Hello, Dolly! Beautiful Artifice, Terrible Politics
I had first heard of Hello, Dolly! (1969) as the straw that broke the camel’s back. As studios struggled in the 60s to understand what audiences wanted, they latched onto the huge success of The Sound of Music (1965) and produced more and more big budget musicals, trying to repeat Sound of Music‘s success.
It didn’t work. While Sound of Music was bolstered tremendously by evangelicals keen to its Christian elements (nuns tricking Nazis! who can’t get behind that?), other production languished, failing to make back their bulging budgets as audiences of baby boomers wanted the grit and experimentation of New Hollywood and exploitation flicks. Hello, Dolly! is often blamed as the movie that killed the classical Hollywood musical, but in fairness, its death was a long time coming. Hello, Dolly! merely marked its extravagant end.
I finally decided to watch the film after seeing clips of it in Lindsay Ellis’ excellent analysis of Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera (2004). I found myself immensely entertained, but not without qualms. The film is classical Hollywood filmmaking at its finest, and also at its politically poisonous.
The plot is propelling by our main character Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand), match-maker extraordinaire, arranging and manipulating meet-cutes, trying to unite the proper couple in Yonkers/ New York, NY circa 1890. Her main target is semi-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), a misery curmudgeon who Dolly just might like more than he realizes. As Horace leaves Yonkers for the weekend under Dolly’s insistence, Horace’s store staff, Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin) are by Dolly to see the world beyond Yonkers, and travel to New York as well. There they meet hat shop owner Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew) and her assistant Minnie Fay (E. J. Peaker). As the young men stumble throughout their meet-cute, in storms Horace, the beau to be for Irene. Confusion arises, and Dolly tries to smooth things over. Through some carefully coordination, she arranges everyone to meet again at the expensive restaurant Harmonia Gardens, where feelings are hashed out, songs are sung, and afterwards, everyone gets together.
The plot is madcap musical, with mcguffins and misunderstandings to stretch out the plot. The film could be summed up as “people run around, proclaiming their love, hiding from others, all to coalesce into one happy ending.” The story itself isn’t what justifies the 148 minute runtime, but rather, its extravagant execution does. With a budget of $25 million, the film is full of period decor, thousands of extras, extravagant costumes, and more. It’s a classical musical at its biggest, with one concern: more. The film offers more songs, more characters, more extravagance that Hollywood can buy.
But it’s not just the clothes or the decor, but the execution as well. I was pleasantly surprised to find Barbra Streisand commanding every scene. She owns the roll of Dolly, talking a mile a minute in one scene to singing like a boss in the next. Michael Crawford has a wonderful elasticity to his performance, with humorous dancing. really the entire cast is fantastic, and really own their roles. The only semi-exception is Walter Matthau, who kind of just plays himself. Apparently, he hated working with Streisand (seriously, the trivia about this movie is hilarious), but if anything, that kind of bitterness just works well with his character being a grumpy old fart.
While the acting is solid, so too is the cinematography and direction. The dancing makes a wonderful use of space, not just of the x- and y-axis, but the z-axis as well. Dancers often lunge towards the camera, illustrating the depth of the picture, and immersing you into the film as a result. We have the immensely talented Gene Kelly to thank as director. The show is a spectacle, one that Hollywood doesn’t make any more, and shows movie stars in their prime. Hello, Dolly! stands as a significant film, then, and not just because it was a box office bomb, nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and was the death knell of classical Hollywood musicals.
While I’ve been praising the spectacle of it all, such a spectacle has a devilish shadow that must be acknowledged: the fetishization of the rich and wealthy. Being wealthy is illustrated to be the best thing in life, as we watch shop owners and entrepreneurs flit about New York, engaging in a fluffy plot of menial trials. The spectacle acts as an allure for the audience, with two songs dedicated to the pursuit of wealth and class. “Elegance” has a tongue in cheek approach to the subject, as characters list of preposterously upper class tropes that they are clearly faking. But the fact remains they fetishize upward mobility and the “elegance”it entails. Some lyrics include:
Middle class, don’t speak of it
Savior Faire, we reek of it
Some were born with rags and patches but
We use dollar bills for matches
The song on its own might hold some transgressiveness it how it portrays aristocratic snobbery, but within the context of the film, this is negligible, especially considering “Hello, Dolly!”, the show-stopping number and title song of the show. One of the key remains for the song is “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong”, as Dolly arrives at the Harmonia Gardens. The sequence is incredibly long, as waiters, Louis Armstrong, and Dolly herself affirms her rightful place among the bourgeoisie. This is also where the film finally begins to buckle under its sweeping spectacle, ash the song builds and builds, with singing and dancing waiters, Armstrong and Streisand sharing a small moment, and more. As someone who can take a heaping helpful of spectacle, even my limits are tested as Satchmo exclaims “One more time!” near the end of the song.
While Dolly’s mantra (and it turns out, Horace’s as well) is that “money is like manure… its best if its spread around”, such pseudo egalitarianism is merely a false veil to justify such extravagant indulgences. This mantra is problematic on another level as well, that of Dolly’s agency. Throughout the film, Dolly is a keen negotiator and a force to be reckoned with. Such independence is laudable, but is undercut by how Dolly seeks permission from her dead husband to pursue Horace as a love interest. Twice in the film, Dolly asks permission from a man in the grave to affirm the choices in her love life, contradicting her usually magnanimous agency throughout the film. While these moments are largely contained within their own scenes in the film, they add to what was already a politically dismal film.
It’s also worth noting that there are few roles of color within the film, merely in secondary roles such as a bag clerk (with a speaking part) and an all black band in the Harmonia Gardens. And then their’s Satchmo himself leading the band as well, effortlessly charming as always. The film has the excuse of being a period piece in 1890, but really that should make one thing about what kind of politics are being represented on the screen. This film is about the rich and their company foolhardily chasing love in late 19th century opulence. Its grandeur is quite enjoyable, but is not without its problems.
What’s surprising is how the film continues to be a site of investigation and debate. Resurrected into the public consciousness by Wall-e (2008), the film continues to hold a tricky position in film history as the film the ended musicals. It should be remembered for so much more: Gene Kelly’s direction, laudable performances, and more. It is Hollywood spectacle and its insidious shadow in one conjuncture, and will likely continue to be debated in the future.