Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This original film version of what eventually became the overblown Barbra Streisand vehicle
Hello, Dolly! is an odd movie.
Produced at Paramount with Hal Wallis' contract players Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine, it
cries out for color and looks somewhat drab in B&W. The actors sell the farcical story with
considerable charm, but something seems to be missing, at least for this reviewer who never saw
it before. The famous comedy has a firm nostalgic following that would surely disagree with that
Busybody widow Dolly "Gallagher" Levi (Shirley Booth) runs a number of scam
businesses out of her purse but seems to do best as a matchmaker. In Yonkers, just up the river
from New York City, she finds a most eligible batchelor in the cranky general retailer Horace
Vandergelder (Paul Ford). He's a petty tyrant who keeps his hardworking clerks Cornelius Hackl (Anthony
Perkins) and Barnaby Tucker (Robert Morse) tied to the store like slaves. Horace is on his way to
the Big Apple to woo pretty millinery store owner Irene Molloy (Shirley MacLaine) but Dolly diverts
him with the promise of a date with a sexy but fictitious alternate spouse, while plotting to claim
him as her own.
It's the same day that Cornelius and Barnaby choose to close the store and rush to spend their few
dollars in New York as well, figuring they'll not run into their stingy boss. Of course, they
immediately stumble into Irene's store, and the fun starts from there.
At least The Matchmaker makes sense. Shirley Booth's Dolly is a widow looking for security
and romance in her autumn years, so shifting the story to suit the 20-something Streisand was
absurd from the get-go. Yet this original B&W non-musical farce also has some odd things about it
that don't really add up.
The story is obsessed with property, money and solvency in a way that would befit a much more serious
theme. Dolly is an outright fraud, a grasping, nosy interloper in other people's affairs. As personified
by Shirley Booth she's both charming and occasionally very funny, but she spends most of the time
wangling a way to become the secure wife of Paul Ford's unlikeable store owner. There's little
whimsy in Horace Vandergelder, as he plays his roll as a straight propertied miser with no concern
for anyone else's welfare. He's actually a realistic employer of the time, using threats and bombast to
intimdate his workers out of a fair shake. We only sympathize with Horace when the larcenous Dolly puts
her hooks into him.
The put-upon clerks basically go bananas with little or no motivation - after putting up with
Vandergelder's tyranny for years they decide to chuck it all and run off to the city. For some reason
they're drawn to another mercantile establishment, where Shirley MacLaine's Irene runs a tight
shop but seems to be as broke as the boys are. They lie about their resources and find themselves on
an impossible date in a fancy restaurant without the price of a tip between them. Because Cornelius'
attraction for Irene works in with Dolly's plans to snare Horace, she helps pull the boys
out of a bind, mainly through clever larceny.
The film has a lot of charm, but it's an odd charm. Everybody is adorable in their way, even Paul
Ford. It goes without saying that MacLaine wins our hearts immediately, and Perkins is bright and
loveable as well. But even though the characters interact well with the play and with the audience
(the show begins and ends with some uncomfortable asides to the theater audience), they never
see, to connect with each other. There's no chemistry in the romantic pairings - Irene and Cornelius hardly
ever look each other in the eye. Booth only really becomes human in one moment when she talks about
her long widowhood and desire to get hitched again - a moment that ironically is more
affecting when done by Streisand much later. The movie reaches toward farce but only gets a few
smiles - slapstick situations in the hat shop and the snooty restaurant never really come to a
proper boil. The couple of moments that touch us are because of the direct appeal of the actors:
MacLaine is so cute, or Perkins so mischievous.
The reason this reviewer had a hard time appreciating this 'light' comedy is its continual emphasis on
money. Everything is about money and what it can do for the characters, and the only movement in
the film is for the ensemble to separate Horace Vandergelder from his fortune, which they do in
the end. The continual threat is that the boys' lack of funds will be exposed. The whole thing is
like a vacation where a spouse concentrates only on the bookkeeping.
Not having read the Thornton Wilder play, I have to assume that the original makes more of the
ethnicity of the characters, as was done for comic effect in the Gene Kelly musical version, where
Barbara Streisand was Jewish through and through. Booth's Dolly Levi was originally Dolly Gallagher,
which accounts for both her lack of an accent and the lack of any Jewish-American context.
Standing out in the ensemble is newcomer Robert Morse, who has just a few moments to shine but
consistently hits the right acting notes for those who adore him in
How to Succeed in Business Without Really
Trying. Not getting an equal spotlight is Perry Wilson, who plays Irene's head clerk and
double date partner for the wild night on the town, Minnie Fay. She and Irene are obviously close
pals but something is missing. Minnie's along for all of the fun and even goes to Yonkers for the
finish, but when it comes time to wrap up what everyone has learned, her character is left out.
Ms. Wilson did a fine job the year before, playing Anthony Perkins' worried mother in his baseball
Fear Strikes Out.
Director Joseph Anthony had a long stage run and wound up directing episodic television, with time
out for a few Hollywood detours and the odd independent film
(Tomorrow). He acquits himself
well, especially with the camera; The Matchmaker is visually more fluid than many of
Paramount's VistaVision movies being made around this time.
Paramount's DVD of The Matchmaker looks great in enhanced widescreen, with a sharp B&W image
that lets us see all kinds of details in the decor and costumes. The mono sound is also without
noticeable flaws. The IMDB notes a running time 3 minutes longer than Paramount lists on the box.
There is a rushed moment on the way to New York evidenced by a fast fade down - fade up that looked a little
suspicious, enough for Savant to get curious about a possible version cut. The movie never looks small-scale,
but Yonkers is represented by Paramount's backlot Western town, and we never get a feeling of
contrast between the 'suburbs' and the big city.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Matchmaker rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 16, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson