Wednesday, August 31, 2011

1967 - Doctor Dolittle

Hurricane Irene swept through New York City on the weekend and it looks like we got lucky. Kat and I in particular hardly noticed a thing. As the top of the hurricane hit, the bulk of the wind force seemed to come in from a north-easterly direction. Rather fortunately, the windows in our apartment face south and west. I imagine the other side of the building felt the barrage considerably more. By the time the wind changed direction as the tail end of the hurricane arrived later on Sunday, its strength had weakened and the rain had all but stopped. It could not have been a more convenient chain of events.

As the stores reopened and the subway trains began to roll again, I watched the final nominee from 1967's Best Picture competition is...

Doctor Dolittle
Richard Fleischer
Leslie Bricusse
(based on the novels by Hugh Lofting)
Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, Richard Attenborough, Peter Bull, Muriel Lander, William Dix, Geoffrey Holder
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
2 wins, including Best Song (Talk to the Animals)

In the English seaside town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, local Irish merchant Matthew Mugg (Newley) introduces a naive young boy named Tommy Stubbins (Dix) to the greatest animal doctor who ever lived. Doctor John Dolittle (Harrison) began his career as a regular medical doctor, but soon tired of human contact, preferring to spend time with animals instead. With no apparent formal training, Doctor Dolittle simply switches specialties and becomes a veterinarian and, thanks to the teachings of his pet parrot, he has now learned nearly 500 animal languages and can freely communicate with the dozens of animals in his care.

When Dolittle is delivered a Pushmi-Pullyu, a rare beast akin to the llama except for its two heads, the three friends trot off to the local circus to share it with the world. After a horrible misunderstanding in which two men mistake a seal for an old woman and then witness Dolittle throw it into the sea, he finds himself in court up against an unsympathetic judge (Bull) who sentences him to an insane asylum. Matthew and Tommy aid his escape and, along with the judge's pretty but brusque niece Emma (Eggar), the four set sail in search of the wandering Sea-Star Island as well as Dolittle's ultimate find, the Great Pink Sea Snail, a creature most experts believe to be mythical.

Doctor Dolittle is very much a children's movie. It's silly, fantastical and plays like a pantomime. The central conceit itself, that of a man who can converse with animals, is obviously pretty ridiculous. Peppered throughout are several childish gags, including a horse with glasses reading from an eye chart. While it would not be unfair to label this picture as immature, that is not necessarily a criticism. It's just that you may need to still have your baby teeth to get the most out of it. I mean, what ten-year-old wouldn't like a story about a giant pink sea snail? Curiously, though, with such a clever and witty rhyming scheme, the lyrics seem decidedly advanced for the little ones to truly appreciate. The Academy certainly appreciated them, however. They awarded Talk to the Animals their Best Song award.

Visually, it is an impressive film. With some aesthetically pleasing locations and a host of interesting designs, Doctor Dolittle at times is genuinely majestic. It also scored an Oscar for Special Visual Effects, and while there are indeed some effects worthy of oohs and aahs, some of the puppetry is afflicted with a slight case of lifelessness. However, the most incredible feat of the film is undeniably the animal wrangling. Kudos to the trainers who succeed in eliciting charmingly anthropomorphic performances from their pets. Animals of all shapes and sizes adorn the set, often dozens at the same time. I shudder to think of the clean-up that was required afterwards. It must have been a smelly set.

Now, what can I say about Rex Harrison (pictured) and his talky singing? It may have worked well for him in My Fair Lady, perhaps due to the loquaciousness of the lyrics he was given to perform, but it falls rather flat here. The effect is similar to watching a rehearsal, so much does it take away from the numbers' musicality and from Harrison's otherwise delightful performance. Anthony Newley - who is also known for his musical collaboration with Doctor Dolittle's composer and screenwriter, Leslie Bricusse - delivers an amiable performance as the Irish charmer. Also watchable is a young (well, younger) Richard Attenborough as the circus owner, Mr. Blossom.

Ultimately, Doctor Dolittle is a fluffy, silly movie, which makes it all the more surprising that it made the Best Picture shortlist. Mind you, they loved their musicals back then, so perhaps it's not as surprising as it would be if it were to happen today, but still a little puzzling.

1 comment:

  1. Musicals had their best decade in the sixties as far as Best Picture Awards, however, 1967 wasn’t one of their strongest years. Doctor Dolittle, along with Camelot, Thoroughly Modern Millie and How to Succeed in Business didn’t exactly wow the critics. They were on their downward slide. It would take its last Best Picture Oscar the next year before a 34 year hiatus. Apparently an aggressive campaign that included champagne banquets, helped Dolittle’s cause, although its box office returns nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox for a second time (Cleopatra nearly wiped it out four years earlier).

    Doctor Dolittle was the only nominated film from 1967 that I hadn’t seen before. I can’t say that it didn’t have its plusses. Certainly the lush locations and production design was very noticeable. However, the story, acting, pace and score were just not up to Best Picture consideration standards for me. Rex Harrison was frankly too old for the title character. Anthony Newly was energetic and carried the singing on his shoulders, but that idiosyncratic voice of his can be jarring at times.

    I can certainly offer a handful of alternatives for Best Picture consideration, which I’ll mention in the 1967 recap. This won’t be the last lumbering musical to make it to the Best Picture run off. There were a few more waiting in the wings.