Box Office Failures Week: Hello, Dolly! (1969)

While Hello, Dolly would win three Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Best Score of a Musical Picture and Best Sound — while also being nominated for four other Academy Awards including Best Picture — the movie was a failure and took years to finally break even.

The filming of the movie was filled with arguments between nearly everyone. Co-stars Barbara Streisand and Walter Matthau came to blows on the hot June day with Robert Kennedy was killed. All it took was a sneeze to set the cantankerous Matthau off, who supposedly yelled, “You might be the singer in this picture, but I’m the actor! You haven’t got the talent of a butterfly’s fart!”

Streisand remembered it differently, that Matthau just went off on her, leaving her crying for days.

Director Gene Kelly saw it as a typical dispute about stepping on each other’s lines and thought that a quick meeting resolved everything.

But to the public, the story became the diva Streisand against the henpecked and suffering Matthau.

Matthau definitely had no love lost for the singer. When he and co-star Michael Crawford visited a nearby racetrack and noticed that a horse named Hello Dolly was racing. Matthau refused to bet on it because it reminded him of Babs. Crawford placed a bet anyway and that horse won the race. As a result, Matthau now also refused to talk to Crawford.

That said, Streisand also battled Kelly over the “Before the Parade Passes By” scene, with the singer going over the director’s head and bringing in the producer, behind Kelly’s back. 

To top all that off, choreographer Michael Kidd warred with costume designer Irene Sharaff and Kelly to the point that he and the legendary song and dance man were no longer speaking to one another.

This was an incredibly expensive film and the costs started when the movie hadn’t even been filmed yet. In order to get the play off Broadway — a clause in the 1965 film sale contract specified that the film could not be released until June 1971 or when the show closed on Broadway, whichever came first — Fox had to pay $2 million dollars for an early release escape payment.

The film’s final budget — $24 million dollars ($186 million in today’s money) nearly took down 20th Century Fox.

But hey — the movie is awesome. Seriously, it’s the loudest, biggest, play it to the back row musical extravaganza ever. Just by 1968, did the kids want to see a musical like this any longer? One wonders, as the same studio also released Star and Doctor Doolittle, two more musical stinkers. Only a re-release of The Sound of Music in 1973 would reverse the studio’s fortunes.

All of New York City is excited because Dolly Levi (Streisand) is back in town. Never mind that Barbara was about twenty or more years too young to play this part, robbing the original play of its emotional resonance.

She’s here to find a wife for Yonkers-based half-a-millionaire and full grump Horace Vandergelder (Matthau), but of course, she really wants him all for herself. There’s also the matter of artistic Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune), a young artist who wants to marry Horace’s niece Ermengard. And then there are the two employers of Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed, Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford, yes, Condorman) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin, who played the role on Broadway afterward; he was killed after being stabbed a hundred times in the 70’s) who are looking for love themselves.

One of the women they’re after is Irene Molloy, who is played by Marianne McAndrew. After this movie, she’d marry Stewart Moss and star with him in The Bat People. The other is Minnie Fay, who is played by E.J. Peaker, who is also in Graduation Day.

The highlight of the film is the Harmonia Gardens scene, where Dolly arrives to great bombast and Louie Armstrong singing in a scene that never fails to make me cry. Hijinks, of course, ensue and everyone winds up with the person they deserve and all live happily ever after, even if it seems like Matthau’s character will always be cantankerous.

Seriously, that Harmonia Gardens set is unlike anything we’ll ever see again. In all, this sequence took an entire month to film. It filled an entire sound stage and had three levels, with a main section, a dance floor and an upper mezzanine. It’s so massive that the wall behind the check-out girl is the same wall as the ballroom from The Sound of Music and the ornate glass windows were reused to create the dining room skylights in The Poseidon Adventure. You can also see the sets reused as the mutants’ Grand Central Station tribunal room and ruined St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. And the fountain also shows up in The Towering Inferno.

If we didn’t have this movie, how else would WALL-E learn about love? And believe it or not, this was the first movie commercially released on home video in the United States.

BONUS: You can listen to us discuss this movie on our podcast.

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