Or: How an innocuous children’s book became a noxious film disaster.
History does love to repeat itself. In 1967, 20th Century Fox adapted Hugh Lofting’s children’s series about a reticent doctor who could talk to animals. It failed with critics, was a mess to make, and nearly bankrupted the studio. Fast forward to 2020.
This year, Universal adapted Hugh Lofting’s children’s series about a reticent doctor who could talk to animals. It looks poised to fail with critics, was a mess to make, and is primed to lose Universal 100 million dollars.
Let’s take a look at the 1967 disaster.
Doctor Dolittle (1967)
Doctor Dolittle (Rex Harrison) avoids dealing with people, as he is much more comfortable with his animal patients, whom he can communicate with. A young man (Anthony Newley) brings a boy with an injured duck to Dolittle. Eventually they befriend the Doctor, and agree to help him on an expedition to an uncharted island where a rare giant snail lives. Before they can leave, Dolittle’s penchant for freeing animals from human captivity lands him in hot water.
A Sterile Hybrid.
Doctor Dolittle seemed doomed to failure from the get go. The fantastical elements of the story make Dolittle appear a bit like a Disney musical. Think Mary Poppins or Bednobs and Broomsticks. Unfortunately, star Rex Harrison was fresh off My Fair Lady, and Fox wanted a proper, adult musical in that vein. They would have been wise to realize that the audience for Poppins was not the same audience for My Fair Lady.
As a student, I saw the film and got the vague impression of it being a tad dry and weird, but not outright bad. The opposing tonal elements were what threw me off. The creatures were too weird for a realistic story, but not cute enough for a Disney story. Harrison as Dolittle was offputting. He had zero chemistry with his supposed love interest (Samantha Eggar). In fact, he had zero chemistry with anyone…which was a whole ‘nother problem.
Cross and Nasty.
Behind the scenes, Doctor Dolittle was a fiasco. Harrison and his entourage were a toxic bunch. His treatment of co-stars Anthony Newley and Geoffrey Holder led to charges of antisemitism and racism. He got into such a beef with the studio over contracts that he blocked filming and the studio threatened to replace him with Christopher Plummer. Most accounts, from Dolittle and other films, paint Harrison as a nasty piece of work.
Cut and Paste.
Besides Harrison, the film itself was devolving into a mess. The live animals made filming an ordeal, and several were ill or died during the four year labor to get the film done. On location shoots frequently erupted into disputes with the locals.
Early test screenings were abysmal (as the audience expected a serious film starring Harrison, not a children’s fantasy book adaptation.) The film was cut and re-cut. The romance was reworked to have Anthony Newley woo Eggars instead, which required new versions of key songs. In the end, both love angles didn’t make the final cut. The film was cut several times for length, as well as to remove elements of the books that smacked of colonial paternalism.
When all was said and done, Doctor Dolittle tanked at the box office. Critics loathed it. Audiences, confused about who the film was for, stayed away. The film wound up losing Fox 11 million dollars. That’s equivalent to 84 million dollars today, adjusted for inflation.
Then the damn movie cleaned up at the Oscars.
Wine and Dine.
How did a movie universally panned get 10 nominations, including for Best Picture? Simple: Fox did their damnedest to woo and bribe every voter they could find. Lavish parties and dinners were used to triage Dolittle’s reputation with the Academy, who wound up giving the film two statues, one for effects and one for best song.
Fox’s attempt to use the same spending spree campaign on the public didn’t work nearly as well. Branded merch and tie-in products wound up selling like dog turds, leading to 200 million dollars in unsold product.
Doctor Dolittle salvaged a bit of reputation in the intervening years. When I saw it, it was not a pariah. In fact, it was being taught in middle school music class alongside Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music. Its tonal schizophrenia wasn’t nearly as pronounced; I was the appropriate age bracket the movie should have targeted all along.
The adult overtones sat not too differently from those in Willy Wonka, and Harrison came across as just a less charming Gene Wilder-type lead. I certainly didn’t know he was a lout and serial womanizer, and the music teacher either didn’t know either, or didn’t care to get woke while presenting a musical about talking animals.
On re-watching it, Doctor Dolittle is just a harmless little nothing. The songs don’t grab you. The visuals for the period pieces are nice, but the live animals are nothing special and the effects have aged poorly. The film is way too long, but survivable. It has a bit of nostalgia value, but learning about all of the awfulness behind the scenes makes me loathe to see it again or to recommend it.