Come back, Carol Channing! All is forgiven! The epic screen version of the charming musical Hello, Dolly! hasn't aged well, but then again, it wasn't so great when it was new, either. An overstuffed extravaganza populated by thousands of extras gallivanting in period costumes, the movie is hamstrung by the miscasting of Miss Barbra Streisand in the lead role. Babs can sing, of course, but the fact that she is 30 years too young to play Dolly Levi derails the entire enterprise. The producers made a seemingly logical choice to cash in on Streisand's immense star power, but all the glorious hats in the world can't disguise the fact that Dolly is supposed to be at least 57, not 27.
We're transported back to turn-of-the-20th-century New York, where widowed matchmaker Dolly Levi is flouncing around meeting people, being charming, and trying to make matches. She journeys up to Yonkers to meet the "well-known unmarried half-a-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) and to bring him and a couple of his employees, a hatmaker (there are lots of hats in this movie) and her assistant, back to New York so they can all romantically entangle with each other. Dolly's goal is to wind up with Vandergelder herself, but it won't be easy. Why? Because he's Walther Matthau, and that means he's perpetually cranky and cynical.
Peruse the soundtrack listing, and you'll realize that of the 13 songs in the movie, you only know one well and maybe a second one glancingly. How can such a successful musical be so unmemorable? The title track, which comes late in the movie, is important because it features a cameo by Louis Armstrong, and it's great to see him captured forever in Technicolor in all his glory. He makes Streisand look especially young. The other big number, "Before the Parade Passes By," is Dolly's strident promise to herself to live life to its fullest, and it's staged as a giant parade that is perhaps the last great gasp of the traditional Hollywood musical, taking up a vast swath of the 20th Century Fox backlot. Director Gene Kelly really goes for it. Lots of ladies are lifted up into the air by strapping young men, and their skirts flutter and fly.
Unfortunately, the parade ends, and we're back to lots of Streisand's nervously delivered snappy patter, wondering What Would Carol Channing Do? The movie creaks along to its happy ending, ultimately suffocating under way too many layers of brocade, velvet, and ostrich feathers.
Kick harder, kick higher.