The good and the bad movie musicals of the 1960s
Of the big-screen musicals of the 1960s, “Hello, Dolly!” may be the least appreciated.
Perhaps, by the time the film opened in late 1969, movie audiences were tired of so many shows filled with song and dance. Or, maybe, tastes had changed. Whatever the reason, “Dolly!” looks a lot better today than many thought when the film first opened.
Here are some of those musicals that may have tired moviegoers before “Hello, Dolly!” opened that holiday season.
“West Side Story:” The decade began with this innovative adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway hit that, in turn, was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, went to this movie masterpiece filled with some of the most exciting dance sequences recorded on screen.
“Flower Drum Song:” Among the films that “West Side Story” overshadowed at the start of the decade was this adaptation of the Broadway hit from Rodgers and Hammerstein. While the film is generally faithful to the original production, its light-hearted view of Asians adapting to the United States created only a minor stir at the box office.
“The Music Man:” A year later, the musical that defeated “West Side Story” for Broadway’s Tony award made its way to the big screen in this well-received adaptation that was a Best Picture nominee at the Oscars. For some reason, Robert Preston was overlooked for a Best Actor nomination for recreating his engaging portrayal of con man Harold Hill.
“Gypsy:” That same year, Rosalind Russell stepped into the role created on Broadway by Ethel Merman in this story about the young years of Gypsy Rose Lee. While the stage musical is considered by many to the best musical written for the stage, the movie version suffered from long stretches of dialogue between numbers.
“My Fair Lady:” All eyes were on the big screen when this eagerly anticipated movie adaptation of the stage hit opened to rave reviews. But Producer Jack L. Warner was criticized for casting Audrey Hepburn (who did not sing her own songs) as Eliza Doolittle instead of letting Julie Andrews recreate her stage role. Still the film did win eight Oscars.
“Mary Poppins:” When Julie Andrews did not get to play Eliza on the big screen, she won an Oscar for this marvelous consolation prize from producer Walt Disney. “Poppins” won five Academy Awards and made a lot more money at the box office than “My Fair Lady.” In the years since, Andrews has said she would have loved to have made both films.
“The Unsinkable Molly Brown:” Another contender for Best Actress that year was Debbie Reynolds for this popular screen adaptation of the Broadway hit about an ambitious woman from the backwoods who becomes rich and survives the sinking of the Titanic. This was Reynolds’ only Academy Award nomination during her remarkable career.
“The Sound of Music:” The most popular movie musical of all time was criticized, when it opened on Broadway, for being too sweet. But director Robert Wise focused on family and scenery to bring the show to life on screen. And he gave Julie Andrews the role of a lifetime as a governess who radiates joy in every expression she shares.
“Thoroughly Modern Millie:” With the success of “Poppins” and “Music,” Julie Andrews became the star of the decade, pleasing audiences again with this entertaining romp through the 1920s. Producer Ross Hunter, when he could not secure the rights to the stage show “The Boyfriend” (that starred Andrews on Broadway), simply made up his own story.
“Camelot:” Producer Jack L. Warner, following the success of “My Fair Lady,” believed movie audiences would happily sit through another three-hour adaptation of a musical by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. But the producer was wrong. Audiences stayed away from this disappointing film despite its three Academy Awards in technical categories.
“Doctor Dolittle:” Family-focused musicals became a top priority for movie studios after the success of “The Sound of Music.” In this adaptation of the stories by Hugh Lofting, Rex Harrison (who won an Oscar for “My Fair Lady”) again brought his unique approach to “talk singing” to the songs of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. But the movie bombed.
“Funny Girl:” Barbra Streisand always wanted to be a movie star even when she recorded hit albums in the mid 1960s and starred on Broadway in the stage version of “Funny Girl.” She got her wish when this popular film brought her an Academy Award for Best Actress and instantly established the singing actress as a movie superstar.
“Star!:” Julie Andrews already was a movie superstar when she made this musical biography of the life of British actress Gertrude Lawrence. But its plot may have been too close to “Funny Girl,” and its production numbers less appealing to audiences now tiring of musicals, and the movie was a critical and financial disappointment.
“Finian’s Rainbow:” With so many studios wanting to make musicals, producers went back through decades of Broadway hits to find material. This show, originally staged in the 1940s, became a vehicle for Fred Astaire’s comeback and Petula Clark’s first big movie. But it failed to excite anyone especially its director, Francis Ford Coppola.
“Sweet Charity:” What should have been a triumph for director/choreographer Bob Fosse became a box office disappointment as audience interest in musicals continued to wane. Shirley MacLaine offers an Oscar-worthy turn as a dance-hall-hostess yearning for a more substantive life in a musical featuring a knock-out score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields.
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips:” Some stories aren’t meant to be musicals. And some performers should not try to sing. This favorite tale, of a shy school master, did become a musical and Peter O’Toole, sadly, did try to sing. Even though his vocals disappoint, the actor’s performance in the dramatic sequences did snag an Oscar nomination.
“Paint Your Wagon:” At the same time “Hello, Dolly!” struggled to attract audiences during the holidays, this big-screen adaptation of an early musical by Frederic Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner flopped. No one could believe Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood would actually appear on screen in a musical. But they tried.
No wonder, after such a decade, that “Hello, Dolly!” had a tough time in 1969! Thank goodness the movie has survived for 50 years. And can be seen in its widescreen glory at the Ridgefield Playhouse!