I have a theory that there were ferociously affectionate friends and family on the set of this film every day, just off-camera, sitting on the floor, or on folding chairs with a cushion for Grandma, or on a picnic blanket drinking from of a Thermos filled with coffee and John Jameson Irish Whiskey, watching and bewitched. If not, then there must have been a whale of an audience, because it’s as though each member of the cast is a barnacle, feeding off of some enormous attention; the characters come alive, as they almost never do.
A more credible explanation might be that it was directed by Joseph Anthony, who started on Broadway and made his most significant contributions there, besides a few brief interludes in Hollywood. One can only wish that those interludes had lasted a few more measures, because The Matchmaker is such a wonderful place between Theatre and Film, you wonder why more directors don’t try to make a home there.
Like I am a Camera or Auntie Mame, the genealogy of Matchmaker is nearly Biblical in length. Originally written for Broadway under the title The Merchant of Younkers, playwright Thornton Wilder revised, renamed and reopened it as The Matchmaker, after which it was adapted for film, adapted as a musical, and adapted for film again. The plot never changed, but for those who never followed it, here is a summary.
Dolly Levi (Shirley Booth) is a widow not in the black. She has a lot of business cards, but mostly for businesses in which she has no business. “Nature isn’t satisfactory, quite,” she declares, “and so it has to be corrected. So I put my hand in here and I put my hand in there.” At rise, Dolly’s hands are making a match, finding a find and catching a catch – for her, and for several other people, if convenient. Her prey is Mr. Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford), a wealthy storeowner who can keep Dolly in the manner after which she is lusting; unfortunately he is chasing a younger woman, Irene Molloy (Shirley MacLaine). It’s nearly enough to split the ends of Dolly’s wits, but she means to use two young men, Cornelius Hackl (Anthony Perkins) and Barnaby Tucker (Robert Morse) to accomplish her purpose. But before then, there will be hiding in closets, under tables and in drag.
It sounds like a harmless farce made for high school drama programs, and yet the film casts a rare spell, the kind Robertson Davies describes in A Mixture of Frailties: “…[a] state of excitement which follows a really satisfactory artistic achievement. Their excitement varied, of course. There were those who talked of the concert, and there were those who talked of politics and the stock market; but all their talk was a little more vivacious, or vehement, or pontifical because of what they had experienced; music had performed its ever-new magical trick of strengthening and displaying whatever happened to be the dominant trait in them.” If you are charming or witty or gay – and everybody is, in their own way – after this film you will be charwittay.
Thanks must be given to the adaptor, John Michael Hayes, who was known for his literary adaptations, but that phrase is contrarian to his purpose: instead of adapting a book for film, he adapted film for the book; or, in this case, the play. While 3 out of 4 screenwriters would recommend medicating the theatrical conditions, Hayes practiced a natural approach, keeping all the character asides and adding a few more for consistency, increasing the hysterical antics to a scale only achievable in film, and giving the entire cast an opportunity to thank us for coming to the show.
But don’t misinterpret that gesture: the star of the show is Shirley Booth. It’s obvious why she is among the elite performers who have won an Emmy, Tony and Oscar. What’s baffling is that she was replaced three times in film adaptations for roles she originated on the stage: by Ruth Bussey in Philadelphia Story, Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen and Katharine Hepburn in Summertime, all three of whom were nominated in her stead. Although each of those women gave a fine performance, it’s a rightfully big boo-hoo of should-have-beens. Yet Booth kept working, and what work there is, is remarkable. When she becomes a character, every thought and feeling is composed in her mind and heart, telegraphed to her face and translated with her mouth – simultaneously, amusingly, poignantly, and often contradictorily, though the message always comes out clear. She plays Dolly as the cat that ate the canary, except she hasn’t eaten it, she’s just holding it in the back of her throat, trying to scare it back to life.
And she is only just the brightest in a film full of stars, laying down squares to make a Hollywood walk upon which you almost float. Robert Morse redirects his energy from its typically manic expression to a touching uncertainty. Shirley MacLaine has a heady charm worth losing your head over. And, in one of the last lines, Anthony Perkins’ characteristically haltering speech has never been so endearing, and the sly grin so boyish, as he says, “I hope that in your lives you have just the right amount of sitting quietly at home and just the right amount of adventure.” After spending time with The Matchmaker, I always feel just the right amount of both.