This is the world of Doctor Dolittle (1967), wherein a curmudgeonly Victorian-era English country doctor (first conjured by civil engineer Hugh Lofting in letters home to his children from the World War I battlefront and subsequently immortalized in a 28-year book series that commenced in 1920), disillusioned with the pettiness of people, decides that other species are more stimulating and fascinating company. As translated into song decades later by celebrated and astoundingly prolific composer/lyricist Leslie Bricusse, “He has a profound philosophy/If animals can be friends, says he,/Well then, why can’t we?” Bringing that world to the screen 50 years ago in the form of a colorful, family-friendly, big-budget, reserved-seat spectacular squarely aimed at audiences that joyously embraced the musical splendors of Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music would be a frustrating, torturous and frequently unfriendly process. The resulting movie, as produced and vigorously championed by veteran press agent Arthur P. Jacobs, would be varyingly received as a lovingly crafted exercise in charm and professionalism, an object lesson in bloated Hollywood excess, a harbinger of the decline of roadshow “event” presentations and a demonstration of a type of hard-charging marketing that succeeded in certain key areas and failed expensively in others. That’s quite a reputation to hang on one visionary veterinarian’s shingle.
Yet a half-century removed from its high-stakes launch, Doctor Dolittle, directed by the capable Richard Fleischer and starring a commanding Rex Harrison in the title role (not a match for the portly, moon-faced vet as illustrated in Lofting’s books, but his Henry Higginsesque unflappability riding a giraffe proved quite right), the appealing Samantha Eggar, screenwriter Bricusse’s long-time professional partner Anthony Newley and the unexpectedly uproarious Richard Attenborough performing with a vaudevillian’s brio, make the case to justify the hype that “you’ve never seen anything like it in your life.” First, as photographed in 65mm Todd-AO by three-time Academy Award®-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees on beautiful locations in England, Saint Lucia and Southern California, it’s a visual feast for the eyes. Second, Bricusse’s song score, anchored by his Oscar®-winning Best Song Talk to the Animals, contains a clutch of romantically tinged and melodically catchy beauties, including the soaring After Today, the dreamy Beautiful Things, the yearning At the Crossroads, the tender When I Look in Your Eyes, the bouncy I’ve Never Seen Anything like It, the billowy Fabulous Places; It’s a song roster bursting with variety and vitality, precisely reflective of character and constructed with an accessibility more regularly ascribed to pantheon artists like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter but equally shared by Bricusse. Third, backing up the four previously mentioned cast principals is an amazing menagerie of animals (reportedly over 1,200), both real – led by Polynesia the parrot, Chee-Chee the chimpanzee and Sophie the seal – and imaginary – the shaggy dual-llamalike Pushmi-Pullyu (inhabited by two opposite-facing dancers) and the mechanically fabricated Great Pink Sea Snail (not very magical looking but as state of the art as 1967 got). Fourth, not to give short shrift to the human animals, indelible character players Peter Bull, Portia Nelson, Norma Varden and the dryly witty dancer-choreographer Geoffrey Holder all have their moments in the spotlight as well. For its 50th anniversary, Doctor Dolittle, nominated for nine Academy Awards® including Best Picture and winner of a second statuette (in addition to Best Song) for L.B. Abbott’s Special Effects, makes its high-definition house call boasting a breathtakingly crisp and vibrant 4K restoration transfer from its original large-format elements and newly remixed 5.1 DTS-HD audio. It will be outfitted with an Isolated Music Track sparklingly showcasing the Bricusse score as arranged and conducted to Oscar®-nominated effect by Lionel Newman and Alexander Courage. In nods to two great entertainment careers: there’s also the 1998 Biography episode Rex Harrison: The Man Who Would Be King, and two lions of their respective crafts engaged in an enthralling Audio Commentary, the 86-years-young, still productively roaring Bricusse discussing Dolittle’s creation with Twilight Time’s resident Film Music Historian/Audio Engineer Mike Matessino. No matter what species you identify with, make an appointment to see Doctor Dolittle on TT Blu-ray November 14. Preorders open this Wednesday November 1.