Matthew Kennedy is the author of Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Matthew is a writer, film historian, and anthropologist living in Oakland, and his other books include Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), and Marie Dressler: A Biography (McFarland, 1999). His articles have appeared in the program books of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. He is film and book critic for the respected Bright Lights Film Journal and has hosted retrospectives based on his books at the Pacific Film Archive, UCLA Film Archive, and the Museum of Modern Art.
Kennedy kindly spoke to The Bits about the appeal and legacy of Hello, Dolly!
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Hello, Dolly! should be remembered on its golden anniversary?
Matthew Kennedy: Fifty years hence, it’s more obvious than ever Hello, Dolly! is a well-dressed dinosaur. It’s a very, very big production of a smash Broadway musical steeped in old-fashioned songwriting and storytelling. It should be remembered as a marvelous entertainment, provided you go in with no expectations. It’s a true popcorn movie.
Coate: In what way is Hello, Dolly! a significant motion picture?
Kennedy: It’s more significant historically than aesthetically. It comes at the end of a string of musicals at Twentieth Century-Fox that changed the industry. First came The Sound of Music in 1965, a hit of unprecedented magnitude. Fox then green lit a string of roadshow musicals all designed to build on Music’s triumph. First came Doctor Dolittle, then came Star! Do I need to mention they were both ugly high profile bombs? Then came Dolly!, and Fox executives were understandably nervous. The production cost many times more than The Sound of Music, and public taste had veered away from family musicals by the time Dolly! was unveiled in 1969. It proved to be a qualified hit. Had its expenses not been stratospheric, it would have made lots of money on its first run. Its modest profits came years later, and meanwhile it became the last of the truly big star-centered musical film extravaganzas.
Coate: Which are the standout songs?
Kennedy: The title song, of course, which was recorded by just about everyone back in the day, and Before the Parade Passes By. Incidentally, there’s the most appalling glitch at the beginning of Parade. The prerecorded soundtrack and Streisand’s auto lip synching are way off. It’s pretty obvious, and surprising it wasn’t reshot. It’s especially odd considering the number that follows, with its vast recreation of New York’s Fourteenth Street of 1890, is probably the most elaborate and expensive production number in musical history.
The score is full of hummable, pleasant ditties: It Takes a Woman, Elegance, and Ribbons Down My Back. The tender love song It Only Takes a Moment and Put On Your Sunday Clothes are used to good effect in the 2008 dystopian animated feature WALL-E.
Coate: Did being initially exhibited as a reserved-seat roadshow attraction help or hurt the film?
Kennedy: No doubt it helped the film. Releasing Hello, Dolly! as a roadshow was the right and wise thing to do, considering its expense and place in the moviegoing market. The roadshow format gave any film a sense of importance and increased anticipation. It was the studios’ way of saying, “Pay attention to this movie!” (By the late 1960s, the studio roadshow subtext was, “This movie cost a bundle to make, and we sure hope to recoup!”)
Coate: How do you think the film compares to the original stage production and other source material?
Kennedy: The story has a long history, but Dolly! was most directly based on The Matchmaker, a 1954 Thornton Wilder non-musical play about a meddlesome but lovable middle aged widow who “arranges things.” The 1958 film version starring Shirley Booth is instructive. It’s a modest film that fits its modest story. The original Broadway musical of 1964 famously starred Carol Channing, and was given a much splashier treatment. It then became the role to play by musical comedy stars of a certain age, essayed by Betty Grable, Ethel Merman, Pearl Bailey, Eve Arden, Mary Martin, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, and Phyllis Diller, among others. But when it came time to make the movie, all those age appropriate Dollys were sent packing in favor of the hotter than hot young superstar Streisand. Dolly! on film gives new meaning to the term “over produced.” How anyone thought throwing $25 million at Hello, Dolly! was a good idea is beyond me. (The Sound of Music cost $8 million.)
Coate: In what way was Gene Kelly an ideal choice to direct?
Kennedy: Gene Kelly’s credentials as dancer and choreographer are, of course, impeccable, and placed him at the absolute top of his profession. But may I address the question of how he was not an ideal choice? His directing career is problematic, at least in taking on a project of Hello, Dolly!’s gargantuan scale. He has just four musical film directing credits between 1949 and 1956, including On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain, both co-directed by Stanley Donen. The era, circumstances, and expectations for Hello, Dolly! were entirely different. Hollywood was a changed place in 1969, and Kelly’s heyday had long passed. He and Streisand sparred and he was reportedly a real SOB on the set.
Coate: Where do you think Hello, Dolly! ranks among Streisand’s body of work?
Kennedy: She’s undeniably entertaining here, but her performance is ill conceived. Hello, Dolly! was her second film, after her stunning musical debut in Funny Girl. She made another musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in 1970, and another, Yentl, much later. It’s hard for me to get around her gross miscasting. She was twenty-six during production. Twenty-six! How old was Dolly when her husband died? Eighteen? Even so, she’s sassy and brassy and dominates her every moment on screen, searching for a character that eludes her. Kelly apparently gave her too little guidance. But she sure does excel vocally. Her voice has hardly ever been better than here.
Coate: Where do you think Hello, Dolly! ranks among 1960s musicals and roadshows?
Kennedy: I put it in the middle ground. It fits snugly in the rather faithful adaptations of stage musical hits such as The Music Man, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Camelot, and Oliver! It’s further afield from the less faithful adaptations, such as Finian’s Rainbow and Paint Your Wagon. In the end, I like Hello, Dolly! It’s tuneful, opulent, and has some great dancing and choreography. It goes down very easily. But with such a mammoth commitment of time, money, and talent, I’m left wanting more.
Coate: What is the legacy of Hello, Dolly!?
Kennedy: It preserves one of the most popular Broadway musicals of all time. It offers a graphic lesson in stage to film adaptation. It falls squarely in the “They sure don’t make ’em like that anymore!” category. And it’s one of the last times Hollywood had faith that tuneful sugarcoated nostalgia could sweep its audiences into deliriums of happiness.
Coate: Thank you, Matthew, for sharing your thoughts about Hello, Dolly! on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy Chenault Productions, Robert Morrow collection, 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Raymond Caple, Matthew Kennedy, Bill Kretzel, Mark Lensenmayer, Stan Malone, Robert Morrow, Jim Perry, Joel Weide, Vince Young, and an extra special thank-you to all of the librarians who helped with this project.