VAULTS: Wall•E a fan of ‘Hello, Dolly!’

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“Out there,” the first words heard in the prodigiously imaginative and endearing Pixar animated fantasy of 2008, “Wall•E,” provide an admirable clue to the movie’s content. An allegory about the return to a terrestrial civilization abandoned long ago by its inhabitants, the film initially isolates us with the diminutive title character, an industrious and solitary compacting robot, evidently left with custodial chores that defy completion.

The source of the opening words was surprising, not to mention melodically gratifying to anyone as fond of that source as Wall•E, whose devotion seems to persist over centuries of diligent toil and secluded recreational appreciation. In this instance, the words derive from the introduction to Jerry Herman’s song “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” as sung by Michael Crawford in the 1969 movie version of “Hello, Dolly!”

This memorably appealing yet undervalued attraction had been kept at the cinematic altar longer than anticipated by 20th Century-Fox, which had agreed with Broadway producer David Merrick to postpone a film replica until his original theatrical production closed. The ingenious Merrick kept thinking of ways to prolong the run, which began in January 1964. A goodly ransom, close to the $2.5 million paid for film rights to begin with, finally allowed the lavish and entertaining movie version to proceed in the summer of 1968, under the direction of song-and-dance immortal Gene Kelly.

Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau, an odd couple on the face of things and reportedly an acrimonious one during production, co-starred as matchmaker Dolly Levi and her cantankerous client, merchant Horace Vandergelder. The finished film had its Washington debut on Dec. 20, 1969, at the Warner Theatre. In a perfect world, it would be revived there, in an impeccably preserved Todd-AO print, every Christmas

One of the curious yet beguiling things about choosing “Sunday Clothes” and a second Herman song, the wistful romantic ballad “It Only Takes a Moment,” as both Wall•E’s favorite numbers from “Dolly” and thematic keys to the new movie is that neither tune is reserved for the leading lady. Nor is either instantly associated with the show, a distinction monopolized by the title song, which requires an extended sequence for optimum fulfillment.

Miss Streisand does get a share of “Sunday Clothes,” as it ripens into a production number that concludes with characters boarding a train from Yonkers to New York City circa 1890.

As the first juvenile lead, Cornelius Hackl, a lovelorn clerk in the Vandergelder feed-and-grain store, Michael Crawford led the way with Wall•E’s favorite songs. Marianne McAndrew got a duet part on “It Only Takes a Moment,” and the choruses chimed in irresistibly on both numbers. But it seemed remarkably astute to associate Wall•E with not only a lovelorn comic figure but also one with toylike attributes. A generation before being cast as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, Mr. Crawford resembled a kind of spindly, chuckleheaded marionette. Not unlovable but certainly a misfit, whose desire to step out was awkward at best.

There’s another affinity that “Wall•E” tended to clarify in its affectionate way: “Hello, Dolly!” remains an undervalued classic among familiar and durably enjoyable Hollywood musicals. Its release, partly due to the Merrick foot-dragging, was tardy. A year earlier the film versions of “Funny Girl” and “Oliver!” were the major Academy Award contenders. Although “Hello, Dolly!” proved the best film musical of 1969 — and a deserving Oscar winner in such minor categories as art direction and musical scoring — it tended to be disparaged as a costly relic, the outmoded swan song within a fading genre, too late and too lavish.

Knowing nothing of the production history or fluctuations in popular favor, Wall•E demonstrates not only admirable loyalty but also a keen sense of long-term value. The robot responds to the heartfelt melodic and sentimental appeal in songs that evidently speak directly to an emotional core in its programming — something beyond the mechanical or utilitarian. Although the “Dolly” songs felt absolutely right, the choice was serendipitous enough to make you entertain thoughts of divine intervention in the creative process that resulted in “Wall•E” after a decade of musing and planning and illustrating.

The first thing director Andrew Stanton talks about in his DVD commentary is the songs from “Hello, Dolly!” Why those to establish Wall•E’s plight and sensibility? It turns out that he had intended to borrow French swing recordings of the 1930s, surmising that the contrast between that melodic source material and a distant interplanetary future would be effective. When he discovered that the French animated feature “The Triplets of Belleville” had drawn on the backlog he had in mind, Mr. Stanton turned elsewhere. Eventually, he relied on the “Dolly” song score, particularly when hearing “Out there” ring out from the movie soundtrack.

“Wall•E” seemed to arouse the merited popular and critical response from the outset. It’s satisfying to imagine that it also helped to revive esteem for one of the most exuberant and gladdening musicals ever made, 40 years after the strong points of that film have decisively transcended its shortcomings.

TITLE: “Hello, Dolly!”
RATING: G
CREDITS: Directed by Gene Kelly. Produced by Ernest Lehman. Associate producer: Roger Edens. Screenplay by Mr. Lehman, from the book of the Broadway musical by Michael Stewart and Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker.” Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Choreography by Michael Kidd. Cinematography by Harry Stradling. Production design by John De Cuir. Costume design by Irene Sharaff. Musical direction by Lennie Hayton and Lionel Newman. Film editing by William Reynolds
RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes
DVD EDITION: 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment
WEB SITE: www.foxhome.com

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