Wednesday, November 30, 2011

THE MATCHMAKER 1958

How long has this been going on? This was the Gershwin-inspired thought running through my mind the afternoon I happened upon this comedy gem, unknown to me at the time, on the Turner Classic Movies cable TV channel (TCM) about 10 years ago. As someone who fancies himself a film buff and spent inordinate chunks of his childhood watching old movies on The Late Show and The Late Late Show; how is it this absolutely delightful little film managed to fly under my radar, undetected, all these years?

The Matchmaker is the 1958 screen adaptation of a 1955 Broadway play about a meddlesome matrimonial matchmaker (Shirley Booth) in 1880’s Yonkers, New York, who sets her sights on marrying her employer (Paul Ford). If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because the Thornton Wilder (Our Town, Shadow of a Doubt) farcical comedy is the source material for the 1964 Broadway musical, Hello, Dolly! and its overstuffed 1968 movie adaptation.

It took all of 60 seconds for me to know that I was going to be wholly captivated by The Matchmaker, which opens with an antique ink engraving of a New York street scene coming to life. To the accompaniment of a jaunty musical score by Adolph Deutsch, we are introduced to the film's main characters as each breaks through the fourth wall not only to address us directly, but to let us know that they know they're all in a movie:
Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi
"Oh, hello! Are all of you people married?"
Anthony Perkins as Cornelius Hackl
"Are you alone? He's out getting you popcorn?"
Shirley MacLaine as Irene Molloy
(Catching camera lens focused on her legs) "You ought to be ashamed of yourself! (after a thought) Pretty, aren't they?"
Paul Ford as Horace Vandergelder
"Haven't you any better way to spend your money?"
Characters continue to speak to us throughout the rest of the film. Sometimes filling us in on the plot, sometimes offering commentary, sometimes offering drolly funny asides. The effect is hilarious and instantly winning.

Which is a rather odd conclusion for me to come to given that I have always held for Hello, Dolly! only a grudging kind of appreciation. I'm not sure if it's the Jerry Herman score (it strives for the robustness of The Music Man but lands at theatrical cheese); the actresses associated with the role (garish, drag-queen-like caricatures of women); or that irksome exclamation point in its title (grammatically appropriate, I know, but an exclamation point attached to a musical just seems to bring out the Grinch in me...I'll decide if I'm excited or not, thank you); but Hello, Dolly! has never struck me as anything more than an efficient, inoffensive entertainment of the sort perfect for dinner theaters and high-school productions. Not particularly funny or clever, and far too strenuously quaint.

I do admit, however, to harboring a fondness for (and deriving perverse pleasure from) the Barbra Streisand musical version, simply due to its vast size. Viewing it is like watching someone blowing up a balloon to ever larger dimensions...you want to see how big it can get before it explodes under its own pressure. I also find Streisand's schizophrenic performance somewhat fascinating (she’s old/she’s young, she’s sexy/she’s prim, she’s Mae West/ she’s Fanny Brice…)...but The Matchmaker is another matter entirely.

Somehow everything that doesn't work in Hello, Dolly! works stupendously in The Matchmaker.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Chiefly, its scale. The Matchmaker succeeds because the simplicity of its presentation is utterly appropriate to the material. The overkill of Hello,Dolly! all but submerges the gentle charm of the plot, which is as simple as a fairy tale. In that miraculous way some comedies have, The Matchmaker lights on just the right tone, just the right balance of self-awareness and innocence, to make this delicate type of fluff just take wing and soar. When I first saw this film I was fairly flabbergasted that in virtually every instance where Hello, Dolly! makes me groan, The Matchmaker gets it 100% right!
Vandergelder Hay and Feed apprentice Barnaby Tucker (l.) and chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (r); near-insufferable characters in the film Hello, Dolly!,  are brought to appealing life by Robert Morse and Tony Perkins in The Matchmaker
With a cast that knows its way around comedy, both physical and verbal, I found myself laughing at long-familiar dialog that had never elicited as much as a smile from me before. The difference: they were delivered with skilled timing and in character. The screenplay surprises time and time again by revealing real heart behind the gags and traditional mix-ups and misunderstandings of farce.
The scenes between Paul Ford and Shirley Booth are like comic sparring matches.
Each manages to make their characters farcically funny, yet touchingly human. 

PERFORMANCES:
I always enjoy films where even actors in bit roles are cast and directed to fit as part of an ensemble.  The cast of The Matchmaker fits seamlessly and are all rhythmically on the same page. Each plays it comically large, but real... like in those great old comedies of the 30s. I get a kick out of seeing the ridiculously young Shirley MacLaine paired with the surprisingly sweet and non-creepy Anthony Perkins. Both are just so likable that you root for their romance the first time you see them together.
Love, Turn of the Century Style
Of course, the top honors go to Shirley Booth, an actress whose work, both dramatic and comedic,  I greatly admire. I can't speak to Ruth Gordon's Dolly Levi (she originated the role on Broadway and won the Tony Award), but for my money, the role belongs to Ms. Booth. Along with being refreshingly age and appearance appropriate for the character (Booth was turning 60 when she made this film), she brings to the role a keen comic timing and inflection of delivery that imbues Dolly's busybody antics a touch of poignancy along with the humor. How she achieves this is beyond me, but I find Booth to be one of those actresses who can turn straw to gold. If a line of dialog is funny, she can make it uproarious; if it's only amusing, she has a way of bringing her voice, mannerisms, and facial expressions into play and arriving at something delightfully original and unexpected. She finds the authenticity in even the broadest comedy. Until I saw The Matchmaker, it never once occurred to me that there could be a human being behind that grating buttinsky known as Dolly "Gallagher" Levi. Just check out how Booth handles the big monologue Dolly has with her departed husband. I've seen it performed many times before, but Booth is the only one to make it genuinely moving.
Dolly Levi's philosophy of Matchmaking
"Life is never quite interesting enough, somehow. You people who come to the movies know that.
So I rearrange things a little."

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Those familiar with Hello, Dolly! will find it fun picking up bits of dialog that became songs, taking note of added and eliminated characters, and comparing the changes in acting styles. Me, I enjoyed seeing characters reduced to one-dimensionality in the musical revealed to be rather fleshed out in their original form. And when things are at risk of becoming too sweet or cute, the device of having the actors step out of character to address the audience always seems to add a knowing wink indicating that they are aware of playing parts in a dated - but terribly charming - little confection.
Shirley Booth and Shirley MacLaine appeared as mother and daughter in Hot Spell (1958)
Robert Morse originated the role of Barnaby Tucker on Broadway
Paul Ford was the master of the flustered double-take

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
It's always been my feeling that a comedy that works is that rarest of movie beasts. Everyone's tastes are different and I can easily imagine that Shirley Booth's grandmotherly appeal and the old-fashioned, light-as-gossamer style of comedy employed here won't be to everyone's liking. But for those, like me, who find nothing funny in the contemporary fascination with scatology, rudeness, and the bottomless wellspring of American male oafishness; well, The Matchmaker is a godsend. I may have missed this terrific little film for the many decades it was available to be seen, but since discovering it, I've more than made up for lost time. It's one of my favorite films. Witty script, clever execution, sharp performances, heart, sentimentality, and a moral to boot!
The cast of The Matchmaker bids us all farewell

10 comments:

  1. Very interesting read. I've never seen this myself (and it was on TCM again very recently, but I didn't catch it!) I'll have to make sure I give it a shot next time.

    (Poseidon3)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Poseidon! I think a lot depends on your tolerance for cute, of which there is (happily) an abundance, but I think you would like "The Matchmaker". Leastwise, I can't imagine your not being captivated by the performances of the cast. They're all so pitch-perfect; never once confusing innocence with imbecility (the way Michael Crawford and E.J. Peaker did in "Hello Dolly!"). Thanks again for your comment!

    ReplyDelete
  3. It is very cute, but the movie is so much fun and the characters are so endearing that it just makes me happy to watch. Seeing Anthony Perkins in this role was almost refreshing in a way, and you're right about rooting for his and Shirley MacLaine's characters right away! I'm so glad you watched this and blogged about it because it was one I had borrowed before but never watched and almost forgot about. So thanks for the reminder!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for reading, Anonymous. This movie really does do it for me. Not really sure how it manages to avoid tipping over into being too cute for its own good. I just marvel at it being able to sustain such a light tone throughout. And yes, MacLaine and Perkins are great together.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Loved finding this blog today! I hope you don't mind but I liked this on my news and resource page at www.CallonDolly.com which is a celebration of Hello, Dolly!
    Richard Skipper
    www.RichardSkipper.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks very much, Richard! Having this post linked on such an exhaustively researched, one-stop, Hello, Dolly! resource is quite the honor. I hope it's OK then that I return the favor and link your two sites among my favorite links. I've only read your tribute to Robert Morse so far (he's really a favorite of mine, too)but I plan on exploring more later. Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  6. I saw this some time ago but like you I found it all that the overblown dinosaur Hello Dolly! isn't. It's not just that Shirley Booth is the proper age or the humor she brings to it but the physicality. Her gestures are so right, when I first saw it I knew her primarily from Hazel, although I did watch and enjoy her short lived latter day series A Touch of Grace, and while there are shadows of that character she makes Dolly a fully formed other person. Since then I've seen her other films, excepting the elusive Hot Spell and was impressed how she made each character individual and special. My favorite is About Mrs. Leslie where she's teamed with the great Robert Ryan in a lovely romance that's told in remembrance. She's fantastic in it playing a character quite unlike any other I've seen from her, a nightclub entertainer (she even sings) who becomes a respectable matron with a secret. She and Ryan are pretty much the whole show both doing beautiful work, it's a nice change of pace for him playing a kind, understated man so different than the cruel characters he was known for and so good at portraying.

    You're right about the rest of the cast working seamlessly together, it helps that they all register on screen in a way that the actors in Dolly didn't. Shirley MacLaine is saucy, it's nice to see Perkins before he got stuck in the twitchy, anxious rut that Norman Bates exiled him too and Robert Morse is brash and goofy but not the simpleton that Tune made him. The unfortunately little remembered Paul Ford's Horace is far superior to Matthau's interpretation. I'm sure that some of the problem with Matthau's performance is the well known enmity he and Streisand felt for each other which comes through loud and clear on the screen, they might as well be in different movies so chilly is their rapport, but his work feels phoned in.

    I am a huge Streisand fan and while she makes the most of the songs she is so very wrong as Dolly. Even with the awful wig and heavy, overly ornate clothes to age her she never seems more than a young woman playing dress up. Don't even get me started on the supporting cast! Of the four performers who made up the two secondary couples the only one I found even remotely appealing was E. J. Peaker, Marianne McAndrew is a non-entity and while Michael Crawford turned into an impressive stage presence he's nothing much on the screen. Tommy Tune is a gawky nitwit in his role, to me he's one of those performers, like Gene Kelly, who's talent I can recognize and acknowledge while finding them annoying and irksome. With Kelly it's because he gives the impression that nobody could be as big a fan of Gene Kelly as he is of himself, I just realized as I was writing this that he's the director of this overblown enterprise and perhaps that's part of the problem with the film, it's certainly one of his lesser directorial efforts

    As you said the scale makes a great deal of difference, I distinctly recall in Matchmaker when they head to town the charming little train set they showed chugging along, nowhere in Dolly, which suffers from elephantitis in every aspect, is there that kind of sweetness. I have friends who adore Hello, Dolly! and all its excess and I have to admit I enjoy the Harmonica Gardens set title number but overall I like this original version and it's quiet charms much more.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Joel!
    I concur with so much of what you wrote. I adore Shirley Booth and have liked her in every film I've seen her in (you've got to check out "Hot Spell." it's not as much of a departure as "About Mrs. Leslie" but she's terrific in it).
    I plan on writing about "Hello, Dolly!" someday, but it'll be very much in line with what you detail. "The Matchmaker" gets everything right that I feel "Dolly" does wrong (love your very apt descriptions of Tommy Tune and Marianne McAndrew!).
    It was great fun to read your comparisons of the two films. Thanks, Joel!

    ReplyDelete
  8. You're so right about this adorable film; it's pitch-perfect in its effects. Like you, I remember discovering unexpectedly on TV one night and being utterly charmed right from the start. And I think Booth brought a certain understated poignancy - she does things (such as the way she gobbles up food in the restaurant scene) that make you see that this widow has had maybe a tough time, but she's not complaining. I recall seeing the movie musical Hello Dolly when it came out, and it seemed quite long and honestly forgettable. Somewhere around Rodgers & Hammerstein the Broadway musical took a bloated, self-important turn, which I really think led indirectly to the musical's decline (the same thing happened with movie musicals, such as the overblown/overdone An American in Paris and Gigi - yes, I admit it, I am NOT an An American in Paris fan!). Another poignant thing about The Matchmaker is that it would never be made today - it's too 'right' in everything it does.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So happy to hear you enjoy this little film, too!
      I agree with you about the quality Booth brings to Dolly. It's clear she's living hand to mouth (her "little pickings" comment always makes me laugh), and her efforts to maintain her dignity -like when that cat recognizes its kin in her fur piece - are indeed quite poignant.

      Like you I'm not much of a fan of the elephantitis that afflicted so many musicals in the wake of the 50s (I can't really abide either Gigi or An American in Paris) and to know that the behemoth Hello, Dolly! came from this rather sweet story came as quite a shock.

      Delete