(On Cable TV, January 2019) The original 1967 Doctor Dolittle is a landmark in movie history for all the wrong reasons. It was a big expansive musical at a time when American cinema was shifting away from such films, it had a famously troubled production with a fuzzy script and a temperamental star; it was such a bomb that it nearly took down its producing studio 20th Century Fox; and its studio-bought nomination as Best Picture at the 1968 Academy Awards is risible considering that it ran against such acclaimed classics as In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. [May 2019: For more on the making of Doctor Dolittle and the way 1967 changed movies forever, I heartily recommend Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution]. As a result, the film itself feels much smaller than its own reputation. It’s certainly not the awful movie that its troubled production history would suggest. A lighthearted adventure/comedy/musical featuring a protagonist with the ability to speak to animals and a fantastic menagerie of imaginary beasts, Doctor Dolittle can be watched without undue hardship. It benefits from an unflappable performance by Rex Harrison, imaginative creations, a large budget that shows up on-screen, a pleasant atmosphere and numerous side-gag one-liners. The scenery changes often (see: large budget) and the special effects aren’t as dated as one would expect. Animal-lovers will find it more amusing than most (I saw much of the movie with a cat on my lap). For all of the flak it took, the film left enough of an impression to be remade once (with a second one coming in early 2020) and gain a bit of a nostalgic following. Still, watching today, Doctor Dolittle remains disappointing. The imaginary animals aren’t all endearing, the tunes aren’t particularly catchy and the conclusion seems rushed after the uneven pacing of the rest of the film. There are clear signs that the film was harmed by its overly narrow focus on Harrison, and the entire thing feels underwhelming considering the production’s lavish means. “Better than expected” is no substitute for a film enjoyable on its own, and perhaps the best thing one can say about Doctor Dolittle is that it remains essential viewing for understanding why Hollywood had to change by the late 1960s—it exemplifies the worst of the old studio system, and the limits of what it could do at its best.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) I think that what I enjoy most out of my data-driven method to watching classic cinema is approaching movies completely blind other than knowing that “a lot of people have watched this.” That’s how I end up watching films that may not sound interesting, but end up being surprisingly enjoyable. Hence The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a film that sounds terrible from a simple premise (“Widower moves into a seaside house, ends up forming a relationship with the previous owner’s ghost”) but ends up being unexpectedly captivating, and even somewhat fresh even seventy years later. The magic of the film isn’t in its premise but in its execution, with the lovely Gene Tierney turning in an impeccable performance as a widower looking for a fresh life on her own, and especially Rex Harrison as a crusty sea captain having lost little of his lust for life even in death. The first unremarkable few minutes are competently made, but the film takes a life of its own as soon as the ghost makes his appearance. Harrison’s near-parodic take on a sea captain is charming, and the film seamlessly shifts gear from suspense drama to romantic comedy, complete with rather witty dialogue. Then there’s another shift as a live romantic interest shows up, setting up a dramatic triangle that provides much of the film’s third quarter. Then it’s off to another seamless shift into romantic drama, with a last act that takes surprising leaps forward in time, and completes with an incredibly satisfying conclusion. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has too many rough edges to be considered an all-time classic (some of the dialogue is pandering, and many of the dramatic twists are implausible at best—the last act is particularly problematic), but it’s highly enjoyable and has more than a few pleasant surprises in store for modern viewers. Charming and surprising, it has aged admirably well and represents, even today, an exemplary example of 1940s Hollywood cinema.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My issues with big Hollywood musicals (especially in their classic pre-seventies period) are simple. They feel interminable, often because (being frequently adapted from endless Broadway musicals) they take narrative breaks during their songs. The song starts and unless it’s a toe-tapper, it’s just as possible to go get a snack and come back in time for the conclusion of the song, at which point nothing will have changed. When the musical is good, it usually gets better toward the end as there is (finally!) some dramatic movement. So it is that much of My Fair Lady is underwhelming, especially at first. The Pygmalion plot being presented piece by piece, we frequently have to stop in order to let the characters have their say and present themselves. Audrey Hepburn is cuteness personified as a coarse commoner being groomed into becoming a passable member of London’s high society, while Rex Harrison is his own brand of fun as a highly self-confident phonetics professor. The film’s big insight that manners make the woman is cogently put, but it does take a while to get there. The film does get better midway through, as the comedy of manners training finally takes off and the female lead is tested in her introduction to high society. The subplot about her family does drag, and My Fair Lady becomes less interesting the more it remembers that it had to deliver a romance in addition to the class comedy. But ultimately, the charm of the lead actors eventually wins out on the way to a predictable conclusion. The film can be watched today and only feel slightly stuffy—the period setting does help a lot in breaking the film out of its production date. While I’m reasonably satisfied with the end result, I still wish it would have been shorter.