“ 'It’s really cute as hell,’ [publicist Perry] Lieber said. He has a boisterous, enthusiastic voice. ‘The animals are the star of the picture and they’ll be the hit of the evening. Sophie the Seal will arrive in a limo, and she’ll be wearing a rhinestone harness and walk right into the Paramount just like she was a star. And Chee-Chee the Chimp, we’ll have him dressed up in white-tie and tails and special patent-leather pumps.’ Lieber listened for a moment. ‘Oh, yeah,’ he said. ‘All the animals will be wearing pants. They better be, or you’ll have some messed-up limos.”—John Gregory Dunne, The Studio (1968)
Forty-five years ago tomorrow, the premiere of the Rex Harrison musical Dr. Dolittle was held in Los Angeles, at the Paramount Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The event sounds like something out of a Hollywood that, its attendees would know in a few years, was dying. While it had a nice charity benefiting from the $125-per-ticket cost to attend (the Hollywood and Television Relief Fund), the premiere was marked by the kind of crass promotion epitomized in Perry Lieber’s statement above, not to mention a hucksterish Joey Bishop saying on camera, to every arriving celebrity, a line that, each time it was repeated, became even more patently false: “I hear this is a marvelous picture, a wonderful picture.”
Screenwriter-novelist John Gregory Dunne could come up with funny lines with the best of them, but in his account of a single year at The Studio—i.e., Twentieth-Century Fox—he knew to get out of the way of his characters—not just the creators of film, but the execs who make the decisions guiding the production and promotion of movies.
One of the latter was legendary mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, at this point president of Twentieth-Century Fox. Puffing on his cigar, he let Dunne in on his concern about his studio’s product, a couple of weeks before the premiere of one of its major prestige pictures: “We’ve got $50 million tied up in these three musicals, Dolittle, Star! and Hello, Dolly!, and quite frankly, if we hadn’t made such an enormous success with The Sound of Music, I’d be petrified. You’re never sure of a hit in that category. You’re never sure of a hit any goddamn time, but when you’re talking $20 million, it’s a bigger gamble.”
Zanuck was right to be worried. All three pictures tanked, leaving the studio in such a financial hole that it released only one film in 1970. In the case of Dr. Dolittle, Fox pulled off one miracle of sorts—nine Oscar nominations, including an inexplicable one for Best Picture, and two wins (including for its song “Talk to the Animals”)—testimony to an effective promotional stunt: boffo dinners for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But critics were not especially kind, and the public reception was even worse, as its $9 million gross represented only half of its expenditure.
The film bombed not because of a shift in popular taste, but a lurch in it. Only three years before, Harrison had won the Best Actor Oscar for My Fair Lady, which not only was a moneymaker but a success with Academy voters (eight Oscars in all) and critics. By the time Dolittle, Star! and Hello, Dolly! came along, however, the kind of musical they represented—family-oriented, book- rather than dance-driven, opulent to the point of being overstuffed—had fallen out of favor. Studio heads didn’t realize it yet, but a new kind of movie musical was aborning, one epitomized within five years by Cabaret, where the songs spring organically from a performance rather than spontaneously--and the louche subject matter was definitely not one for the kiddies.
Yet, while studio heads did not immediately take to heart that particular lesson from Dr. Dolittle, they absorbed another one only too well. The film produced one of the greatest onslaughts of merchandise tie-ins ever to that point: not just the soundtrack album, but also puzzles, reprints of the Hugh Lofting books that inspired the movie, pet foods, even small toy figures in each package of "Shake-a-Pudding." Much of this did as abominably as the film itself. Thereafter, for a decade, film execs wouldn’t be caught dead even thinking about tie-ins.
Fast forward to the 1970s, when George Lucas shopped his idea for Star Wars around all the Hollywood studios. All but one passed on it: Twentieth-Century Fox, now headed not by Zanuck but by Alan Ladd Jr.
Ladd was correct in seeing box-office gold in the film. The movie would be such a mint for Fox, he figured, that giving Lucas the sequel, merchandising and soundtrack rights would be no problem, as sci-fi films of the time hadn’t been major hits, anyway.
Well, he was half right. Star Wars did make Fox a fortune—but this time, reversing the story of Dr. Dolittle, the merchandise flew off the shelves, too. That subsidiary revenue stream helped produce an entertainment empire for Lucas—and left the suits at Fox wistful about why they couldn’t see this coming.