The Matchmaker

On Saturday night Dave and I watched the movie of Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. Kickass cast: Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi, Paul Ford as Horace Vandergelder, a young and endearing Tony Perkins as Cornelius Hackl, Shirley MacLaine as Irene Molloy, and Robert Morse as Barnaby Tucker.

I’ve never seen the play or movie before, only read it once many years ago. It was a surprise to me to see how different the character of Dolly Levi is in the movie from what it is in the musical. The Dolly of Hello, Dolly! is a confident if not entirely scrupulous businesswoman, one who dominates any situation she’s in, and an important part of Yonkers society; what’s more, she used to live the high life in New York City while her husband was alive. The Dolly of The Matchmaker is quite different, much weaker and at the same time much more human, a woman who is struggling to get by any way she can, who is all too well aware of her failings and her lack of social position in Yonkers, though she puts up a good front and conceals her desperation. Her claim of familiarity with New York City is all pretense, and she’s never seen the inside of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant before, let alone been enough of a regular there that the staff would ever break into a ten-minute Gower Champion production number on hearing that she was returning after a long absence.

Hello, Dolly! is a fun show, certainly, and that is all the justification it needs, but it’s still very strange to watch this movie and wonder how Jerry Herman got from here to the character that he wrote his songs for. He’s said in interviews that he wrote the score with Ethel Merman in mind, and maybe that’s it. Merman as the Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker would have been a monumental piece of miscasting, so you’d have to do some serious reinterpretation to make the character suit her. But The Matchmaker‘s Dolly is a more complicated and more interesting character.

The movie is delightful, and Shirley Booth is absolutely brilliant — gestures, timing, inflections, all wonderfully revealing and surprising and funny and right on target. The device of having characters face the camera occasionally and address the audience is too precious by half; I imagine it worked a bit better on stage and was only too precious by a quarter or so.

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