Old Classics…? Newly Reviewed | Doctor Doolittle (1967)

© Nancee E. Lewis / Nancee Lewis Photography.
Editor Note: Gini has another Old Classic film from her Turner Classic Movie Collection watching. Since Atlanta is home to Turner Classic Movies it is only right that Gini should be reviewing them with her view of the world.

What can it be this time?

Gini is tackling a musical out of the Turner Classic Movies Oscar Winners vault with 1967’s Dr. Dolittle.


Doctor Doolittle (1967)

By Gini Koch

Dr. Dolittle and I have had a very long relationship.
I saw this movie first run in the theater when I was a very little girl. And I loved it. I watched in on TV whenever I could. And I loved it. I watched it again thanks to TCM and…I loved it. The hubs bought me the DVD and I have kept the movie on our DVR, that’s how much I love this movie.
I also gave the main character in my Alien/Katherine “Kitty” Katt series Dr. Dolittle powers. Because I could.

I say all this to tell you that, of all the reviews I’m doing, this one is going to be hugely, tremendously, fantastically biased. I love this movie. I always have, and I always will.

Dr. John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) is an English doctor circa 1840 who really doesn’t care about people, particularly his patients. His love and passion are for animals. During the course of one disastrous day, thanks to his parrot, Polynesia (voicework credited to “Parrot”) he discovers that he can learn to talk to the animals – and he never looks back.

His best/only friend is Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newly), a proud Irishman whose business is collecting fish and such to sell to people for their cats and dogs. Matthew has a friend in young Tommy Stubbins (William Dix) and, when they find an injured duck, they take that duck to the Doctor.

Into animal-care happiness comes General Bellows (Peter Bull) who accuses the Doctor of trying to steal his horse – Dolittle is fitting the horse for glasses. Bellows’ niece, Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar) is at first outraged by how the Doctor treats her bombastic uncle, then intrigued by what he’s doing and why.

Meanwhile, the Doctor wants to search for the Great Pink Sea Snail, but he needs money. A friend sends him a wonderous animal, the Pushme-Pullyu, which he uses to join forces with Albert Blossom (Richard Attenborough) and his circus. But while the Pushme-Pullyu is a huge success, there’s a sad sea lion the Doctor has to rescue. But, it looks to witnesses like he tossed a little old lady into the sea.

Which brings him into Bellows’ courtroom. The Doctor is cleared of murder charges but Bellows declares him insane. There’s nothing for it, but for Matthew, Emma, and Tommy to stage a prison break and take off in search of the Sea Snail in Dolittle’s boat, The Flounder.

They end up on a floating island, where the natives are like 1967’s version of Wakanda – they’ve traveled the seas and shipwrecks come onto the island all the time, so they all speak at least 10 languages fluently, they perform Shakespeare, and they pretty much have a utopian society with some old timey native traditions to keep things interesting. The leader is William Shakespeare X, aka Willy (Geoffrey Holder) and he’s as polite and erudite as you could ask for. But there’s trouble on the island in the form of illnesses in all the animals, and other issues arise that Willy can’t protect his new friends from.

Will the Doctor and his friends save the day and will the Doctor ever get to go home to England again? This is a movie for children, based on a series of successful children’s books so, of course.
The songs are all great. Unlike Kismet , the songs in Dr. Dolittle are all memorable and you can sing and hum them constantly. They’re so good that Sammy Davis, Jr. covered all the songs on an album with great success (good luck trying to find a cast recording, though – they existed, along with a lot of other versions of the soundtrack done by a variety of recording artists, but finding them now is close to impossible).

To this day, I still can’t understand how Rex Harrison, he of the “declaiming” type of singing, managed to be in so darned many successful musicals, but if you were going for a guy who didn’t really sing but was going to guarantee box office, Harrison was your man – until this movie (more on that later). Anthony Newly, on the other hand, has a fantastic singing voice and a strong screen presence. I still can’t understand why Emma is more interested in the Doctor than Matthew, though a veterinarian is a lot better husband material than a fishmonger for pets.

As is required for anything written or created for children, our main child character, Stubbins, has has the most relaxed parents in the history of mankind. He can sleep over at the Doctor’s house, hang out at a circus week in and week out, and take a sea voyage with a convicted crazy man, just as long as he’s home in time for the start of school term.

That’s all the good. Behind the scenes is where the bad is. Harrison was, by all accounts, an absolute monster to work with, and he was far too old for the part. But the hope was that he’d draw box office and give the studio another Sound of Music. But he didn’t draw the crowds and success didn’t happen and this and Camelot are considered to have killed the family musical. These two, Star!, and Hello, Dolly! (another movie I adore) almost killed 20th Century Fox, and it was only the re-release in 1973 of one movie that saved it – The Sound of Music.

Instead, Harrison and his entourage were racist to Geoffrey Holder, anti-Semitic to Anthony Newly, mean and vicious to everyone else, and Harrison did his best to ruin any scene he wasn’t in or wasn’t the focus of. None of that shows in the finished film, but it makes you kind of glad that while filming the “Talk to the Animals” number, when Harrison is surrounded by animals, they’re usually urinating on him. Animals know.

“Dr. Doolittle”
© 1978 Ted Allan

This movie ended Harrison’s career as a leading man onscreen and, after you know what a horrible person he was to work with, that outcome seems more than fair.

The books by Hugo Lofting are from an age when casual racism wasn’t even a thing you noticed…unless you were, you know, not white and upper class. If you weren’t white and of the right class, these books calmly shared that you weren’t as good as others. So, while the stories are still entertaining and imaginative – particularly if you read the revised ones that update and remove the constant racism – that the source material was racist slammed into the movie’s release and didn’t let go. The backlash removed Lofting’s books from English schools.

The racism in the books isn’t just for people of color. Even in the movie, the Irish stereotypes are fast and frequent. However, the movie did manage to make everyone on the moving island wonderful, brilliant, and kind, albeit with those traditions that get the Doctor and company in and out of trouble, and there’s a great song about acceptance, “Why Can’t We?”, sung by Anthony Newly that’s supposedly about animals but is clearly and distinctly about people – as in, we’re all the same and should treat each other well.

This movie bombed hard, in no small part because, in addition to all of Harrison’s shenanigans, the producers literally did everything wrong and spent double the money they should have by not listening to warnings about weather on locations, not reading the regulations on animal imports, and more. Plus, there are so very many animals in this movie, and that means lots of takes and mess and destruction.

The movie is also very long, with both an intro and an intermission (back in the day, this was common). I don’t feel that the movie lags at all, but audiences in 1967 weren’t impressed. And The Jungle Book opened against it and became an instant success. So, you could take your child to see a 3-hour movie or a 90 minute one, a movie based on a racist series or a movie based on a beloved non-racist classic, a movie that isn’t animated or a movie that is. The Mouse House won on all counts.

The merchandising for this film was massive and such an expensive failure that it led directly to George Lucas being given all the merchandising rights to Star Wars – which is what truly created his empire. So, literally all of Lucasfilm exists because Dr. Dolittle failed. The more you know.

20th Century did one thing right – it’s Oscars campaigns. In the days before Harvey Weinstein was making successful Oscar schmooze-fests in between forcing himself on actresses, 20th Century was doing massive campaigning. They got this movie nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, and it won for Best Song with “Talk to the Animals”. There were complaints, but they did it again for Star! and Hello, Dolly!, so it’s hard to argue with their success in terms of Oscar campaigning for failures. And that win is why TCM showed this movie during their Oscars lead-up event.

Speaking of knowing, even with all the behind-the-scenes info I have on this movie as an adult, I still don’t care. I love the songs, the whimsey, the humor, the animals, the romance, and seeing Richard Attenborough jump up and click his heels in the air. Dr. Dolittle and I are never breaking up.

5 stars out of 5

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