contagion. She brought people together in a way that bonded them on her terms but in which they still had a choice, like she was this eternally open Better Homes and Gardens issue that you can only resist until you start feeling inadequate.
Imagine her now as a forceful, manipulative matchmaker, like one of those trickster spirits in Greek mythology. Imagine her using her powers in the way most convenient to her own goals, which by the end results not in her taking off back into the winds, but in marrying Mr. Banks herself. The thing most shocking to my palette is not that Dolly Levi is an open issue of Vogue that you can only resist until you start missing sex, but that she presents herself as if she’s Mary Poppins. That is the great inauthenticity that Gene Kelly directs into Hello, Dolly! like it’s an adults-only joke in a children’s film.
That fantasy of which all musicals inhabit to some degree can only ever be a fraction of this universe of Yonkers to New York, where even the most unassuming figure (the bag lady, the janitor, the copper) is really just part of the chorus in disguise, waiting for Dolly to give them their cue. Mary could have made it seem like nature’s way of thanking her for existing. That’s what Dolly imagines she’s doing, but it always seems sleazy somehow, like she slipped the world a fiver before the cameras turned on.
That sleaze is all Streisand: even at her most gracefully likeable she has all the warmth of a Jewish mother’s complimentary insult (she says everything as one might say, “You’d look gorgeous if you lost a little weight”). She has no trouble believing in her own voice, as she careens over trolleys and park benches, weaves into parades and pinballs off street corners, hamming it up. She doesn’t really care if people join in. She alone seems to be on a first name basis with the fourth wall, against which I imagine Kelly in a limber slump having the most devilish laugh about the whole thing. When she sings “Leave Everything to Me,” you’d swear she’s talking about the movie.
Even if the syncing fails the modern critical standard (she rarely looks like she’s singing on set), you can’t deny the pipes on Streisand. Her habitation of Channing’s part is nothing less than an invasion, for she’s now immutably Dolly, which is the only way you can be Dolly at all. If it isn’t cinema’s best miscast, it’s the most persuasive.
But Hello, Dolly! can’t get passed her, and that’s part of the problem. It’s a solo concert trying desperately to be a movie. Character development is more a windfall than a conscious result of the plot, which concerns Dolly pulling so many strings to get exactly what she wants that it’s not even particularly clever – it’s so decadently convenient that she seems to have the writers on her side. Characters are abused by her self-serving logic, but they all just roll with it. Michael Crawford lolls around a milliner’s shop avoiding Mr. Vandergelder (Walter Mattheau) and guffawing with grade school affection at miss Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). Here is the Phantom in his infancy, but one marvels that he didn’t grow up to play Dick Van Dyke on the stage instead – I can only describe Crawford’s tall-legged motions and facial extravagances as I would a particularly energetic fluid or, barring that, Van Dyke doing soft shoe while shopping for cummerbunds.
Dolly dominates the men in her world, not with sex, but by withholding it to get everything she wants. You’ll give in to her willingly – her ploys are so obvious that everyone goes along with them just to see what happens. She’s like Lysistrata in a corset. She begins statements with, “My late husband Ephraim Levi used to say …” so often and so well that you even start to believe he’s real (or at least, that this idea of him is). You’re probably being fooled but you let Dolly fool you, like her whole world does, because you sense that if Dolly Levi can get her way, then maybe this world has hope after all. She’s like an early American Ferris Bueller.
She’s like a lot of things and a lot of people and some of it is like the Dolly Levi of the stage. The plot reflects this by being more of an upturned doll’s house of characters than a story. Vandergelder hires Dolly as a matchmaker for his niece, Ermengarde Vandergelder (Joyce Ames) who is distastefully in love with a starving artist, a Jack Skellington-like fellow called Ambrose (Tommy Tune). Dr. Seuss would be proud of these names. Vandergelder wants to court Molloy, whom Dolly entangles with Cornelius (Crawford) and Barnaby (Danny Lockin) so as to have Vandergelder to her own scheming self. Notice I do not say “conniving” or “manipulative.” Though these all apply to Dolly, if there is one magical thing about her movie it’s that you have as little problem with her as her world does. Even such little plot description as I have just given invariably leads back to its maestro, and I can think of no better way to describe its plot than to say that that’s okay. “Everything concerns Dolly Levi,” she says of herself, and so it does.
It’s no secret that Hello, Dolly! was a hole in its investors’ pockets in 1969, an age of televised war atrocity and drug-induced malcontent and very little time for the kinds of musicals that would have played better in the depression. The 30s begged for the main streets of the spunky antebellum. Hello, Dolly! was luxury in a time of uneasy comfort and took the movie musical tumbling down with it, practically until Disney revived it in animation twenty years later.
Hello, Dolly! probably could be animated, since the voices aren’t synced and the world isn’t real. Every building front is a façade, as you might see at the entrance to a Disney World ride. Sincerity in the film is a commodity in short supply, as most relationships begin with some kind of cheeky abuse – a bet, a cocktease – and only become real when a song tells us it’s so. Truthfully I have never seen a film more apt to call itself charming that feels in practice more alien. Like Dolly herself, her movie is like a foreign intelligence’s idea of people circa the era of buttons and bootstraps and bows, like a flyer from the World’s Fair 1898 got sucked up into a spaceship and a Venusian octopus monster inferred the rest. I kept expecting Cornelius to bend over and reveal the gears in the back of his neck that power his extravagant mirages of humanity. The use of his song in Wall-E is brilliant, not because it recalls lost humanity, but because it memorializes a version of it that never existed.
Its emotions are such counterfeits that Hello, Dolly! could be a satire with almost no change except in the self-admission of its purpose. Its phony exchanges work as parodies both of the canned theater and of the brittle Hollywood musical, but the system collapses on itself when it insists that these mirages of romantic joy are serious. Remember the beginning of Singin’ in the Rain, where Kelly recounts the Hollywood story everyone expects to hear, in a haze of poesies and foggy dream logic? Hello, Dolly! feels like it takes place entirely in the world of that intro. An Astaire/ Rogers film could have made the same moves in the 30s with sincere intimacy.
But Hello, Dolly! is more like a cruel parody of intimacy. Masculinity is completely absent from the film except perhaps in the song “It Takes a Woman,” in which Mattheau and co. make every man’s man seem like a cross between Colonel Sanders and Wilford Brimley. Yet, the older gentlemanly hunk with the money is who Dolly saves for herself, perhaps to emasculate and control it, perhaps to give in after years of exhausting liberation. I do not wonder that the LGBT community favors this film (I could tell you a story or two about my recent theater experience involving two lumberjacks and a fellow dressed in a Charlie Brown-themed crop-top). But there’s something uninviting about the way its relationships are bent and misshapen. “We’ll heat them up and drop them cold,” Irene says and I heard Charlie Brown laugh. E.J. Peaker plays an ignorant gal whose introduction includes slurping on a banana with the admonishment, “Dear, men are staring at you … and for the wrong reasons.” Meanwhile the whole thing acts like it’s this charming return to lost virtue.
There are moments of good old-fashioned fun. Louis Armstrong, who always shocks me with his light stature, couldn’t be less introduced but doesn’t need to be. For a moment, Dolly is Streisand and Louis just showed up on the set and they filmed the result and it’s grand (I can just hear Kelly whispering to the crew, “Hey! No one tell Louis this is a movie.”). The real tear-jerker in the film’s middle is called “Before the Parade Passes By” and represents perhaps the one time in the film, an hour in, that theme, motivation, and character are addressed even in passing. It’s not a great song, but even a great song seems somehow beside the point. The off-putting reality of the situation, which usually involves some kind of dress-up with a gaggle of tight-cheeked men kicking like Rockettes, could only be rescued by the ineffable Dolly Levi, like she’s the movie’s babysitter. The deficiency with Hello, Dolly!, though I don’t mark it as a fault of Streisand, could very well be a deficiency with Dolly.
Mary Poppins was never humble. She was practically perfect in fact, by her own admission. But it was the pretense of humility, the social protocol of addressing oneself to other’s considerations, which made Poppins charming, even funny. Dolly is like if Mary just gave in and used her magic to make a buck and get a guy, like maybe after a decade more of wiping noses she finally got fed up and said, “From now on, I’m living for me.” Poppins made sorcery seem like a natural part of living a happy life. At every turn Hello, Dolly! makes the simpler magic of human relationships seem as manipulated and as insincere as stock trading.
But with the smash-bang romantic finish at the end of so much finagling, I can’t even take solace in a romantic tragedy. I’m talking about a total inversion of warm feelings by using those very feelings. I’m talking about feeling low at the end of the end of a pick-me-up. I’m talking about killing love in its own temple. To paraphrase Horace Vandergelder, "Hello, Dolly, you are a damned exasperating movie."
I can just imagine the film's reply, "Why M.C., that is the nicest thing you have ever said to me." Apparently, the gold-lined dress Irene Sharaff made for Dolly’s royal entrance into the dinner club is among the most expensive costumes ever put on an actor. Hello, Dolly! deserves this accolade, as a film so obsessed with romance yet so without it, a film that wears Streisand like satin gold and ivory sequins to a horse race. “This old thing?” it seems to say of the gaudiest costume ever made, “I put this on when I don’t care how I look.”
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Ernest Lehman (screenplay)
Michael Stewart (play)
|Dolly Levi||Barbra Streisand|
|Horace Vandergelder||Walter Matthau|
|Cornelius Hackl||Michael Crawford|
|Irene Molloy||Marianne McAndrew|
|Minnie Fay||E.J. Peaker|
|Barnaby Tucker||Danny Lockin|
|Ermengarde Vandergelder||Joyce Ames|