Saturday, 21 February 2009

Doctor Dolittle: The Film That Almost Bankrupted 20th Century Fox

With the Oscars tomorrow night, it might be a good time to take a look back at one of the worst movies ever nominated for Best Picture. Indeed, that film was also remarkable for nearly bankrupting the studio which produced it and for single handedly ending the career of its star. That film was 1967's Doctor Dolittle.

Dr John Dolittle was created by Hugh Lofting, who wrote and illustrated the first novel while serving in World War I. Initially a physician treating humans, he switched to treating animals after his parrot Polynesia taught him the language of animals. He lived in the fictional village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. The first novel to proved to be an instant hit, so that naturally Hollywood would seek the rights to a feature film. As early as 1922 Fox Film Corporation had made Lofting an offer for the film rights. For years Walt Disney sought to get the rights to make a film version of the novels, but was not willing to pay enough money for them.

The Lofting family finally gave producer Helen Winston a short term option on the rights in 1960. A screenplay had been finished by 1962, Winston could find no buyers for the prospective film. The Lofting family then decided to accept yet other offers for the movie rights. Arthur P. Jacobs was a former public relations man who had just produced the film What a Way to Go for Twentieth Century Fox. It was very late in 1963 that Jacobs learned that the Loftings were once more open to offers. Jacobs met with the family's attorney and told him of his plan to produce Dr. Dolittle as a musical, expressing his plans to use lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and actor Rex Harrison (both fresh from success on the musical My Fair Lady). The Loftings gave Jacobs only a six month option to make a deal with a studio. Fortunately, even though neither had committed to the project as of yet, both Lerner and Harrison consented to be a part of Doctor Dolittle.

While Jacobs already had Alan Jay Lerner and Rex Harrison lined up for the movie, he had more difficulty selling the idea to a studio. Much of was due to the sheer price tag of the project. United Artists had already spent a good deal of money on the epic The Greatest Story Ever Told and had no desire to spend yet more money on Doctor Dolittle. Both Paramount and Universal were making smaller movies in the early to mid-Sixties. In fact, Universal was largely concentrating on television, with the exception of Doris Day sex comedies. MGM had just sunk a great deal of money into Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando, which fared miserably at the box office. Warner Brothers passed on the project. While Jack Warner had actively pursued My Fair Lady, he had perhaps been alarmed by the amount of money spent on the project. And while Disney had long pursued the rights to Doctor Dolittle, Jacobs did not even consider them. Their history with the Lofting family did not bode well.

In the meantime Jacobs managed to get the consent of Vincente Minnelli to direct Doctor Dolittle. He did not manage to get Julie Andrews, fresh from stage success with My Fair Lady and about to rocket to stardom with Mary Poppins, involved in the project. It was after these meetings that Jacobs met with 20th Century Fox. At the time Fox was not doing particularly well. Having gambled on Cleopatra and lost, the studio was experiencing such losses that Darryl F. Zanuck laid off half the studio's employees and temporarily closed the studio. Fortunately, for Jacobs, 20th Century Fox was in the market for a film such as Doctor Dolittle. The studio was already producing The Sound of Music, which would be released in 1965. Planning ahead, Zannuck thought they should have another big budget musical to follow it. A deal was struck with Harrison in place as the star and Lerner as the writer, co-producer, and lyricist.

The search then began for a composer (Lerner's partner, Frederick Loewe, was retired), which resulted in Andre Previn (who had written the scores for Silk Stockings and Elmer Gantry among other films) being signed to the project). With a deal in place with 20th Century Fox, Arthur P. Jacobs was finally able to strike a deal with the Lofting family with only two weeks to go. 20th Century Fox was already creating advertising for Doctor Dolittle,slated for release in December 1966. Unfortunately for Jacobs, the problems that would haunt Doctor Dolittle from preproduction to completion were just beginning.

It was in May 1964 that Alan Jay Lerner was going through what was a very visible divorce. Many months would pass without Lerner handing in the treatment of the screenplay, let alone its first draught. By the deadline assigned to Lerner for turning in the treatment, October 1, 1964, Lerner had still handed in absolutely nothing. The deadline was then extended until January 15, 1965. It was not long before the new deadline that Lerner asked Jacobs for more time. Jacobs only gave him ten more days. After failing to meet this deadline Jacobs was exceedingly angry with Lerner, and inclined to fire him; however, Lerner was able to strike a deal with Darryl Zanuck to do away with writing a treatment entirely and simply hand in a completed screenplay come May 1, 1965.

With such delays in the film, Vincente Minnelli left the project. Rex Harrison had won the Oscar for Best Actor for My Fair Lady. In new demand as a leading man, he seriously considered leaving the film because of the delays in its production. It was not long before Lerner's May deadline that he informed Jacobs that he would not be able to begin work on Doctor Dolittle before October because of his play On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (upon which he had been working for years). Jacobs then fired Lerner. To replace Lerner 20th Century Fox first approached Richard and Robert Sherman, fresh from the success of Mary Poppins. They proved unavailable, committed as they were to Disney. Fox then approached Leslie Bricusse, who had written the play Stop the World--I Want to Get It Off and the lyrics for the theme song to Goldfinger. They decided to give Bricusse a test run, hiring him temporarily with the expectation of the completion of two songs for the film and the first twenty pages of the screenplay. Two weeks after he was brought on to the project, Bricusse presented 20th Century Fox with "Talk to the Animals." He was officially hired.

With a screenwriter in place, Fox then started looking for a director. Zanuck approached John Huston, who actually expressed interest in the film. Jacobs worried that Huston and Harrison could clash, as both were known for their temperaments. It was then that Richard Fleischer, son of legendary animator Max Fleischer, was brought on to the film, the director on such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings, and Compulsion. Ultimately, star Rex Harrison would approve of Fleischer, although Bricusse would not be so lucky. In meetings with Fleischer and Bricusse, he would even attack the lyrics of "Talk to the Animals."

Harrison would create other problems as well. Sammy Davis Jr. had been hired to play the role of Bumpo. Harrison strenuously objected to this, maintaining that Davis was an entertainer, not an actor. He proposed Sidney Poitier instead. Both Fleischer and Jacobs tried to talk Harrison out of his objections to Davis, but ultimately found themselves setting up a meeting with Poitier. Poitier agreed, pending a meeting with Leslie Bricusse. When Poitier found out that they wanted him to replace Sammy Davis Jr., whom he considered a friend, he backed out of the agreement.

Even with the problems in preproduction, in late 1965 20th Century Fox must have been optimistic about Doctor Dolittle. My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music had all been smash hits. Other studios had musicals in development--Warner Brothers was turning stage musical Camelot into a film, UA was doing a film adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and MGM had bought the rights to both Funny Girl and Oliver. It was then that Fox told Jacobs that he would have to expand Doctor Dolittle. Quite simply, it would have to fit the prerequisites for an epic musical.

Still casting the film, Jacobs cast Anthony Newley, Bricusse's partner on Stop the World--I Want to Get Off as Matthew Mugg. This would not sit well with Rex Harrison, who did not particularly trust Leslie Bricusse as a writer as it was. After Fleischer had found the city of Castle Combe, England to stand in for Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, Harrison announced he did not want to film in England, even going so far in forcing Fleischer to scout locations in Ireland. He objected to the screenplay and the songs, maintaining they did not fit the sort of characters his fans expected him to play. Indeed, he seemed to be happy with almost nothing about the movie. As it turned out, Harrison was not the only one unhappy with the screenplay. Studio head Darryl Zanuck sent a memo to his son Richard Zanuck, then president of Fox, outlining the script's short comings. He also expressed concerns over the film's over all costs. It would seem that the older Zanuck's thoughts were prescient.

By this time both Darryl and Richard Zanuck, as well as Arthur P. Jacobs, had grown tired of Rex Harrison's antics. After considering several possible replacements, they finally made a serious offer to Christopher Plummer, who had starred in The Sound of Music. Ultimately, even though a good deal of money had spent to get Plummer, he was only on the production for two weeks, after which they rehired Rex Harrison. After learning of the deal with Christopher Plummer, Harrison had straightened up his act.

By now projections on the cost of the film had grown. Arthur P. Jacobs had originally projected the film at $6 million. By now he was projecting $14.4 million. This naturally alarmed the studio. While The Sound of Music had been a hit, the mounting costs would make it more difficult for Doctor Dolittle to succeed. Jacobs was told to cut $2 million from the budget as soon as possible.

While Harrison had straightened up his act upon the news that Fox was hiring Christopher Plummer, he was not on good behaviour for long. He gave Bricusse some very long notes which if the screenwriter had followed would have made John Dolittle more like Professor Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady. He also sought out songwriters to replace Bricusse. He had suggested Betty Comden and Adolph Green of Singin' in the Rain fame, then comic performers Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. Jacobs ultimately gave in to Harrison and hired Flanders and Swann to write songs for the movie, even while Bricusse continued to write his own songs. When Flanders and Swann finally let Harrison hear their songs, he decided he preferred Bricusse's songs.

Ultimately, Fox had to work hard to cut the film's budget. They hired the lesser known Peter Bull (the Russian ambassador in Dr. Strangelove) as General Bellows because both Donald Pleasence and Robert Morley were too expensive. Both the character of Bumpo and a sequence involving a pirate ship were cut. Even the budget for training the animals was cut. Unfortunately, Bricusse was not told of the changes to the film, including the fact that Bumpo had been cut. He had expanded Bumpo's role, as Zanuck had originally planned for him to do. This meant more revisions to the script.

In pre-production since 1964, Doctor Dolittle finally began shooting in 1966. Shooting the film would prove no more pleasant than its preproduction. Fox had not heeded warnings that it rained a good deal in Castle Combe. As a result the first few weeks of shooting were pre-empted by heavy rainfall. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who was then serving in the 22nd Regiment of the Special Air Service, was angered by the production's desire to enlarge a pond at Castle Combe. Using explosives he had gotten from the Army, he tried to blow up a dam the filmmakers had built to expand the pond. Not only was he arrested, but he was kicked out of the 22nd Regiment and spent the rest of his military career in The Royal Scots Greys.

The animals themselves presented several problems. When Rex Harrison was singing in the pasture with sheep, he found himself being urinated upon and constantly sprayed down because of flies. Squirrels chewed through important bits of scenery, which then had to be replaced. One of the goats got free during a scene and even ate Richard Fleischer's script. A fawn on the set ate a quart of paint and as a result had to have her stomach pumped. Even a simple scene involving ducks swimming in a pond did not prove easily shot. It was moulting season so that the ducks had shed their generally waterproof feathers. As a result, the ducks sank. As if things could not get any worse, Rex Harrison was bitten by the animals rather often. In all around 1500 animals were used in the movie. The shooting of the film ultimately lasted nine months.

With Doctor Dolittle finally finished and slated for a December 1967 release (a full year after its initial release date), 20th Century Fox embarked on one of the largest marketing campaigns for a movie up to the that time. Dell Publishing reprinted Hugh Lofting's original books. Aurora issued model kits of both Doctor Dolittle and the Pushmi-Pullyu (an odd sort of llama type creature). Royal Shake-a-Pudding included "statuettes" (essentially little figures) of characters from Dr. Dolittle. Mattel put out talking dolls of both Dr. Dolittle and the Pushmi-Pullyu, a Doctor Dolittle giraffe jack in the box, and a Doctor Dolittle Ukelele Music Grinder. With various Purina products one could get an animal figure and when sending in proofs of purchase a Doctor Dolittle adventure set. Naturally, the soundtrack album was released.

Unfortunately for 20th Century Fox, when Doctor Dolittle was released in December 1967 it was met with indifferent or hostile reviews. In The Chicago Tribune Clifford Terry compared it to an iceberg, "...One-ninth of it should be observed, and the rest is better left well enough alone." The review in Time complained "...size and a big budget are no substitutes for originality or charm." Bosley Crowther in The New York Times complained that the pace of the movie was "...slow and without surprise." Perhaps there was no harsher critic of Doctor Dolittle than Leonard Maltin. Besides the photography, he only found one good thing to say about the movie, "If you have unruly children, it may put them to sleep."

Audiences and critics do not always agree, but in the case of Doctor Dolittle they apparently did. Despite the heavy merchandising, Doctor Dolittle saw little action at the box office. This was made all the worse by the fact that it was then the most expensive musical of all time. In the end it lost 20th Century Fox around $11 million.

Of course, all of this begs the question of how Doctor Dolittle was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. The answer is simple, old fashioned bribery. 20th Century Fox launched a huge campaign to get Doctor Dolittle nominated for Best Picture. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were actually wined and dined. Doctor Dolittle then has a place in history as a prime example of how, at least at one time, a film could receive a nomination through blatant campaigning.

In the end Doctor Dolittle would have a lasting impact. In losing 20th Century Fox nearly $11 million, it was one of three big budget musicals that almost brought the studio to bankruptcy. It was followed by Hello, Dolly and Star, both of which cost the studio money--more money than hits like Planet of the Apes and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could make. Fortunately, Richard Zanuck was able to turn the studio around in the Seventies with hits such as M*A*S*H, Patton, and The French Connection. As to its star Rex Harrison, Doctor Dolittle more or less ended his career as a leading man on film. Following the release of Doctor Dolittle he only appeared as the lead in A Flea in Her Ear and Staircase.

Doctor Dolittle was also one of the films responsible for bringing the practice of the roadshow theatrical release to an end. The roadshow theatrical release was a practice in which movies would be released only in large cities such as New York City or Chicago, had reserved seating, an intermission, and the opportunity to purchase souvenir programmes. Over the years, such films as Gone With the Wind, The Ten Commandments, and El Cid had received roadshow releases. By the Seventies the practice would die out, largely due to the failure of big budget movies such as Doctor Dolittle.

Time has often proven both critics and audiences wrong. A film vilified upon its initial release may be more highly regarded later on. A case in point is a musical released the same year as Doctor Dolittle, Camelot. Camelot also received bad reviews and bombed at the box office, but today its reputation is somewhat better. Sadly, Doctor Dolittle is not one of those films which time has blessed. At Rotten Tomatoes Doctor Dolittle received a meagre 28% among critics on the Tomatometer. At IMDB it fares a little better at a user rating of 5.9 out of 10, still hardly a vote of confidence. Current movie critics seem to like it no better than their 1967 counterparts.

Sadly, I must say that I am not surprised. I had the opportunity many years ago to see Doctor Dolittle. I must say that I was impressed by its photography--cinematographer Robert Surtees certainly knew what he was doing. The sets are also lavish and beautiful to look upon. Unfortunately, this is all that I can recommend about the film. With the exception of "Talk to the Animals," the songs are all rather dreadful. The film moves at a leaden pace, generating very little in the way of interest. Even the special effects fall short, with the many of the creatures (such as the giant sea snail and the giant luna moth) looking patently fake. In the end I can only agree with Leonard Maltin. This film would put children to sleep! Beyond the 1969 musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, it has to be the worst musical I have ever seen.

Doctor Dolittle has a place in history as a colossal flop that almost brought 20th Century Fox to its knees. It also has a place as one of the films which brought the roadshow theatrical release to an end. And, for me, at least, it has to be one of the worst films ever nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture.

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