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Thanks to his Tony Award-winning role of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, durable British star Rex Harrison enjoyed a career resurgence that allowed him to capture leading roles in a number of big-budget movies of the 1960s. He earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination as Julius Caesar in Cleopatra (1963), then the Oscar itself for his reprise of Higgins in the film of My Fair Lady (1964). The expensively produced musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle (1967), although it boasts Harrison's customary performance of debonair wit, tanked at the box office and effectively brought an end to his reign as a sought-after and highly bankable star. "In one respect Dolittle outdid Cleopatra," Harrison wrote in his 1974 autobiography, Rex. "It administered a near-fatal blow to 20th Century Fox's finances."
Doctor Dolittle also followed a peak in the career of Samantha Eggar, who plays Emma Fairfax, the good doctor's tentative love interest. Eggar was coming off an Oscar nomination for The Collector (1965) and a turn as the leading lady of the Cary Grant vehicle Walk, Don't Run (1966). After Doctor Dolittle she was off the screen for three years, and then turned her attention mostly to television, where she had begun her acting career. A non-singer, she is dubbed in the film by Diana Lee.
Doctor John Dolittle is the hero of a series of children's books by Hugh Lofting that began in 1920 with The Story of Doctor Dolittle. Preferring animals to humans, this doctor can speak to his patients in their own languages and uses this ability in his work as a naturalist, arriving at a better understanding of nature and history. Lofting invented the character in illustrated letters to his children that he wrote from the trenches of World War I. The stories are set in the fictional village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in the West Country of Victorian England, and include a few of the doctor's human friends, in addition to such fanciful animals as the Pushmi-pullyu, a two-headed llama. The Harrison film is one of a number of adaptations of the books, including a 1928 animated German short, Doktor Dolittle und seine Tiere, and an NBC radio series of the 1930s. Later came several stage adaptations, television cartoon series and audio books. Most famously, Eddie Murphy starred in a 1998 remake that had its own sequels in 2001, 2006, 2008 and 2009, with Kyla Pratt eventually taking over as Dolittle's daughter Maya.
The 1967 film sprang from an idea by producer Arthur P. Jacobs to reunite Harrison with Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist and librettist of My Fair Lady. (Lerner's partner on that project, composer Frederick Loewe, had since retired.) Harrison signed on to the project because of the lure of working with his friend and former colleague, only to learn that, after months of delays in writing a screen treatment of Doctor Dolittle, Jacobs had fired Lerner. To Harrison's displeasure he was replaced by Leslie Bricusse, who had enjoyed a great success with the 1961 Anthony Newley vehicle Stop the World - I Want to Get Off. On the day Bricusse began work on the film he wrote "Talk to the Animals," which would become a breakout hit and win an Oscar as Best Song. But Harrison was unimpressed with Bricusse's work in general and that song in particular. "A humorous song is meant to be funny," he sniffed. "This isn't funny."
Harrison's behavior became so irascible that he, too, was fired from the film - by Richard Zanuck, then president of 20th Century Fox. Among the actors considered as his replacement were Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Jack Lemmon and Peter Ustinov. Christopher Plummer was almost hired, and the studio went so far as to buy out his contract for the Broadway play The Royal Hunt of the Sun. But two weeks after his firing, a chastened Harrison was rehired. As Zanuck put it, when Harrison "heard about Christopher Plummer he temporarily turned into a human being again and begged his way back." Meanwhile, Richard Fleischer (Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954) was hired as director after failed discussions with Vincente Minnelli, John Huston and William Wyler.
Harrison had suggested his friend Maggie Smith for the role eventually played by Eggar, and Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Hayley Mills had been on the studio's wish list. For the important role of Dolittle's friend Matthew Mugg, the names floated included Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and David Wayne. But producer Jacobs, who wanted someone younger, settled on Bricusse's creative partner Anthony Newley (then married to Joan Collins). According to Mark Harris in his 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution, Newley's casting sent Harrison into "fits of anger and paranoia," and he would openly disparage his costar as a "Jewish comic," a "Cockney Jew" or a "sewer rat." Peter Bull was considered for the role of circus owner Albert Blossom, but Richard Attenborough was cast after concerns arose about Bull's fondness for drink.
The role of Bumpo, a black man that Dolittle befriends on a voyage to Africa, proved troublesome because the racism and condescension of Lofting's era was reflected in his drawing of the character. After a careful reworking of Dolittle's relationship with Bumpo in the film script, Jacobs scored a coup by getting Sammy Davis, Jr. to agree to play the role. Again, Harrison raised objections, saying that he wanted to work with "a real actor, not a song-and-dance man." At his insistence, Sidney Poitier was offered the role instead, and tentatively accepted. To the relief of many, Zanuck and Jacobs finally decided to cut the character of Bumpo altogether, saving Poitier's salary of $400,000 and shortening an overlong screenplay. Geoffrey Holder plays a truncated version of the character called William Shakespeare X, who does not sing. Ironically, Sammy Davis, Jr., who had been bitterly disappointed by his loss of the role, had a hit recording of "Talk to the Animals."
Problems with the human performers of Doctor Dolittle paled in comparison to those related to location shooting, weather and, above all, the supposedly well-trained animals so necessary to the action of the film. Harrison devoted an entire chapter in his memoir to these problems, beginning with the filming at Castle Combe in Wiltshire, England, which was standing in for Puddleby. Castle Combe was about 100 miles from the sea, so studio technicians were obliged to dig holes and streams, build dams and import water to turn it into a fishing village. Understandably, this did not sit well with the locals. It was August - the rainy season - and constant downpours turned the fields where the animals were kept into quagmires. "Eventually the powers that be conceded victory to the rain," wrote Harrison, "and decided to leave dripping Wiltshire and rebuild the doctor's house, and part of the village, on 20th Century Fox's ranch in California. Anything less like England would be hard to conceive of."
Meanwhile, animal-training work at California's Jungleland was proving more difficult and time-consuming than anyone had anticipated, as the trainers tried teaching tricks to a rhinoceros, a giraffe, and several hundred chimps, pigs, birds, mice, sheep, cows, squirrels, chickens and parrots. Most did not behave well once they were on the set, and Harrison complained of bites from a Pomeranian puppy, a duck, a parrot and Chi-Chi the chimp. Squirrels chewed through some key pieces of scenery, and Gub-Gub the pig had to be replaced several times because piglets grow so quickly. Other problems included a nervous squirrel that passed out after being fed gin by technicians in an effort to calm it; a fawn that had to have its stomach pumped after it drank a quart of paint; a goat that ate the director's script; ducks that sank in a pond because they had shed their waterproof feathers; and sheep that urinated on Harrison in their scenes together. "My love for animals was at a remarkably low ebb," the star later wrote.
Additional location filming in St. Lucia, a Caribbean island that stood in for Africa, also was fraught with problems. The wet summer there meant swarms of insects, and cast and crew suffered from bites that often became infected. Dysentery was common, and both Newley and 10-year-old William Dix, cast as Dolittle's young friend Tommy Stubbins, suffered from severe attacks of flu. Harrison, cantankerous as ever, had rented a three-masted schooner and steered it into a scene on the water involving Newley. Although he knew he was holding up the shot, he refused to move the boat for two hours. Analyzing Harrison's hostility, Eggar remarked that, "Yes, he was unkind and vitriolic and very mean-spirited, but he was also very funny - until, of course, he turned on me, too."
Reviews for the film were mostly lackluster, with Time magazine's reviewer noting that "Size and a big budget are no substitute for originality or charm." Another critic wrote that the movie was "neither light enough nor fantastic enough for children, and neither sophisticated enough nor adult enough for their elders." Despite these reactions, however, Doctor Dolittle shocked the creative community by winning nine Academy Award nominations. In addition to winning Oscars for Best Song and Special Effects, it was nominated in the categories of Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Original Score, Scoring of Music and Sound. The Best Picture nomination was particularly galling to some, including Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood -- the source of a 1967 film not nominated as Best Picture. "Anything allowing a Dolittle to happen is so rooked up it doesn't mean anything," he fumed. In his book, Mark Harris credits the film's nominations to a "prime-rib-and-free-booze campaign" waged by producer Jacobs through dinner screenings for Academy voters.
The movie had been part of a massive effort by Fox to duplicate its spectacular success with 1965's The Sound of Music by producing three elaborate and expensive musicals over a period of three years, Star! (1968) and Hello, Dolly! (1969) being the others. All three failed at the box office, none more spectacularly than Doctor Dolittle, which cost almost $18 million to produce and returned only $3.5 million in rentals. Like many another film, however, it eventually found its audience through television and video screenings, where expectations were not so high and the movie's whimsical charms seemed less overwhelmed by its production values.
By Roger Fristoe