Doing a Lot for Dolittle (2): The Multitudes

Doing a Lot for Dolittle (2): The Multitudes

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Oct 31st 2017

For all its production snafus, ranging from the wrangling of hundreds of animals both meticulously trained and not, to the vagaries of weather and logistics involved in location shooting and the varying temperaments and illness flareups of its stars and creative personnel exposed to the germ-laden menagerie, producer Arthur P. Jacobs and the powers of Twentieth Century Fox poured tons of effort and collateral marketing into the launch of its fantasy musical adaptation of the children’s book series Doctor Dolittle (1967), starring Rex Harrison as the capable vegetarian veterinarian who talks to the animals in speech, grunts, squawks and song. The numbers, like the project’s budget, were large. As Kim R. Holston recounts in Movie Roadshows: A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings, 1911-1973: “Life Magazine had featured Harrison riding the giraffe on its September 30, 1966 cover [14+ months prior to the film’s premiere]. The tie-in with Hugh Lofting’s books was massive. Publisher J.B. Lippincott released Doctor Dolittle: A Treasury with new chapters relating to the film. It was a Book-of-the-Month club selection. In addition to an initial publication of 100,000, there was a limited number of a deluxe edition. Various Dolittle stories were plugged by the Literary Guild and Junior Deluxe Editions Book Club and the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club. Dell published paperback versions of several stories. The American Booksellers Association plugged Dolittle with 37 minutes of excerpts from the film plus many stills. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs Convention in San Francisco featured a booth promoting the movie. Producer Jacobs noted that over 300 companies were involved in merchandising, especially toy manufacturers. And there were numerous versions of the soundtrack album in various countries. The film had been dubbed into French, Spanish, German and Italian and was likely, a la The Sound of Music, to be presented in a city like Paris in two versions, one dubbed into French, the other in English with French subtitles. When filming, Jacobs had been sanguine about the delays (the pig Gub-Gub grew so fast that he had to be replaced each month; it took six months to teach the chimp Chee-Chee how to cook bacon and eggs) that took the film over budget. Said Jacobs, ‘You won’t be able to go into a store without seeing Doctor Dolittle advertising something. You got to figure that’s going to bring people into the theater. I mean, these are big companies. They don’t just do this for any picture.’ Even the soundtrack was a record setter. The original pressing was for 500,000. Producer Jacobs: ‘The biggest in history. Bigger than The Sound of Music, bigger than My Fair Lady, bigger than anything.’” Estimates of the operation’s reach, as Matthew Kennedy chronicled in Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, boasted “50 licensees ready to spend $12 million on advertising. Ten-thousand retail stores would carry Dolittle wares, while two food companies were ready to display 35,000 large standups of Harrison. Approximately 300 items with an estimated retail value of $200 million would be part of the Dolittle campaign.” 

Bigness would also earmark the talent courted for the film and ultimately not employed. When Harrison vacillated about taking on the title role, The Sound of Music star Christopher Plummer was recruited and signed to step in as a counter-measure; he would get a handsome payday for his non-participation and would display his persuasive musical talents to Tony®-winning effect six years later in Broadway’s Cyrano (1973). For the role of Emma Fairfax, devised by screenwriter Leslie Bricusse as a potential love interest to either the good doctor or his supportive companion, the “cat’s-meat man”/fishmonger Matthew Mugg, Barbra Streisand and Hayley Mills were courted before Samantha Eggar, a recent Best Actress Academy Award® nominee and Cannes Film Festival prize winner for The Collector (1965), landed the part. According to Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood historian Mark Harris, David Wayne, Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby were bandied about as candidates to play the gregarious Mugg before Bricusse’s long-time pal and star/co-creator of the duo’s musicals Stop the World – I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd got the gig. The book’s character of the African Prince Bumpo gave rise to the possibilities of attracting Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr. to the proceedings, but finally emerged on screen in the persona of “William Shakespeare the Tenth” as embodied by the distinctive Geoffrey Holder. For bombastic circus owner Albert Blossom, Ben-Hur Academy Award® winner Hugh Griffith, fresh off the studio’s How to Steal a Million, was fleetingly under consideration until Bricusse caught a glimpse of Richard Attenborough on the Fox lot in his sailor wardrobe for The Sand Pebbles and rushed up to recruit him, to the amusement of Attenborough’s companion in uniform, that action epic’s star Steve McQueen. Blustery and adversarial Colonel Bellowes might have been incarnated by Donald Pleasence or Robert Morley had their salary demands not been more preemptive than the finally cast and quite capable Peter Bull. The one number that didn’t rise to the occasion was that of the box-office receipts, which failed to offset the enormous costs for an original screen musical that tried to make a huge impact with a gentle, amiable story. What remains are a 50-year legacy of pleasing fans of its craft, Bricusse melodies, visual delights and unique whimsy, and though its producing studio and its distributing label are very much businesses out to make their numbers, two-time Academy Award® winner Doctor Dolittle again emerges in an eye-popping, just-completed 2017 4K restoration transfer from original Todd-AO 65mm elements, freshly remixed 5.1 DTS-HD audio and extra delights on board. You can number yourself among Doctor Dolittle’s patients when he makes house calls on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray November 14. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday November 1.