Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hello, Headache

Film: Hello, Dolly!
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I knew this one was going to be rough. I was braced for it to be one of those musicals where all of the men are drips and the women are all “sassy,” and indeed that’s exactly what Hello, Dolly! is. Hello, Dolly! encapsulates everything I dislike about musicals in general and wraps them up in a package that runs for close to 150 minutes. I suspected this going in. You can fault me for all sorts of things, but you can’t accuse me of avoiding films like this one. I dive head first into shit like this all the time and do it consciously most of the time when I do it, although I am blindsided at times.

Ah, but wait. There’s a pedigree with this one that needs to be mentioned. The director of Hello, Dolly! is Gene Kelly. Even in a case where I’m fairly sure I’m going to dislike the plot and most of the characters and where I’m going to rapidly be overcome by Barbra Streisand’s sassiness, Gene Kelly’s not going to disappoint with the musical numbers. It’s at least going to be a spectacle, right?

And you know what? That pretty much sums up my experience with Hello, Dolly!. As guessed, this is a film where all of the women, particularly our title character Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) is sassy to the point of pain. Dolly is a matchmaker among other things and has been hired by Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) to find a match for his niece, Ermengarde (Joyce Ames). Horace’s problem is that Ermengarde has decided she wants to marry an artist named Ambrose (Tommy Tune, who, I’m surprised to discover, is actually named Thomas Tune). Getting Ermengarde married off has convinced Horace that he should marry as well, and he has set his sights on a hat maker in New York named Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew).

The complications happen because Dolly has decided that she wants to marry the wealthy but curmudgeonly Horace herself. She decides to sow some seeds of chaos into the mix, telling Horace’s two workers, Cornelius (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby (Danny Lockin) to go to New York themselves and introduce themselves to Irene and her shop assistant Minnie (E.J. Peaker). Which they do. This causes a rift between Irene and Horace, sets the Cornelius/Irene and Barnaby/Minnie quartet off on their own adventure, and puts Dolly hot on the trail of Horace, who is disgusted by the whole thing.

Okay, so you know there are going to be a lot of songs through this. You also should know that the women will always be right (and sassy) and the men will often be wrong unless they are doing something specifically for the women, which makes them right. That’s par for the course here. And naturally we’re going to get a lot of Barbra belting out songs, so if you’re not a fan of Babs’s vocal stylings, there are going to be some rough patches here. In fact, if you’re not (pardon the pun) in tune with the sensibilities of a classic musical with its extreme over-reactions to everything and larger-than-life personalities in all places and at all times—this is one of the main reasons I dislike stage musicals, in fact—this is a difficult time in front of the screen.

Fortunately, while Hello, Dolly! most emphatically must have a basic plot that it follows to get us from the start of the film to the happy ending all around that we expect with a classic musical, the plot isn’t the reason to watch this. Some of the songs are damn good as well, even if you’re not a Barbra Streisand fan (she doesn’t sing them all, after all). But they’re not the reason to watch, either. No, it’s the production itself that is impressive. I freely admit that I was ready for this film to be over multiple times until we got to the very long and pivotal scene in the restaurant. And this is where having a film directed by Gene Kelly paid off.

I won’t deny it—there’s some amazing stuff going on in this scene. The big “we need to boost up our service” number here is the sort of thing that movies like this one were made to show us. This is a good ten minutes of watching some truly amazing choreography and timing, and while there’s nothing here that borders on realistic, it doesn’t matter. This is a scene that makes the barn raising in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers look like local amateur drama. Even better, it genuinely feels like something that Kelly would have done in his prime. And after this, we get the title number, which features a lovely cameo from Louis Armstrong essentially playing himself. Really, any film that features Louis Armstrong performing in any way can’t be completely a waste of time.

So yeah, there are some issues here. I get tired of mildly comedic musicals where everybody has a goofy name. There is no decent or legitimate reason that Walter Matthau should ever attempt to sing or dance (and he does both) in the name of entertainment. The characters made me alternately exasperated and batty. But those big production numbers—the dance through the park, the restaurant—those are pure Hollywood magic. I can’t claim to have enjoyed Hello, Dolly!, but I can say that there were moments in it that are absolutely worth seeing.

That said, I’m slightly inspired to make a surreal parody and call it Hello, Dali!, although I’m almost certain that already exists.

Why to watch Hello, Dolly!: Some of the best large cast production numbers ever filmed.
Why not to watch: It’s “sassy,” with all of the annoyance that word implies.


  1. I saw this a long time ago (although not in a galaxy far, far away). I honestly remember nothing about it other than Louis Armstrong singing the title song.

    1. The initial song and dance number in the restaurant looks exactly like something Gene Kelly would choreography. Lots of acrobatics, lots of precision timing. It's pretty great, and it's me saying that, so...