The original Hugh Lofting novels have recently been re-released with ‘pruned’ texts to reflect modern sensitivities; the off-hand racism of WWI-era Britain could be fierce. If only this ten-ton musical could be ‘fixed’ as easily, though 'political correctness' is the least of its problems. Lofting’s early stories about the good doctor who talks to the animals were written as letters from ‘the front’ to his children, and their rural charm echoes Kenneth Grahame’s THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS and anticipates James Herriot’s ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL. Alas, this film was made in the wake of the mega-success of THE SOUND OF MUSIC/’65 and designed as a great, big RoadShow event with Overture, Intermission & Soundtrack tie-in. (“Doomed before they even take the vow,’ as Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins said in MY FAIR LADY/’64 before he got tapped to play & talk/sing Dolittle.) Composer, lyricist, scripter Leslie Bricusse deserves most of the blame for his generic tunes & hopelessly unfocused storyline, but producer Arthur Jacobs & megger Richard Fleischer must have known what they were getting into. At least, musical stager Herbert Ross finds a modest vein of enthusiasm when Richard Attenborough & his circus show up. The song he gets is perfectly dreadful, but Ross finds a lovely solo spot for Dickie right at the end. In fact, Attenborough looks far more like the Dolittle seen in the book illustrations, but Rex, to his credit, brings remarkable conviction & his devilish charm to an impossible role. (He even gets the film’s one great shot. Look sharp, he’s riding a giraffe and it lasts about a second.) Other than that, you can wonder at Anthony Newley’s unique vocal delivery as an Irish sidekick and note how the script changes its mind about pairing him up with Samantha Eggar’s proto-feminist. She prefers the elderly Rex while Newley, recalling his Artful Dodger in David Lean’s OLIVER TWIST/’48, buds up with Master William Dix, a little blond tyke who inexplicably tags along.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: The best reason for watching this is as background to THE STUDIO, John Gregory Dunne’s classic inside look @ 20th/Fox over the course of the disastrous year of 1967.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Producer Arthur P. Jacobs, who died at the young age of 51 in 1973, must have the oddest C.V. in the biz, alternating flop, family-friendly musicals like this, GOODBYE, MR CHIPS/’69, TOM SAWYER/’73, HUCKLEBERRY FINN/’74 with the original PLANET OF THE APES pics . . . plus, Woody Allen’s PLAY IT AGAIN SAM/’72.