Musical Monday: Doctor Dolittle (1967)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Doctor Dolittle (1967) – Musical #623

Studio:
20th Century Fox

Director:
Richard Fleischer

Starring:
Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, Richard Attenborough, Peter Bull, William Dix, Geoffrey Holder, Portia Nelson, Norma Varden, Judy the Chimpanzee, Jack Raine (uncredited)

Plot:
Set in 1845 in England, Doctor Dolittle (Harrison) is the best animal doctor, because he can speak to animals. Dr. Dolttle and his friends (Newly, Dix, Eggar) travel on a sea voyage to find the giant pink sea snail.

Trivia:
• The film is based on Hugh Lofting’s character Doctor Dolittle, who introduced in stories in 1920 and featured in 13 books. The film combines the books “The Story of Doctor Dolittle,” “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle” and “Doctor Dolittle’s Circus.”
• Rex Harrison temporarily walked off the film, and Christopher Plummer was approached for the role and accepted. When Harrison heard Plummer accepted the lead role, he came back on the film, and Plummer was paid the full salary, according to his autobiography In Spite of Myself: A Memoir by Christopher Plummer.
• The first film version of Doctor Dolittle. It was retold as a comedy in 1998 with Eddie Murphy and an adventure film in 2020 with
• Samantha Eggar was dubbed by Diana Lee
• Leslie Bricusse wasn’t present at the Academy Awards and Sammy Davis, Jr. accepted the award on his behalf
• Alan Jay Lerner was originally going to score the film but backed out. Leslie Bricusse replaced Lerner.
• The script originally included a character named Bombo and Sammy Davis Jr. was cast. Davis was then replaced by Sidney Poitier, but the character was written out of the story.

Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newly and Rex Harrison in “Doctor Dolittle”

Awards and Nominations:
• L.B. Abbott won the Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects
• Leslie Bricusse won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song for the song “Talk to the Animals.”
• Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture
• Robert Surtees was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography
• Nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
• Nominated for Best Sound
• Marjorie Fowler and Samuel E. Beetley were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Editing
• Leslie Bricusse was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Music Score
• Lionel Newman and Alexander Courage were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment

Notable Songs:
• “Talk to the Animals” performed by Rex Harrison
• “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It” performed by Richard Attenborough
• “My Friend the Doctor” performed by Anthony Newley

Tommy Dix, Anthony Newly and Rex Harrison in “Doctor Dolittle”

My review:
I’m convinced that people who don’t like musicals dislike them because of the late-1960s musicals like “Doctor Dolittle.”

Following the success of “The Sound of Music” (1964), studios hopped on the bandwagon in search of the same prosperity … and usually failing.

Films like “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1969) or “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968) are all over-bloated epics, running at more than 2 hours and with songs that aren’t very memorable.

“Doctor Dolittle” (1967) is no exception. Running at 2 hours and 32 minutes, the film mashes together several of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle stories. The result of this is that the film seems all over the place.

The audience first meets Dr. Dolittle when he is visited by Matthew Mugg, introducing him to young Tommy Stubbins and bringing an injured duck. We learn that Dr. Dolittle can talk to animals, is a vegetarian because animals are his friend, and why he is no longer a people doctor.

From there, he is awarded a two-headed llama (that they call a push-pull) that he sells to a circus so he can earn money for an around the world sea voyage in search of a giant snail. But before he goes on the journey, he is accused of murder when he tosses a seal dressed like a woman into the sea. No one believes that it was a seal, but they think it’s a woman.

Once escaping jail, Dr. Dolittle, Mathew, Tommy and Emma Fairfax travel across the sea in search of the snail. They shipwreck on a moving island, inhabited by well-read natives.

Phew!

I feel like, maybe, if the writers had stuck to one or two of these stories, this film would have felt less all over the place. But it wouldn’t have saved the film.

Leslie Bricusse’s songs in “Willy Wonka” or “Scrooge” are much more memorable and catchy than they are here. “Talk to the Animals” is a famous song, but is there a tune? Who can tell with Rex Harrison’s talk-singing. The only other song that was stuck in my head was “My Friend the Doctor.”

Rex Harrison is a fine actor, but who decided he should be in musicals? I know he was on Broadway, which makes it all the more baffling. All he does is talk with an orchestra playing in the background. You think, “Oh, I guess this is a song since there is music backing his talking.”

Early in the filming, Harrison walked off the film and was replaced by Christopher Plummer. I like Plummer more, but I don’t think his casting would have made the film any better. The only thing I can say is maybe we could decipher the songs a bit more because Plummer probably would have been dubbed as he was in “Sound of Music.”

Samantha Eggar is in a thankless role as Emma Fairfax, the niece of a magistrate who accuses Dr. Dolittle of murder and stealing one of his horses. Eggar’s singing is dubbed, and her character is a bit fickle. First, Emma seems to love Matthew and then appears to be in love with Dr. Dolittle, who turns her down because he’s terrible with people. I don’t feel like Eggar’s character of Emma Fairfax is ever fully explained, and we are never really given a reason to like her or care about the character.

Matthew is played by Anthony Newley, who is not a favorite of mine. Tommy Stubbins is played by William Dix (no relation to Richard Dix). This was Dix’s second film and his last film until 2011. Richard Attenborough plays the circus owner who I didn’t readily recognize. It was interesting to see him sing, as I didn’t know he could!

The real highlight was Geoffrey Holder as William Shakespeare X, one of the island inhabitants. I know Holder best from his role in “Annie” (1982), so seeing him in an earlier role was a treat!

Overall, I found “Doctor Dolittle” (1967) exhausting, and I felt happy when it ended. I can mainly say, “Well, I’ve seen it!” and probably will never watch it again. “Doctor Dolittle” differs from its contemporaries, like “Camelot” because this film wasn’t adapted from a Broadway play. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is entirely original for the screen.

If you want a fun but mildly irritating animal movie of the 1960s, watch “Sammy, the Way-Out Seal” (1962) or “Zebra in the Kitchen” (1965) instead. They aren’t musicals, but they are much shorter than “Doctor Dolittle,” and their plots make more sense.

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3 thoughts on “Musical Monday: Doctor Dolittle (1967)

  1. I agree with you, it’s not one of my favourite musicals either. It’s too long and there’s no reason, based on the books, that the Samantha Eggar role is angled as being ‘romantically’ interested in the Doctor. Although, I love and have visited the village, Castle Combe, where it was filmed and it was magical.

    Regarding Rex Harrison, I have read that he gave poor Anthony Newley a hard time during the shooting of the movie because he was Jewish. What a jackass, Harrison that is, and not Newley. This information lines up with other tales I have read regarding Rex Harrison’s bad behaviour towards other actors/people. For example, Carole Landis, Kay Kendall, Lilli Palmer, etc. And I’m afraid that his acting, in my opinion, isn’t nowhere good enough to make me forget his bad behaviour outside of his roles.

    Betty

    Like

  2. I remember the first time I saw Doctor Dolittle back in the Nineties. I was surprised at just how bad it was. I remember I did a blog post years ago about how the film almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and I can fully understand why it would have!

    Liked by 1 person

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