The Songwriter and the Sailor

The Songwriter and the Sailor

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Dec 19th 2018

Despite mixed reviews from some humbugging critics, it appears that the family-friendly, literary-based musical is back with a bumbershoot-hoisted bang this holiday season with today’s opening of Mary Poppins Returns (2018) on some 4,000+ screens. The box-office grosses should prove, like its title character, magical. The 1964 Walt Disney original is a cherished classic, and among the five Academy Awards® it captured were trophies for an acting performance (Best Actress Julie Andrews, who won similar honors at that year’s Golden Globes®), a tune (the Sherman Brothers’ Chim-Chim-Cheree) and for Visual Effects (Peter Ellenshaw, Hamilton Luske and Eustace Lycett). Fifty-one years ago today, another musical from a beloved children’s book series arrived to great fanfare, scant critical approbation (except for raves from the New York Daily News and the London Daily Mail) and encouraging initial box office (although not enough over the long haul to pay back its mammoth production cost). It too would win Oscars® for a song (Talk to the Animals, penned by the prodigious and still on-the-go, now 87-year-old Leslie Bricusse) and Visual Effects (L.B. Abbott) as well as an acting performance Golden Globe®. 

That would be Doctor Dolittle (1967), starring Rex Harrison as the versatile, multilingual British veterinarian, Samantha Eggar and Anthony Newley, produced by Arthur P. Jacobs and directed by Richard Fleischer, in a game attempt by Twentieth Century Fox to mirror Disney’s massive Mary Poppins success and replicate what it achieved recently with the Andrews-starred The Sound of Music (1965). The good doctor’s musicalization was not highly esteemed in its time but a half-century later has built a sturdy and faithful fan base, largely due to its score of flavorful character songs and breathtaking visuals photographed in 65mm Todd-AO. While all the performances were on point, the one singled out for Globe recognition was a casting worry in its formative stages. But a stroke of Hollywood backlot luck solved that, as Bricusse recalled in his colorful 2015 memoir Pure Imagination: A Sorta-Biography: “We still had no actor to play the role of Albert Blossom, the circus owner, who was required to sing the film’s biggest production number, I’ve Never Seen Anything like It! I had recorded the song at yet another of our monster symphonic demo sessions, and Apjac [Bricusse’s nickname for Jacobs] insisted on singing it from morning till night, driving everyone around him to the edge of madness. But the Albert Blossom issue stubbornly remained unresolved, resisting even the best of Broadway, such as Stubby Kaye, the original Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls. He was fabulous, but irretrievably American. Then, one spring morning looking out of my Fox office window, I saw two sailors in white uniforms strolling across the parking lot towards the commissary. I instantly recognized the stockier of the two and flew downstairs and caught up with them. The second sailor looked on in amazement as I asked the first sailor if he would like to do a huge song-and-dance number [to be staged by Broadway veteran Herbert Ross] as a circus owner in Doctor Dolittle. The stocky sailor grinned broadly and said, ‘For you, Brickman darling, anything.’ It was Dickie Attenborough. Indicating the second sailor, he added, ‘By the way, do you know Steve McQueen?’ They were starring in a Robert Wise film, The Sand Pebbles [1966], having just returned from a diabolical location shoot in the Far East. The three of us enjoyed a location-story lunch together in he commissary, we were invited to the McQueens that night for dinner, and I trotted over to Apjac’s bungalow afterwards to inform him that Albert Blossom, the circus owner, was alive and well and available and dressed up as a sailor over on Stage 14.” 

Nearly two years later, [future Sir and filmmaker] Richard Attenborough would win the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe® Award, and indeed, you’ve never seen anything like his bravado music-hall-styled performance in Doctor Dolittle, gloriously served up on Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray, which also features a marvelous Bricusse/Mike Matessino Audio Commentary that recounts this and other great memories about the film’s development, production and aftermath. It’s now 33% off original list through January 2 only. And Bricusse’s updated vision of Doctor Dolittle is now on tour throughout England in an innovative new staging that features Father Brown’s Mark Williams in the title role, three new Bricusse songs worked in among the classic favorites, and extraordinary animal-menagerie puppetry evocative of such landmark productions as The Lion King and War Horse. The doctor’s definitely in!