Cinema: Echolalia

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Fred Allen once recalled a man whose hobby was collecting old echoes. Composer Jerry Herman easily fits that description; his score for Hello, Dolly! seems to contain the strains of nothing but borrowed melodies. Indeed, even his title song was publicly conceded to be derived from another tune by another man.

The film adaptation of Hello, Dolly! matches Herman's contribution. Michael Crawford playing the young clerk, Cornelius Hackl, self-consciously recalls Stan Laurel. As Horace Vandergelder, the richest and meanest man in Yonkers, N.Y., Walter Matthau is doing Walter Matthau as he used to be in B pictures, moving through the production like a man with a strong distaste for all around him. As for the lead, Barbra Streisand oscillates between postures: now Mae West, now Lena Horne, now brassily elegant, now flying her Yiddishkeit.

If the echoes sometimes blend into a solid chorus, credit must be divided between Director Gene Kelly and his choreographer, Michael Kidd. Ernest Lehman's script is based on the Broadway musical (which was based on Thornton Wilder's farce The Matchmaker). It is woven from a solitary yarn. Matchmaker Dolly Levi sets great store by Horace Vandergelder's feed and grain store and decides to snare him for her own. She does. Curtain. In between their coy runaround, tiny complications arise. None of them matter, but several are the premises for blithe and sumptuous dance numbers. The most kinetic, Dancing, is happily reminiscent of the old MGM musical It's Always Fair Weather, starring a couple of guys named Gene Kelly and Michael Kidd.

Hello, Dolly! could have used those personalities on screen. Instead, it relies almost exclusively on the celebrated eyes, ears, nose and throat of Streisand. Her musicianship remains irreproachable. But her mannerisms are so arch and calculated that one half expects to find a key implanted in her back. Still, the Widow Levi is by way of becoming a classic repertory role. Over 50 women have played her on Broadway and in road companies. The stage version is less than 300 performances away from the longest-running musical record held by My Fair Lady. It now stars Pearl Bailey, who heads an all-Negro company. Until the topless or the all-nude version comes along, a windup Dolly will have to suffice.