Directed By: Gene Kelly
Written By: Ernest Lehman (based on the Broadway Production by David Merrick)
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau, Michael Crawford, Marianne McAndrew
Continuing the trend of lethargic adaptation from Broadway stage to Hollywood’s silver screen, Gene Kelly’s Hello, Dolly! is sugary and good-willed, but any true emotion struggles for clarity under its syrupy coverage.
Taken from David Merrick’s stage production of the same name, Hello, Dolly! is an audaciously farcical romp, populated with vibrant colour and driven by head-spinning, athletic dance numbers that have more than a trace of the inventive touch that made Onna White’s Oliver! choreography so wondrous. But Gene Kelly milks its gleaming surface for all its worth and then some. A whimsical surface is good fun, but at two and a half hours with little else for us to lose ourselves in, it quickly runs its course, the film apparently too drunk on its own colourful jauntiness to remember to tell a story.
Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) is actually quite an interesting character. A beloved matchmaker and all-round problem solver, there isn’t a person or problem in New York that she isn’t acquainted.
There’s a fun running gag where Dolly continuously pumps out ludicrously specific business cards, tailored to the most outrageously minute needs. In a moment with lanky artist Ambrose Kemper (the would-be husband of Emengarde Vadergelder, niece of the disapproving Horace) she sets in motion a plan involving the two.
“Can you dance?” Dolly asks Ambrose.
“I’m an artist Mrs. Levi, I paint.”
“No problem” Dolly quickly responds, slipping him a card.
“Mrs. Levi” reads Ambrose. “Painters taught how to dance.”
But there is a hollowness to Dolly. Although she is forever pushing for love and social interaction with others, she herself stares in from the fringes. She’s a widower, constantly drawing on the philosophies of her past husband and reluctant to re-integrate herself into the world she so spends her life integrating others. Without a sign of approval from her former lover, she’s lost, growing lonely. If only the film didn’t have to juggle so much, it could hone in on Dolly’s plight, but instead it mis-manages a series of stories and attempts to paste them together with a screwball glue.
Tommy Tune and Joyce Ames play the hopeful couple of Ambrose and Emengarde, but it’s with weepy Emengarde’s “half-a-millionaire” uncle, Horace Vandergelder, that the film’s central romance takes shape.
Walter Matthau plays the jaded Scrooge-like Horace, who recognises at his age it’s time to find a wife, his eye fixed on New York hat maker Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). However, despite being his matchmaker, Dolly has her own plans for Horace, picturing herself in that position and sets in motion an elaborate plan to guide Horace unknowingly into her own arms.
Two naive but all-too-willing pawns in Dolly’s romantic chess game are Horace’s store clerks Cornelius and Barnaby (Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin). The two in-over-their-heads “aw-shucks” goofballs are desperately seeking an adventure, more specifically their first kisses, and Dolly turns them lose in New York, urging them towards Irene and her shop assistant Minnie (E.J Peaker) to take Irene out of Horace’s plans.
With their headless-chicken routine Cornelius and Barnaby are emblematic of the ceaseless cartoon sensibility which the film so gratingly indulges. It’s benign enough in its own right, but the film becomes hugely baggy in feeding its elaborate screwball set-pieces, that when it comes to character, it somehow feels rushed.
It’s no mystery that our main man and woman are destined for each other, that’s formality, but why are they destined to be together? Gene Kelly is so occupied with rubbing our noses in his film’s verve that his characters never quite ring true. Surely the grouchy, haggard Horace could never be a match for the impassioned, optimistic Dolly?
This isn’t a terrible film. Its bubbly veneer is cute (for a time), it’s screwball crux can coax a smile. And watching Barbra Streisand race her words out of her mouth with a sassy abandon is also fun in fleeting measure, but it all expires.
Take the elaborate numbers at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. They’re brimming with life, amazingly choreographed, and its performers hurl themselves into action with a mesmerising gymnastic fervidity. But we’re inside the restaurant forever. It goes on and on, and on some more, so much so that by the time Satchmo rears his head is hard to be bothered.
“No expression. Let the food smile” instructs the restaurant’s head waiter, and one wishes Gene Kelly would follow suit. The film should smile for itself, its colourful story should take shape naturally. Instead it settles for a cheek-aching grin artificially caked on with a noble clumsiness.