April 16, 2016


What made Rex Harrison want to be in Dr. Doolittle? Was he strapped for cash? Did he screen Barabbas or Fantastic Voyage or The Vikings and have an overwhelming urge to be on a set with Richard Fleischer? Was he hankering to speak dialogue written by the insipid Leslie Bricusse, or sing-speak Bricusse's mind-numbing songs about the virtues of vegetarianism, with their canned Broadway blandness? Did Harrison think that his style of drawing-room wit would be complemented by the obnoxious Anthony Newley, whose acting career was distinguished by broad yuk-yuks and refrigerated ham?

Did Harrison think that audiences in the late Sixties—hip college audiences who were getting turned on to European directors and experimental styles—wanted gut-busting dances and stale, phoned-in stupidity from a bygone age of movie musical crap, an anachronistic studio production that's too long for kids to sit through and too asinine for normal adults to stand?

Maybe Harrison had a more practical motive. Did 20th Century-Fox agree to put his grandkids through college?

Seal abuse. Rex Harrison
This monstrosity of a movie musical achieves a dubious distinction, even in an age of awful musicals coming from many of the major studios at the time: it's utterly and completely charmless. Not a single scene, not a single song, not a single sentence, not a single conception has any of the light, carefree style and breezy satire of good musicals like Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and It's Always Fair Weather. That's hardly surprising. But even most of the other blubbery movie musicals at the time of Dr. Doolittle that all helped to sink the big Hollywood studios financially—Camelot, The Happiest Millionaire, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hello, Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon, Sweet Charity—have moments with some appeal: a passable number here, a clever performance there. Dr. Doolittle stands apart in such a dull crowd; it's devoid of anything good from start to finish. It may be the worst stinking musical of its time.

Every response you're likely to have, scene by scene, song by song, seems inadvertent. Watching the posh, sexless Harrison in his silk opera hat sing a love song to a seal doesn't exactly generate tender emotions in you; you're more likely to react with revulsion. For hapless viewers, this beached whale of a movie is human-animal abuse.