Doctor Dolittle

Watched as part of the August 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Christian Alec's master list
#8: Watch a film from the landmark year 1967. Bonus if you watch one of the 5 featured in Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution

2017 movie viewings, #103. I've been wanting to read Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution ever since it came out almost ten years ago; so when this particular task popped up in this month's scavenger hunt, I decided to go the extra step and finally read the book as well. (Read my review of it here, if you're curious.) And I'm glad I did, because man, did it turn out to be fascinating, a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a serious film buff; I liked it so much, in fact, that it's inspired me this month to watch four out of the five films the book talks about. (The only one I'm skipping is Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, which I sampled at YouTube and agreed with Harris' assessment, that it's an overly lit, studio-shot, pandering throwback to the low ebb of Mid-Century Modernist Hollywood, and therefore not worth my time.)

My first watch of the four was Doctor Dolittle, which is much more interesting as a cautionary tale than as an actual film. The last gasp of a dying '50s studio system that was becoming profoundly passe even by the early '60s (Harris does a great job at showing how the Oscars in those years, before the invention of "New Hollywood," was already starting to be overtaken by the French New Wave and the British so-called "kitchen sink" dramas), Doctor Dolittle essentially came about because of the surprise success of the old-school musical My Fair Lady two years previously; misinterpreting this fluke the worst way possible, the aging executives of the old studio system greenlit literally a dozen more big-budget musicals in the year following, every single one of which tanked at the box office and was one of the main factors behind so many of these studios being sold off to multinational corporations in the '70s, leading to the birth of the "blockbuster era" in the '80s that is now here in the 2010s reaching critical mass.

Doctor Dolittle is as guilty of unwatchability as all the others, a dreary, glacially-paced snoozer that's almost not worthy enough to even bother doing a critical write-up at all. So how did this end up with a Best Picture nomination, when so many of the others are films we don't even remember existing anymore? (When's the last time you've heard someone talk in glowing nostalgic terms for Finian's Rainbow, Sweet Charity, Star!, Darling Lili, Paint Your Wagon, Song of Norway, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever or Lost Horizon?) Well, as Harris so entertainingly shows in Revolution, it's because Doctor Dolittle's producer was notorious schlockmeister Arthur P. Jacobs, a former press agent who spent the first twenty years of his career convincing the media to do good reviews of unwatchable crap, no matter what lows he had to sink to.

Jacobs essentially applied all the cheesy lessons he learned as a press agent to the promotion of Doctor Dolittle to Academy members, including an entire month of nightly screenings in Los Angeles for Oscar voters that featured unlimited amounts of free booze and catered food; and that was just enough for the film to edge out the more heavily favored Cool Hand Luke and In Cold Blood to snag the last Best Picture nom, much to the groaning chagrin of pretty much everyone in Hollywood under the age of 40. (Interestingly, Jacobs was the very epitome of the old guard who was violently replaced by the "New Hollywood" mavericks of the late '60s; among other notorious anecdotes, after the acquisition of another company he became the original rights-holder of Midnight Cowboy, but gave it away to a friend completely for free because he "didn't want his name associated with a movie about a bunch of queers." In fact, his mediocre track record as a producer would be nearly completely forgotten by history at this point, if not for the fact that he stumbled ass-backwards into the franchise mega-hit Planet of the Apes by accident, originally meant as a quickie B-pic to kill time while he was licking his chops over Dolittle's massive box-office failure.)

I mean, let's be honest -- if you're going to watch any of the films from Harris' book, you should 100 percent instead watch the daring ones that heralded a new age for the film industry, movies like Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night (all of which I'll be watching and reviewing in the weeks ahead). But still, I suppose it wouldn't kill you to watch Doctor Dolittle sometime as well, especially if it happens to just fall in your lap at a point on a Sunday afternoon when you have nothing better to do. The songs are awful, the pace horrendous, and star Rex Harrison is so drunk most of the time that he can barely spit out his lines with a straight face (but a lot more about that in Harris' book too); but it's certainly a great example of everything that can go wrong when aging reactionaries meet unquestioned wrong assumptions meet today's equivalent of a half-billion-dollar budget, the production forced to do things like recreate entire weeks' worth of location shooting back in LA because not a single person bothered to check the weather forecast before scheduling their time in the typhoon-plagued Caribbean. When viewed with a schadenfreude-filled tongue in cheek, this trainwreck of a movie can actually be quite an ironic delight.

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