At 25, Barbra Streisand might have been an odd choice to play the middle-aged widow Dolly Levi in the film version since the musical had won a Tony Award for Carol Channing. Channing had wanted the role, doing the film Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) as an unofficial "screen test." Having seen the result, screenwriter Ernest Lehman felt her outsized personality would be too much for an entire film. Ethel Merman (for whom the musical had been written but who would not perform it until 1970) turned down the role outright and Elizabeth Taylor had briefly been considered, then rejected because she couldn't sing. At the time, Streisand was shooting the film that would earn her the Best Actress Oscar®, Funny Girl (1968). Although the movie was still in production at Columbia, word of mouth indicated that it would be a huge hit. Unfortunately for Streisand she was seen as an "up-start" by those in Hollywood who felt she had stolen the part from Channing when Richard Zanuck announced her casting on May 8, 1967. Richard Coe summed up the feeling in the May 11, 1967 edition of The Washington Post writing, "Would you believe Barbra Streisand for the screen's Hello, Dolly!? Well, that's the knuckle headed fact...With all due respect to young Miss Streisand, the mournful Nefertiti is clearly not the outgoing, zestful Irishwoman whose vitality brightens Thornton Wilder's mature, life-loving Dolly Gallagher-Levi. The perversity of not choosing to get Carol Channing's musical-comedy classic on film is hard to fathom."
Channing later remembered, "I was doing Hello, Dolly! at Expo '67 at the time, and when they announced the star for the movie on that great day I had the feeling I was Mark Twain and had just died and become an observer at my funeral." The announcement was not the end of the drama. Reports were coming from Columbia Studios over Streisand's repeated demand for retakes on Funny Girl which supposedly cost the studio an extra $200,000. In addition, Streisand's own public remarks cast doubt on whether or not she would accept the role so Lehman and Zanuck considered other options as a back-up, including testing Yvette Mimieux, Phyllis Newman and Ann-Margret between December 12, 1967 and January 3, 1968. Streisand did finally accept the role and went to the studio for wardrobe fitting on February 13, 1968.
The budget for Hello, Dolly! had begun at $10 million and by 1968 had swollen to $25 million, $2 million alone was spent on the recreation of Fifth Avenue on the Fox lot. Streisand's gold beaded gown, which weighed 40 pounds, cost $8,000 and the Harmonia Gardens set cost $375,000 to build. It was the most expensive movie musical to that time. Pre-production began in September 1967 with filming beginning April 15, 1968 on Stage 16 on the Fox lot and ran through August with location shooting including the Knotts' Berry Farm (now a major amusement park) in Buena Park, California; Waterfront Park and The Golden Eagle Inn in Garrison, New York; Cold Spring and Poughkeepsie, New York, and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. During filming in Garrison on June 5th, news reached the set that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, which created a further distraction for the company along with the temperatures that hovered near 100 degrees.
One of the biggest problems during production seems to have been the hostility that developed between Walter Matthau and Barbra Streisand. Matthau is said to have been frustrated with Streisand's demand for retakes and what he saw as an inflated ego. He refused to be in the same room as Streisand unless they were filming and was quoted as saying, "I have more talent in my smallest fart than she does in her entire body." The dislike was mutual, with Streisand presenting Matthau with a bar of soap for his "sewer-mouth". Matthau's dislike spread to co-star Michael Crawford with whom he would attend horse races on his days off. During one race Crawford bet on a horse called "Hello Dolly". Compulsive gambler Matthau refused to bet on the horse because he hated Streisand so much. When the horse won, Matthau wouldn't speak to Crawford for the remainder of filming. Likewise, director Gene Kelly and Streisand did not see eye to eye on most things, or were not, in the words of Ernest Lehman, "meant to communicate on this Earth." Streisand herself was unhappy in the role, which she really didn't want and which Carol Channing desperately did. She often phoned Kelly and Lehman in the middle of the night with her insecurities. All in all, it was not a happy shoot. Lehman later told writer Clive Hirschhorn, "the intrigues, the bitterness, the backbiting, the deceits, the misery, the gloom. Most unpleasant. It's quite amazing what people go through to make something entertaining for others."
Hello, Dolly! was released on December 16, 1968 with a premiere at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway with at least one thousand fans jamming the streets screaming for Streisand. The film was released in both 35mm and 70mm wide screen and earned Oscar® nominations for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Film Editing. It won for Best Art Direction and Best Sound. Yet, despite being the fifth top grossing film of the year, was an indisputable flop, losing an estimated $10 million. This film, along with two other musical failures Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Star! (1968) wiped out all the profits Fox had earned from The Sound of Music (1965). With the Vietnam War raging and the hippie counter-culture influencing entertainment, Hello, Dolly! could not hope to make a profit despite being a well-produced and prestigious musical entertainment. Susan Sackett attributed the film's failure to the fact that "the movie-going audience was comprised of mostly under-30s, and young people just weren't impressed with lavish musical. Also many felt that Barbra Streisand at age 27 [sic], was miscast as the matronly Dolly. Costs seemed to escalate out of control. Fox took a gamble, and lost."
Producer: Ernest Lehman
Director: Gene Kelly
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman, Johann Nestroy (play "Einen Jux will er sich machen" uncredited), Michael Stewart (stage musical), and Thornton Wilder (play "The Matchmaker")
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: Herman A. Blumenthal and Jack Martin Smith
Music: Jerry Herman
Film Editing: William Reynolds
Cast: Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand), Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford), Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew), Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin).
C-149m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Box Office Hits by Susan Sackett
Gene Kelly by Alvin Yudkoff
Her Name is Barbra: An Intimate Portrait of the Real Barbra Streisand by Randall Riese
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