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, the film introduces us to the main characters; each taking the opportunity to break through the fourth wall, addressing us directly and letting 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?"
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.
|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 dialogue 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.
|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 into 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."
|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