Rex Harrison’s ‘Dolittle’ a Dud ☆☆

I had fond childhood memories of the 1967 version of “Doctor Dolittle,” but memories are a tricky thing. Rex Harrison’s outing as the doctor is available on Amazon Prime but this Dolittle does little right.

As my memories are in black and white and being poor, we had old black and white televisions for a long, long time, I’m sure my memories come from a much mutilated television version of the theatrical adventure. The original movie was in color and clocked in at 2 hours and 32 minutes–long for a children’s movie.

Leslie Bricusse took elements of three Hugh Lofting Dolittle books, “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” (1920), “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle”(1922)  and “Doctor Dolittle’s Circus” (1924). In the original 1920 story, John Dolittle is a bachelor living with his spinster sister, Sarah and after saving a kingdom from an epidemic is given a pushmi-pullyu. In “The Voyages,” Dolittle meets Tommy Stubbins and takes him in as an apprentice; they travel and meet the Great Glass Sea Snail. In “Circus,” Dolittle makes money by having the pushimi-pullyu in a circus, but there he meets a seal who misses her husband. He helps her escape by disguising her as a woman and throwing her into the sea.

The film “Doctor Dolittle” begins in early Victorian England and first introduces us to Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley). The young Tommy Stubbins (William Dix) has an injured duck and Mugg takes him to the doctor (“My Friend the Doctor”). Dolittle (Rex Harrison) is a bachelor and in a flashback tells how his sister demanded he choose between his animal menagerie and her; he naturally chose the animals. His parrot Polynesia (voiced by Ginny Tyler) taught him different animal languages. And so he’s never alone, speaking with his chimp Chee-Chee, dog Jip and parrot amongst others (“The Vegetarian” and “Talk to the Animals”).

Dolittle doesn’t get along with his neighbors like General Bellowes (Peter Bull). Bellowes has a near-sighted horse, but Bellowes objects mostly to Dolittle ruining his fox hunt by sheltering a fox who is protected by North American skunks. Through Bellowes, Dolittle meets, Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar), his niece. Mugg is smitten, but not the doctor. Fairfax is “At the Crossroads” and wishes to be freed “If I Were a Man.”

Dolittle has other things on his mind: an expedition to find the Great Pink Sea Snail. Fortunately, an American friend sends him a Pushmi-Pullyu which he takes to the circus run by Albert Blossom (Richard Attenborough). If you think that the situation for circus animals was bad in recent decades, it was worse during Victorian times. Dolittle meets a lonely seal who wants to return home to her husband. Disguising her as a woman, he smuggles her to the coast and throws her into the ocean. Witnesses have him charged with murder.

While Dolittle is able to demonstrate he can talk to the animals by interrogating the judge’s dog, the judge is none other than Bellowes, who acquits him of the murder charge but places him in an insane asylum. He escapes and Mugg, Stubbins, Chee-Chee, Polynesia and Jip set sail to search for the snail with Emma Fairfax stowing away.

The friends search for a floating island, but a storm breaks up their ship. All survive and make their way to shore on that very island. The doctor realizes he feels something for Fairfax, but their romance is interrupted.  The storm has driven it island too far north and the people and animals are suffering and the doctor attends to the medical needs with a remedy for their colds. Calling up a sperm whale, Dolittle has the island pushed south. That results in some consequences that almost lead to his death by the natives traditional omens, but that’s quickly cancelled out.

The Great Snail just happens to inhabit the island and seeks treatment from the doctor. Mugg, Stubbins and Fairfax as well as Polynesia, Chee-Chee, and Jip return to England by way of Snail, but Dolittle is still a wanted man and must stay. He has also learned of a Giant Luna Moth. Once the others have left, he realizes he loves Fairfax, but when news comes via seal that the animals have risen in protest and Bellowes has pardoned him, he saddles up the Moth and returns home.

The film takes too long in the set up before we even meet the doctor.  The feeling is episodic and by today’s standards some of the special effects are quaint. Harrison is basically reprising his role of the curmudgeonly bachelor on the wrong side of middle age who finds romance with a much young woman despite some initial antagonism at the start. There’s very little chemistry between Harrison and Eggar. Over a thousand live animals were used, but the chemistry between Harrison and them is also negligible. It must have been a zoo filming, but while most of the songs are not particularly memorable, “Talk to the Animals” is a winner. Having Harrison ride a giraffe is questionable. You have to wonder just how one of the giraffes died during the production. The portrayal of the natives of the floating island is now cringe-worthy.

Leslie Bricusse, who with Lionel Newman and Alexander Courage, wrote the music,  had already teamed up with Anthony Newley to write the  1961 musical, “Stop the World–I Want to Get Off” which was nominated for five Tony Awards, but won only one, Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Anna Quayle. Newley had been nominated for Leading Actor. Recorded by Sammy Davis, Jr, the song, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” received a Grammy Award for Newley and Bricusse.

During its time, the movie did receive some recognition. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Music Score and Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment at the Academy Awards. Best Picture went to “In the Heat of the Night” but Warren Beatty’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Dustin Hoffman’s “The Graduate” and Sidney Poitier’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” were also in the running.”Doctor Dolittle” won Oscars for Best Special Effects and Best Music, Original Song for “Talk to the Animals.” “Talk to the Animals” was competing against “Bare Necessities” (“The Jungle Book”),  “The Look of Love” (“Casino Royale”), “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”) and “The Eyes of Love” (“Banning”).  Davis accepted the award for Bricusse. Davis was originally meant to be in “Doctor Dolittle,” but his role was cut.

At the Golden Globes, Richard Attenborough won a Best Supporting actor award, but the film was also nominated for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, Best Actor -Comedy or Musical, Best Original Score and Best Original Song.

Davis would go on to have other hits written by Bricusse (e.g. “Candy Man”) and my fond memories are mostly tied to the song “Talk to the Animals.” Harrison, of course, performed it in his speak-singing way as he had done in “My Fair Lady.”

From “Doctor Dolittle” we did get a lovely song and Davis did get song. That’s a good legacy for a movie that is now badly dated.

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