Saturday, January 14, 2017

Birthday: How Hugh Lofting's Dr Dolittle series killed the Hollywood musical and made George Lucas a billionaire


Hugh John Lofting (1886-1847)
Architect, Engineer, Author

I don’t know if kids read Doctor Dolittle any more, but the fourteen kids’ books, written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting, were my bread and butter as a young reader in the early 1960s.

My first grade teacher had a daily break of some kind, after lunch. Impossible as it is to believe today, she designated a student to read to the rest of the class, and left us to it. One of my fragmentary memories of first grade is getting to sit on the tall stool at the head of the class, and read one of Lofting’s tales.

Five years later, I was an eleven-year old, keen to see the relentlessly-hyped 20th Century Fox musical version of the Dolittle stories, and left the theater wondering how such marvelous tales could be made into such an awful film.

Lofting was an unlikely candidate for a successful children’s book author. Educated in a Jesuit school in England, he determined to be an engineer. The British Empire was approaching its zenith, and the demand was ample.

He spent a year at MIT, then completed his studies at London Polytechnic. He spent 1908-09 prospecting and surveying in Canada; 1910-12 doing design work on the Lagos Railway in Nigeria and Cuba’s Havana line. He returned to America, married, and began writing short stories and articles. It was the golden age of magazines, and any writer worth much found plenty of outlets.

When The Great War broke out, Lofting took a job with the British Ministry of Information office in New York. Still a British citizen, he was called to duty in 1916, commissioned a lieutenant, and saw hard fighting over the next two years.

Anxious not to alarm his children with tales of the horrors of the trenches, Lofting sent letters home containing little stories of an eccentric English country doctor who lived with his sister and came to discover animals and humans had once been able to communicate with each other and live in harmony. The trouble was, the humans grew up, forgot the important things to know and- instead- put animals to work for them- or worse.

Lofting’s family joined him in England as he recovered from shrapnel wounds. A chance conversation with an author, on the boat back to America in 1919, led to Lofting’s letters to his children being turned into a book. The Story of Doctor Dolittle came out in 1920.


It sold well, and was followed by The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, which won the second Newberry Prize in 1923. Eight volumes were published that decade.

Life, as it is wont to do, hit a rough patch. Lofting’s wife died in 1927. He remarried in 1928; his wife died of influenza before the year was out. In 1935 he married a third time. The couple moved to California and started a new family. The later Dolittle books of the 1930s and ‘40s have flashes of darkness in them. Beset by his own troubles, Lofting was also saddened by what he correctly saw was the coming of another, even more global, war.

Lofting produced twenty books in total, all but one a kids’ book. He nevertheless smarted at being labeled a “children’s author.” “For years it was a constant source of shock to me to find my writings amongst 'juveniles'. It does not bother me any more now, but I still feel there should be a category of 'seniles' to offset the epithet,” he commented. The one adult volume was a long poem, Victory for the Slain, on the futility of war. It was published in the UK in 1942.

Lofting died in 1947, after two years of failing health. Two more Dolittle collections appeared after that, the last in 1952.

His works fell into disfavor. Though set in the 1820s-40s, they reflected the racial attitudes of the Victorians, and Lofting’s illustrations portrayed the natives of the primitive lands to which the Doctor’s travels took him as cannibals with bones in their noses. His son and literary executor maintained Lofting was alert enough to changing times that he would have updated the books himself, had he lived; they were revised and reissued in 1988.

The Dolittle books became victims of Hollywood in the 1960s. After the smash success of The Sound of Music, studios believed the public wanted more musicals, and, in the odd way of the industry, convinced themselves a series of children’s books would be the perfect vehicle for a lavish grown up movie with seventeen songs in it.

The studio wanted Lerner & Loewe to write the film, given their success with Rex Harrison- tapped as Dr Dolittle- in My Fair Lady. Loewe said no to the music; Alan Jay Lerner was fired for spending a year producing no lyrics.

Then Fox tried to get the Sherman Brothers, who did the songs for Mary Poppins, but Walt Disney, for whom they had been making hits since the 1950s, said, hell no.

The job finally went to Leslie Bricusse, who had done a number of successful Broadway shows with a British singer-songwriter called Anthony Newley. Newley had a rather odd, warbling singing style that was a great influence on David Bowie, though Newley’s star fell in the 1970s while Bowie’s rose.

The Bricusse hire made Newley’s casting in the film a natural, which irritated Rex Harrison no end. Racist and antisemitic, a general beastly man who married six times, Harrison constantly harassed Newley for being a Jew and for thinking that just because he could actually sing, that made him a co-star rather than a bit player. He so alienated Fox over his demands that Sammy Davis, Jr be replaced by Sidney Poitier as Prince Bumppo, ruler of a South Seas island in the film that they nearly replaced Harrison with Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music’s heartthrob.

The first half of the film was shot in a Wiltshire village known for torrential summer rains Fox apparently hoped would abate for shooting. A mill pond the studio created offended a young soldier, Ranulph Fiennes (later a famous explorer/adventurer), who blew it up because it ruined the village’s appearance. The 1200 live animals required for the movie were fractious, biting cast and crew and defecating everywhere, and, it seemed, on everyone.

Things were no better for the story’s latter half, where the island of St Lucia doubled for a tropical atoll in the film. Harrison picked fights with Geoffrey Holder, the black actor who played the island’s king (retitled William Shakespeare the Tenth); the younger cast members undermined Harrison out of frustration. A recent outbreak of gastrointestinal trouble from local freshwater snails offended the locals when a giant fiberglass sea snail appeared as a character. The St Lucians took it as a dig and constantly pelted it with stones, and it worked, at best, creakily.


Fox bet the farm on the movie, and licensed over three hundred retail tie-ins. Cost-overruns plagued the production; budgeted for $6 million; it cost $18 million-almost $132 million in today’s money. In test showings, the 70mm spectacle performed poorly, and Fox cut the running length three times before letting it into general release. As an adult film based on a children’s story, it straddled two markets while finding favor from either; one critic wrote that the film’s one virtue was, “if you have unruly children, it may put them to sleep.” Compared to Disney’s The Jungle Book, also out in 1967, Doctor Dolittle was doomed. It didn’t help that press coverage revealed the racist elements in the stories, undermining the picture's family fare pitch; there were scattered calls for the books to be banned in public schools. It made $6.2 million at the box office.

The commercial tie-ins were a bust. Over $200 million in goods went unsold. The soundtrack was issued in both stereo and mono versions, but stereo had already won the sound war, and mono copies would be found in thrift shop record bins well into this century.

That failure, along with that of The Great Gatsby's tie-ins in 1974, put Hollywood off the whole concept, which meant that, when George Lucas wanted all the tie-in rights to his eccentric little project, Star Wars, the producers shrugged, and Lucas became wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice.

Undaunted, the studio launched a major pressure campaign for the Academy Awards. It got nine nominations and won three, including Best Picture. Many film historians feel the film marked the death of Old Hollywood, capturing the top Oscar in a year that saw the release of Bonnie & Clyde; Cool Hand Luke; The Graduate; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; In Cold Blood, and In the Heat of the Night.

In 1998, Fox released a reboot of Doctor Dolittle, starring Eddie Murphy, as a comedy. It made $294 million worldwide, its hip-hop/R&B soundtrack went to #4 on the charts, and it spawned four successful sequels.


#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Charlotte #HughLofting #DoctorDoolittle

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