Hello, Dolly! is a perfectly named play – the entire thing feels like one long red-carpet event for the same person. Mary Poppins on paper had the same sort of virtuous self-obsession. She swept through her stories with unknowable power, like she knew the weather by its first name, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman. And she brought people together. In her Better Homes and Gardens universe, she was always there to make you feel a bit better, even if you had to feel inadequate compared to her in the process. If pressed about it, Mary would not apologize, but she would not make you feel dumb for feeling that way.
Dolly is a bit like Mary with the restraint pulled out. Imagine Mary Poppins actually being as selfish as she pretended to be, sweeping in not to tidy up other people’s emotional lives but to marry Mr. Banks herself. She would admit that you were inadequate compared to her – she’d probably give you the idea herself. Take Better Homes and Gardens and turn it into Vogue. The oddest thing about it is not that Dolly is selfish or that the film is emotionally inauthentic. It’s that it acts like it thinks it's Mary Poppins. Gene Kelly is in the director’s chair making a movie that seems intended to make us smile but like a dirty joke in a kid’s movie. It wants to feel "off" and also to pressure us into not admitting it.
All musicals partially inhabit a fantasy that only exists on the stage. Many film musicals fight for a piece of the reality unique to film – Singin’ in the Rain made this struggle its literal narrative. Hello, Dolly! creates a mini-universe from Yonkers to New York and finds an almost unnervingly specific race of beings, all grown from the test tube of the community costume department. On the corner – the lonesome bag lady. On the fringe of the park – the dutiful janitor. Near the line of cars – the studious copper. They all seem to share the same secret and at any time could become a rehearsed chorus after Dolly cues them to stop pretending they’re in a movie. Mary Poppins was able to make this seem like the world itself was fantastical, but Dolly acts more like she slipped the world a fiver and told it to make it look good.
Barbra Streisand has that graceful sleaze that makes it happen. She says absolutely everything in Hello, Dolly! with the tone that a mother-in-law might say, “You’d look gorgeous if you lost a little weight,” believing it was a compliment. She careens over trolleys and park benches, pinballs off street corners, weaves into parades, and she has no trouble believing in her own intentions (or voice). People join in but she doesn’t seem to mind either way. When she sings, “Leave Everything to Me,” you get the sense she’s talking about the film.
Streisand in Channing’s part is probably viewed territorially by some stage-lovers – the character is now immutably Streisand’s for a lot of viewers, though it never quite makes sense on her. When Channing does it, a little older, frailer, or sillier, like a worn-out thumb-toy, it’s clearer that Dolly is a parody of herself. Streisand is more persuasive in a role that was not meant to be taken to heart. The mistake of wanting to “be” Dolly is a result of Streisand selling it better, resulting in a worse interpretation of a flawed person. Dolly’s plans are decadently convenient, a solo of string-pulling and self-exaltation. Looking at them as silly has a more convincing charm than being told by an epic film musical that they were for our benefit all along. In other words, it’s the desire to seem unironically wonderful that oppositely makes Hello Dolly! feel kind of sleazy, in the context of a story that was never meant to be fully advocated.
There’s more to the film than Dolly, though she might disagree. Michael Crawford lolls around a milliner’s shop avoiding Mr. Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) and guffawing with grade school affection at miss Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). He has something of Dick Van Dyke in him, to extend the comparison to Poppins, in that his tall-legged motions and extravagant faces have the energy of a fake British comedian (or an untamed fluid). Van Dyke recently released videos of himself wobbling in a little soft-shoe while shopping for cummerbunds. Crawford, best known as the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, might have grown into a cummerbund too with a different upbringing.
Dolly uses sex (or withholding it) to get everything she wants. Her ploys are obvious, so obvious that everyone goes along with it to feel smart until they realize Dolly played that most of all. She’s Lysistrata in a corset. “My late husband Ephraim Levi used to say,” is how she starts conversations, all of which she paces like the setup for a con. You start to believe Ephraim is real, or that some idea of him is, or that it doesn’t matter either way. He’s just the hook. The whole world lets Dolly fool it (so does the audience) because of a sincere gesture of faith that makes the best musicals good and which Hello, Dolly! still has: you feel that if Dolly Levi can get her way, then maybe the world will be all right.
The plot is an upturned doll’s house of characters. 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 herself. It’s easy to have no problem with this, but not because the audience has been convinced to care about the wellbeing of Dolly Levi (truthfully, the film never convinces anyone that she needs it). It’s easy because no one is particularly goodhearted in the film without also giving up good sense to get it. The choices it presents are that you can be crude, naïve, or Dolly, so the choice isn’t hard. “Everything concerns Dolly Levi,” she says of herself, and so it does.
It's no secret that this patented mix of rudeness and saccharine self-massaging was unprofitable in 1969. The film musical had become an unwanted grandparent in a house full of the sounds of televised wars and new wave dramas. Just 15 years ago, America would have begged for more of this spunky antebellum ploy-making. Hello, Dolly! acted the part of a luxury in a time that needed one but ended up proving the opposite. It seemed to prove that we were past all that, and what was once the most profitable genre in cinema became an outcast. It would remain in exile except for hard-edged satires of itself like Cabaret and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, practically until Disney found a need for it in animation 20 years later.
On the subject of Disney, Hello, Dolly! has that sense of the façade. Its little world feels like the set of a ride (or the front of a con). The main street feels like it was set up before we got there for our benefit. Nothing feels alive in the film because it has such a short supply of sincerity – it seems to give way at the slightest touch. Relationships begin with some form of cheeky abuse like a bet, a mistake, or an unwanted turn-on, and proceed from there as though a song can add feelings to it and make it true. The idea that the film is charming is misplaced. If a flyer from the 1898 World’s Fair was sucked into a spaceship and unimaginable creatures who had never felt a human emotion tried to recreate it down to its bootstraps and bows, it would not be more alien. When Cornelius bends over, I expect to see gears in the back of his neck that powers his mirage of humanity. The use of the title song, “Out There,” in Wall-E is multileveled brilliance. It not only recalls lost humanity but memorializes a version of it that never existed to begin with.
Hello, Dolly! trades in counterfeit emotions, as though it could be satire if it admitted it. By insisting these phony fronts are serious, it becomes even more alienating. In the intro to Singin’ in the Rain, Don Lockwood recounts the Hollywood origin story that everyone expects to hear, in a fog of roguish dream logic. The audience never thinks for a moment that the tale is serious, or that it would be seriously productive for it to be actually real. Hello, Dolly! seems to take place entirely in the world of that intro. It tries to convince us that it would be good to live there, even though Dolly is just trying to get a commission on the sale.
The film creates a cruel parody of intimacy that makes even sweet moments seem like someone being taken advantage of. “It Takes a Woman” demonstrates how little the film thinks of masculinity, parading Matthau and co. around like clucking Colonel Sanders dolls to describe what women “should” be doing with themselves. Does Dolly pursue this man, his wrinkled hunky oddness, to emasculate and control it? To win its money? To force it to give in after years of exhausting liberation? “We’ll heat them up and drop them cold,” Irene says, and a man sitting next to me in the theater in a Charlie Brown crop-top giggled.
When the film introduces E.J. Peaker in the film, she slurps on a banana, to which Irene admonishes, “Dear, men are staring at you … and for the wrong reasons.” The film acts like a charming return to lost virtue while proposing that it never really existed. That could be viewed as a positive, but that’s not the question. The question is if it would be impossible to achieve this feeling without the screenplay going out of its way to re-enunciate the point by asking the audience to consider her turn-of-the-century lips pursed around a penis. Maybe this was more like the actual turn-of-the-century, but it fails to recapture the movies about it (you’d never catch Meet Me in St. Louis building up sincerity just to laugh at it).
There are moments of good old-fashioned fun. Louis Armstrong, who always shocks me with his light stature in life compared to the largeness of his personality, doesn’t need more introduction than he gets – the film is proud of the fact that it’s Louis as Louis. In that moment, Dolly is Streisand and Louis just showed up on the set and they filmed the result, which is a grand old time, involving the two of them twinkling while a bunch of tight-cheeked waiters spin like balding Rockettes. It’s like Kelly told everyone on set not to tell Louis that he’s in a movie. “Before the Parade Passes By,” Dolly’s “big song,” does at least link her motivation to a feeling of urgency. The closest she has to a character flaw is that she’s getting old.
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 her charming. She was so powerful and earnest that she made sorcery seem like a natural part of living a happy life. Dolly lacks these qualities so much that she manages to turn the simpler magic of human relationships into a situation as manipulative and insincere as stock trading.
Hello, Dolly! uses warm feelings to invert warmth. To paraphrase Horace Vandergelder, "Hello, Dolly, you are a damned exasperating movie." The film would probably take it as a compliment. Its finale is a wham-bam romantic climax, like we’d been as seriously invested the whole time in seeing these people end up together as Dolly was. It would make more sense to be emotionally invested in the clothes – the gold-lined dress Irene Sharaff made for Dolly’s royal entrance into the dinner club is among the most expensive pieces of fabric ever put on an actor. That’s an accolade Hello, Dolly! deserves – the prize of the self-obsessed. If asked, it would call even the gaudiest outfit ever filmed, “this old thing,” as it glittered with satin gold and sequins. “I put this on when I don’t care how I look.”
This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, June 4, 2018
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©20th Century Fox
Cast & Crew
Ernest Lehman (screenplay)
Michael Stewart (play)
Thornton Wilder (play)
Johann Nestroy (play)
John Oxenford (play)
|Dolly Levi||Barbra Streisand|
|Horace Vandergelder||Walter Matthau|
|Cornelius Hackl||Michael Crawford|
|Irene Molloy||Marianne McAndrew|
|Minnie Fey||E.J. Peaker|
|Barnaby Tucker||Danny Lockin|
|Ermengarde Vandergelder||Joyce Ames|