Doctor Dolittle (film)

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This article is about the 1967 film. For the 1998 film, see Dr. Dolittle (film).
Doctor Dolittle
Original movie poster for the film Doctor Dolittle.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Tom Chantrell
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Produced by Arthur P. Jacobs
Screenplay by Leslie Bricusse
Based on Doctor Dolittle 
by Hugh Lofting
Starring Rex Harrison
Samantha Eggar
Anthony Newley
Richard Attenborough
Music by Leslie Bricusse
Lionel Newman, Alexander Courage
Cinematography Robert L. Surtees
Edited by Samuel E. Beetley
Marjorie Fowler
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • December 19, 1967 (1967-12-19)
Running time 152 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $17,015,000[1]
Box office $9,000,000[2]

Doctor Dolittle is a 1967 American musical film directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley and Richard Attenborough. It was adapted by Leslie Bricusse from the novel series by Hugh Lofting. It primarily fuses three of the books "The Story of Doctor Dolittle", "The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle", and "Doctor Dolittle's Circus".

The film had a notoriously protracted production with numerous setbacks along the way such as complications from poorly chosen shooting locations and the numerous technical difficulties inherent with the large number of animals required for the story. The film exceeded its original budget of $6 million by three times, and recouped $9 million upon release in 1967,[2] earning only $6.2 million in theatrical rentals.[3]

The film received generally negative critical reviews, but through the studio's intense lobbying, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and won awards for Best Original Song and Best Visual Effects.

A comedy film of a similar title, Dr. Dolittle, loosely based on the character, was later released in 1998.


During the early Victorian period, in the town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, England, Irishman Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) takes his young friend Tommy Stubbins (William Dix) to visit eccentric Doctor John Dolittle. It is Matthew's wish that the Doctor tend to an injured duck Tommy has found and upon arrival, Tommy finds that Dolittle, a former people's physician, lives with a houseful of animals - pigs, including a feisty one named Grunt-Grunt, sheep, goats, ducks, horses, cows, a chimpanzee named Chee-Chee (Cheeta), a dog named Jip, and a talking parrot named Polynesia (the uncredited voice of Ginny Tyler) among them. The night is stormy, so Tommy and Matthew stay with Dolittle. They find Dolittle blowing bubbles into a fish tank, but says that because he can only blow large bubles the fish think he is yelling at them. Dolittle indicates he is learning how to communicate with snails and fish by first learning the basic fish languages of "halibut, mackerel, and goldfish." During dinner (sausages and bacon for Matthew and Tommy, a vegetarian meal for the doctor), Dolittle explains he is a vegetarian to avoid upsetting the animals by eating meat.

Dolittle tells them, in a flashback, why he first learned to speak animal languages: He was once an established doctor, but he kept so many animals in his home that they causing havoc and made him lose his patients. After a particularly harrowing day, when a patient screams when a mouse crawls up on her, a patient who sat accidentally on a hedgehog, and a chase involving a dog and a car, causing a statue to fall on one of the male patients, his sister, who acts as his housekeeper, gives him a stark choice, either keep the animals or she would depart forever. Because he much preferred the company of animals, a casual comment by Polynesia revealed that animals can talk to each other, prompting Dolittle to study the languages of the animals so that he could become an animal doctor instead. Polynesia informs him that animals will come from all the surrounding areas if he is an animal doctor.

The following day as the doctor attends to his animal patients, a short sighted horse named Toggle seeks Dolittle's assistance, but the horse's owner - General Bellowes (Peter Bull) - takes offense to Dolittle's notions of protecting animals, particularly a vixen (whom Bellowes had been intending to chase in a fox hunt), however, a group of skunks, whom the Doctor says that they travel with the fox for protection, infuriates the General, as well as his bloodhounds, who are frightened by the smell and the sight of the skunks. Bellowes' niece Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar) chides Dolittle for his irresponsibility and rudeness to her uncle. Dr. Dolittle is unmoved, however, and she storms off in a huff. For Matthew, by contrast, it is love at first sight. He nicknames her Fred on the spot, due to her wishing she were a man with the power to punish Dr. Dolittle. When she has gone, Dolittle admits he also finds her attractive.

A Red Indian friend of Dolittle's sends him the rare two-headed Tibetan Pushmi-pullyu, a creature that looks like a llama with a head on each end of its body. Matthew, Tommy and Dolittle take the creature to a nearby circus, run by the greedy yet lovable Albert Blossom (Richard Attenborough), who makes the Pushmi-Pullyu the star attraction. The doctor befriends a circus seal named Sophie who longs to return to her husband in the North Pole. He disguises her in women's clothing, sneaks her away, and then throws her into the ocean from some cliffs. However, two fishermen mistake the seal for a woman, and have Doctor Dolittle arrested on a charge of murder. Dolittle is horrified to learn that General Bellowes is the magistrate in his case, but proves he can converse with animals by talking with Bellowes' dog. Though Dr. Dolittle is acquitted of murder, the vindictive judge sentences him to imprisonment in a lunatic asylum. Dolittle's animal friends break him out of prison, and he, Matthew, Tommy, Polynesia, Chee-Chee and Jip take the doctor's ship, the Flounder, out onto the ocean to search for the legendary Great Pink Sea Snail. Emma sneaks aboard (thanks to Matthew conveniently turning a blind eye) as well. After sticking a hatpin at random into an atlas to determine their destination, they set their course for Sea-Star Island, a floating island currently in the Atlantic Ocean. Emma, who insists on being treated as a man with no special privileges, finds herself doing all of the cleaning, cooking and hard work while Dolittle is questioning various sea creatures about the Great Pink Sea-Snail, and Matthew finds his attraction for her growing stronger.

The ship is torn apart during a fierce storm, but everyone makes it to what turns out to be Sea-Star Island. Emma had arrived ahead of them, and when she and Dolittle are alone briefly, they admit they have grown to like each other. There is implication Emma has begun to fall in love with him, and the doctor seems to be beginning to feel something for her. The party is met first, fiercely, by the natives, who first use bows and arrows for their protection, who are highly educated and cultured due to all the flotsam and jetsam that have floated ashore from shipwrecks over the centuries. At first, the Doctor and his crew are imprisoned in a hut, until one of the natives agree to talk to them. Their leader is William Shakespeare the Tenth (Geoffrey Holder): his name comes from the tribe's tradition of naming children after favorite authors. William explains that they also fear the use of strangers coming on the island, in fear that their ways of life would be taken away. The tropical Sea-Star Island is endangered because it is drifting further north than usual into colder waters, and the local tradition causes the islanders to blame the doctor and his party. When Dolittle persuades a friendly whale to help push the island south, the vibration causes a balancing rock to drop into a volcano, fulfilling another local tradition that dooms Dolittle and party to be burned at the stake. However, the whale also causes the island to rejoin the mainland, fulfilling another prophecy that dictates that the doctor and his friends be heralded as heroes, and they are freed. While treating the animals on the island, Dolittle encounters a surprise patient - the Great Pink Sea Snail itself, who has caught a severe cold. Dolittle cures him and discovers that the snail's shell is watertight and can carry passengers. Dolittle sends Matthew, Tommy, Emma, Polynesia, Chee-Chee, and Jip back to England with the snail. Emma expresses a wish to stay on the island with him and accompany him on his planned voyage to the moon, but the Doctor is adamant that a relationship would never work, though he does wish to stay in touch. She finally admits her feelings for the Doctor, and kisses him goodbye.

Doctor Dolittle himself cannot go back, since he is still a wanted man; furthermore, he wishes to investigate the natives' stories of the Giant Lunar Moth. However, after his friends leave, Dolittle finds he is not so impervious to feelings as he thought, particularly his feelings for Emma. Sophie the seal turns up, accompanied by her husband, with a message: the animals of England have gone on strike in protest against his sentence, the people have changed their views towards him, and even Bellowes has agreed to pardon him if he returns home. Dolittle and the tribesfolk then construct a saddle for the Giant Lunar Moth, and he flies back to England, eager to be there when his friends arrive.


Musical numbers[edit]

  1. "Overture"
  2. "My Friend the Doctor" - Matthew
  3. "The Vegetarian" - Dolittle
  4. "Talk to the Animals" - Dolittle, Polynesia
  5. "If I Were a Man" - Emma
  6. "At the Crossroads" - Emma
  7. "I've Never Seen Anything Like It" - Blossom, Dolittle, Matthew
  8. "Beautiful Things" - Matthew
  9. "When I Look in Your Eyes" - Dolittle
  10. "Like Animals" - Dolittle
  11. "After Today" - Matthew
  12. "Fabulous Places" - Dolittle, Emma, Matthew, Tommy
  13. "Where Are the Words?" (deleted scene) - Matthew
  14. "I Think I Like You" - Dolittle, Emma
  15. "Doctor Dolittle" - Matthew, Tommy, the Island Children
  16. "Something in Your Smile" (deleted scene) - Dolittle
  17. "My Friend the Doctor" (reprise) - Company

In the original cut of the movie, Dr. Dolittle and Emma did eventually begin a relationship. He sang Where Are the Words?, when he realised he was falling in love with her, but in a revised version, it's actually Matthew who falls for Emma and it is his recording of the song which is featured on the soundtrack album.

Both versions were filmed and both actors recorded their respective versions, but the footage for both, as well as the vocal track by Rex Harrison have been lost to history.

In both scenarioes, Something In Your Smile, is sung by Dolittle when he realizes he himself has fallen for Emma, however, although Harrison's vocal for the song survives, the footage does not.

As a result, in an upcoming Special Anniversary Blu-ray deluxe box-set release, 20th Century Fox intends to play audio from both Newley's version of the former as well as Harrison's version of the latter against production stills taken at the time of shooting to give the viewer an idea of how the missing footage might have originally appeared.

The film's 1967 release was accompanied by an enormous media blitz, with over a million copies of the soundtrack issued to stores. The advertising campaign failed, and soundtracks from the original release could be found in "bargain bins" for decades after the film's theatrical run.


20th Century Fox had originally intended the film to reunite Rex Harrison and Lerner & Loewe, following the success of My Fair Lady, but Loewe had retired from writing musicals. Alan Jay Lerner was originally chosen to write the script, but was fired by producer Arthur P. Jacobs on May 7, 1965 for his endless procrastination stretching over a year.[4] Jacobs then tried to get the Sherman Brothers, but they were tied to Walt Disney. Instead, Lerner was replaced by Leslie Bricusse, who was in high demand after his success with the musical Stop the World - I Want to Get Off. Determined to make a good impression for his first screenplay commission, Bricusse proved agreeably productive from the start for Jacobs, suggesting numerous story ideas at their first meeting on May 6, 1965 and followed up just two months later with a full treatment that included various song suggestions while effectively blunting the book's racist content in an adaptation that met with Hugh Lofting's widow's approval.[5] Lerner's replacement by Bricusse gave Harrison the chance to sit out his contract, while making unreasonable demands such as having the proposed actor for the role of Bumpo, Sammy Davis Jr., replaced by Sidney Poitier, despite the fact that Poitier was not a musical performer.[6] Eventually, the part of Bumpo was cut out altogether, and Harrison taxed the patience of the producers with more counter-productive demands to the point where he was to be replaced by Christopher Plummer, but when Harrison agreed to stay, the producers paid Plummer his total agreed-upon salary to leave the production. The film was originally budgeted at $6 million, but the budget eventually tripled.

The village scenes were filmed in the village of Castle Combe in Wiltshire. Unfortunately, the producers did not anticipate that the necessary trained animals for the production would all have to quarantined upon entering the UK, forcing them all to be replaced with other animals at considerable and redundant expense to meet regulations. Furthermore, the producers chose to ignore climate reports of the area's frequently rainy summers and were frustrated with the resulting weather continually interfering with shooting, while also caused health problems with the animals. In addition, the producers' arbitrary set design decisions such as removing TV aerials from personal residences in town irritated the population. This antipathy went to as far as an artificial dam built by the production on the Castle Combe set being blown up by British Army officer (and future explorer) Ranulph Fiennes, using explosives he obtained from being in the service, because he believed it ruined the village.[7] Eventually, the producers decided to rebuild relevant sets back in California for costly reshoots.

The film was also shot in Marigot Bay, Saint Lucia; this location was equally problematic, with considerable problems with insects and frequent tropical storms halting production. Furthermore, the finale scene of the characters sailing home on a giant snail was complicated not only by the poor design of the large prop, but because the island's children had recently been struck by a gastrointestinal illness epidemic caused by freshwater snails, and mobs of angry locals threw rocks at it.[8] The Marigot Bay Hotel, now located there, has the Pink Snail Champagne Bar in honor of Dr. Dolittle. The walls of the bar are adorned with original pictures from the film.

Cast and crew relationship were tense such as with Anthony Newley who was continually insulted with antisemitic comments by Harrison. Furthermore, Harrison was so jealous of his Jewish co-star's participation that he continually demanded Newely's role be reduced and even purposefully disrupted shootings focusing on Newley. [9] Geoffrey Holder faced similar abuse from Harrison's entourage with racist comments that tested his patience.[10] For their part, the young castmembers grew to loath Harrision for this abuse and they retaliated by antagonizing him.[11] It was photographed in 70 mm Todd-AO by Robert Surtees.

Some of the animals did bite Rex Harrison during the filming.

Just prior to release, 20th Century Fox was sued for $4.5 million by Helen Winston, a previous would-be producer, when she discovered an original plot point from her own rejected screenplay written by Larry Watkin, of animals threatening to go on strike on Dolittle's behalf, was used in the film. It turns out Bricusse, who had read Winston's script, assumed it was from the books and included it in his own treatment by mistake. Since the producers only had rights to the content of the original books, they had no legal defence and were forced to settle out of court. The animals strike is mentioned in the movie, but not shown in detail.[12]


A remake starring Eddie Murphy, entitled Dr. Dolittle, was released in 1998. The remake was directed by Betty Thomas. It bore little resemblance to the original film or the Hugh Lofting books. It also inspired four sequels, one of which was theatrical and three direct-to-video.


The film's first sneak preview in September, 1967 at the Mann Theatre in Minneapolis proved to be an alarming failure: for instance, the audience had few children, indicating little interest in the source material with its intended primary audience. Furthermore, the general audience response was muted during the screening while comment cards rated it poorly with frequent complaints about the film's excessive length. A shortened edit of the film previewed in San Francisco was no more successful while a still shorter edit previewed in San Jose was marginally better received enough to be approved as the final cut.[13]

Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther said: "The music is not exceptional, the rendering of the songs lacks variety, and the pace, under Richard Fleischer's direction, is slow and without surprise."[14] In his annual Movie Guide, critic and historian Leonard Maltin called the film a "colossal dud". Maltin admired the film's photography, but was quick to point out how it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox Studios. He admitted, however, that "The movie has one merit: If you have unruly children, it may put them to sleep."[15]

Furthermore, the film also faced strong competition with the Walt Disney animated feature film, The Jungle Book, opening on the same week to considerable critical acclaim and children's audience enthusiasm. To make matters worse, Doctor Dolittle's appeal as family fare was seriously undermined as the film's publicity drew attention to the original books and its virulent racist content, which drew calls to have them removed from public schools.[16]

When Oscar nomination time came around, according to the book Behind the Oscar, Fox mounted an unparalleled nomination campaign at which Academy members were wined and dined. As a result, the film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture.

The film currently holds a 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[17]


The resulting poor sales of related merchandise significantly discouraged enthusiasm for similar forms of marketing until George Lucas took advantage of the attitude to gain those rights and profited spectacularly with his 1977 film, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

In 1998, the film was adapted into a stage musical, starring Phillip Schofield as Doctor Dolittle, a pre-recorded Julie Andrews as the voice of Dolittle's parrot Polynesia, and the animatronic wizardry of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The show ran for 400 performances in London's West End and at the time was one of the most expensive musicals ever produced. The musical also starred Bryan Smyth, a former milkman and full-time actor and singer who then went on to host his own TV game show for RTE.[18]

Bobby Darin Sings Doctor Dolittle was released on Atlantic Records in August, 1967.[19] Darin's recording of "Beautiful Things" from this LP was featured in a 2013 TV commercial for Etihad Airways.[20][21][22] A cover version of the same song by The Shiny Lapel Trio was used in a Christmas 2008 TV commercial campaign for the United States retail chain Kohl's.[23][24]

Academy Awards[edit]

The film won Academy Awards for Best Effects, Special Effects (L.B. Abbott) and Best Music, Song (Leslie Bricusse for "Talk to the Animals").[25]

It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Mario Chiari, Jack Martin Smith, Ed Graves, Walter M. Scott, Stuart A. Reiss), Best Cinematography (Robert L. Surtees), Best Film Editing {Samuel E. Beetley, Marjorie Fowler), Best Music, Original Music Score (Leslie Bricusse), Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment (Lionel Newman, Alexander Courage} and Best Sound (20th Century Fox).[26]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p254
  2. ^ a b Box Office Information for Doctor Dolittle. The Numbers. Retrieved June 26, 2013.
  3. ^ Solomon p 230.
  4. ^ Harris, Mark Pictures at A Revolution, Penguin Press, pg. 77
  5. ^ Harris, pg. 90, 124-5.
  6. ^ Harris, pp. 127-28.
  7. ^ "I am not a madman". The Guardian. 5 October 2007. Retrieved 4 January 2010. 
  8. ^ Harris, Mark Pictures at A Revolution, Penguin Press, pg. 242-43
  9. ^ Harris, pg. 242.
  10. ^ Harris, pg. 243.
  11. ^ Harris, pg. 242.
  12. ^ Harris, pg. 357-58.
  13. ^ Harris, pg. 353-57.
  14. ^ Crowther, Bosley (December 20, 1967). "Screen: That Grand Zoomanitarian, 'Doctor Dolittle,' Arrives for the Holidays on a Great Pink Snail". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 March 2013. 
  15. ^ Maltin, Leonard, ed. (2007). Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide. New York: Signet. p. 362. ISBN 978-0-451-22186-5. 
  16. ^ Harris, pg. 378.
  17. ^ "Doctor Dolittle". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  18. ^ Doctor Dolittle, Music Theatre International, accessed July 31, 2013
  19. ^ Review by JT Griffith. "". Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  20. ^ "Etihad Airways". Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  21. ^ from STITCH PRO 11 months 1 day ago Not Yet Rated (2013-03-06). "Etihad Airways "Beautiful Things" on Vimeo". Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  22. ^ "". 2013-11-21. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  23. ^ "Kohl's 2008 TV Commercial on YouTube". 2008-11-04. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  24. ^ "". 2008-11-03. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  25. ^ "NY Times: Doctor Dolittle". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-27. 
  26. ^ "The 40th Academy Awards (1968) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-25. 

External links[edit]