In 1937 Thornton Wilder decided to take some stock characters that had been known to theatre-goers since ancient Greek and Roman times and create a modern farce. Using some 19th century plays as his inspiration, he took “a cantankerous curmudgeon, a naïve ingénue, a brass and buxom heroine, and a bumbling servant” and wrote The Merchant of Yonkers, set in the late 19th century. Alas, New York audiences didn’t get the joke and it closed after 39 performances.
In 1954 he was persuaded to revise it, so he put greater emphasis on the character of Dolly Gallagher Levi, and as The Matchmaker with Ruth Gordon in the title role it was an instant hit, running for over a year on Broadway.
In 1958 a film version was released with Shirley Booth as Dolly, Shirley MacLaine as Irene Molloy, Anthony Perkins as Cornelius Hackl, and Paul Ford as Horace Vandergelder. I remember seeing that in the Neptune Theatre, but the only thing I remember about it is a scene where Perkins puts his hands around MacLaine’s waist, and I suspect I only recall that because it was probably featured prominently in the film’s trailer.
Now I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that in 1964 the musicalized version of the play opened on Broadway. Re-titled Hello, Dolly! and with Carol Channing as Dolly (at least for the first year or so), it went on to run for seven years. (There was also a movie version of the musical released in 1969 with Barbra Streisand in the title role, but the less said about that version, the better.)
Now whenever Mark Evanier writes about Hello, Dolly!, he’ll say something to the effect that the songs are wonderful but the book is rather silly. “Has anyone seeing it ever cared whether the two clerks who work for Vandergelder ever get to kiss a lady?” And while I won’t go quite that far, I do agree that the book is weak.
I’ve seen the musical three times: in 1966 on Broadway with Ginger Rogers, in the early 70s in a community theater production, and in the mid 90s when Carol Channing resumed the role for a touring production. What it requires is a larger-than-life personality as Dolly and well choreographed production numbers that milk every ounce of applause from the audience.
So what would Dolly be like without music or those big production numbers?
That was my quandary as I kept putting off watching the 1958 film of The Matchmaker.
Until last evening.
And I’m happy to report that it’s a delightful experience. That’s partly because of the wonderful cast, but also because the script is pretty darn good. It seems that in turning The Matchmaker into a musical, a lot of the farcical elements were removed. So after the first few minutes I could just sit back and enjoy the show.
And listen for the dialog cues that inspired some of Jerry Herman’s songs. For instance, within the first few minutes Dolly actually says, “I put my hand in here; I put my hand in there.” And Cornelius says, “Get in your Sunday clothes.” (Close enough.) And Irene talks about wearing ribbons down her back. And while it’s not a song per se, Horace’s words to Dolly at the end, “Wonderful woman!” are right there in the script.
Dolly’s famous line is there: “Money, I’ve always felt, money – pardon my expression – is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.” Apparently a version of it goes back to The Merchant of Yonkers.
Just as in Wilder’s play, the characters are constantly breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly.
I’ve read a synopsis of the play, and several characters were eliminated for the movie, and the entire last act was rewritten, but I think overall the movie is much more faithful to the play than the musical is.
One interesting little coincidence. The screenplay for The Matchmaker film was written by John Michael Hayes who happens to be the writer for some of my favorite Hitchcock movies such as Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the 1956 remake). As it happens the screenwriter for the 1969 movie version of the musical was Ernest Lehman who also wrote some of my favorite Hitchcock films: North By Northwest and Family Plot.