BRIAN VINER on the chaos of creating a £135m remake of Dr Dolittle
If you can talk to the animals, tell your squirrel to lay off the gin! BRIAN VINER on the chaos of creating a £135m remake of Dr Dolittle
BRIAN VINER A goat ate director Richard Fleischer’s script and a parrot wrought havoc on set by repeatedly shouting ‘Cut!’ in a perfect imitation of Fleischer’s voice.
A squirrel got drunk on gin. And relentless rain flooded pretty Castle Combe, the Wiltshire village doubling as fictional Puddleby-on-the-Marsh.
These were just some of many problems plaguing the 1967 musical Dr Dolittle, a production sabotaged even before it began by a young Army officer, Lieutenant Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, who, objecting to how the designers had ‘desecrated’ a local trout stream, tried to blow up the set with stolen explosives.
For his pains, the man better known now as explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes was booted out of the SAS. But he wasn’t the only person for whom the film represented a sizeable career blip.
Chaos: ‘Tyrannosaurus’ Rex Harrison in 1967 film
Dr Dolittle was based on Hugh Lofting’s much-loved children’s books, about an eccentric doctor in Victorian England who learns to converse with his feathered and four-legged friends
In fact, it became a hideously expensive flop that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. And now something eerily similar is happening again.
Dr Dolittle was reworked in 1998 with Eddie Murphy in the title role, and did well enough to spawn a couple of sequels. But Hollywood really should have let talking dogs lie — because I have now had the misfortune to see Dolittle, the big-budget movie in which Emma Thompson voices a macaw and Sir Ranulph’s kinsman, Ralph Fiennes, a tiger. I can report that it is as big a turkey as the original.
The £135 million film opens across the UK next week but U.S. critics are already declaring it a disaster, with cinemagoers there left ‘reeling’ by a desperately misjudged climactic scene involving a constipated dragon, voiced by Frances de la Tour.
For some reason, the removal of a set of bagpipes from her fundament eases the dragon’s discomfort, though mercifully we are spared the sight of her expelling everything inside her.
Yet as mountains of dung go, the 1967 film was in a class of its own, not least because the star playing the genial doctor, Rex Harrison, made the lives of fellow actors and studio staff a misery. His rampaging ego earned him the nickname ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’.
Dr Dolittle was based on Hugh Lofting’s much-loved children’s books, about an eccentric doctor in Victorian England who learns to converse with his feathered and four-legged friends. For Fox, it sounded the ideal follow-up to its global hit The Sound Of Music.
Moreover, Harrison was a hugely bankable star, especially after his Oscar-winning performance in My Fair Lady (1964). He quickly asserted his movie-star muscle by high-handedly refusing to act opposite Sammy Davis Jr, who had been cast to play an African prince, Bumpo Kahbooboo.
Chee-Chee, voiced by Rami Malek, left, and Dr. John Dolittle, portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in a scene from ‘Dolittle’
Dolittle is an upcoming American fantasy comedy film directed by Stephen Gaghan and written by Gaghan and Thomas Shepherd
Harrison insisted he wanted Sidney Poitier instead. If they stuck with Davis, he said, he would quit. So Davis was fired and Poitier hired.
In the event, that didn’t work either. Poitier was paid off handsomely and his character was cut. The initial £6 million budget was climbing alarmingly, before a single scene had been shot.
Next, Harrison turned on the film’s British screenwriter and lyricist, Leslie Bricusse, whose regular collaborator Anthony Newley had been hired to play Dr Dolittle’s friend Matthew Mugg. Harrison summoned Fleischer to his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel and raged that Bricusse and Newley were ‘sewer rats’.
Both men were Jewish and Newley (married at the time to Joan Collins) felt sure Harrison’s hostility to them was motivated by anti-Semitism.
Harrison demanded that Bricusse be replaced by songwriters Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. For a short while he was, only for everyone to realise — even Harrison — that Bricusse’s songs were much better.
With Castle Combe eventually chosen as the principal location, a menagerie almost 1,500 strong was assembled so Harrison could, in Bricusse’s words, ‘walk with the animals, talk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals’.
Lt Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, however, was furous that the film-makers had dammed a trout stream to create a pond. So the night before Dr Dolittle was due to start shooting, he planted his explosives in cahoots with an old friend from Eton. The police had been tipped off and were lying in wait with sniffer dogs — but he escaped by using SAS techniques to avoid capture, submerging himself in the pond.
Some of the bombs exploded and in due course there was a trial, at which Fiennes was lucky not to be sent to prison. Still, at least the episode gave him the title of his 2007 autobiography when the father of his girlfriend (and future wife) labelled him ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’.
So, in a different kind of way, was Rex Harrison. But he wasn’t the only source of problems on set.
The new film is based on the character Doctor Dolittle created by Hugh Lofting, primarily The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
A scene from the up-and-coming film. The £135 million film opens across the UK next week but U.S. critics are already declaring it a disaster, with cinemagoers there left ‘reeling’ by a desperately misjudged climactic scene involving a constipated dragon, voiced by Frances de la Tour
In his own biography, Harrison described having to act opposite a drunk squirrel that had been fed gin through a fountain pen to try to calm it.
He was also bitten by a chimp and urinated on by sheep while standing in a field singing to them.
Fleischer had already had his script eaten by a goat by the time he came to direct the film’s trickiest sequence, Dolittle singing a song called The Reluctant Vegetarian while feeding his animal friends in his living room.
Eventually, with all the creatures in place, Fleischer let the cameras roll. Miraculously, everything went perfectly. The animals stayed in their positions, all looking directly at Harrison while he delivered the song beautifully. Then, abruptly, he stopped.
Fleischer asked why. ‘I heard you call ‘Cut!’,’ Harrison said.
Why would I have done that when it was going so well, replied Fleischer. Tension between the two men was building when there was another clear shout of ‘Cut!’. It was Polynesia the parrot.
To reinforce the old maxim about not acting with animals, ducks placed in the pond began to drown. It was moulting season and they had lost their waterproof feathers. Meanwhile, a fawn drank a quart of paint and had to have its stomach pumped — and persistent rain turned the set into a quagmire.
On location in St Lucia, where Dr Dolittle goes to search for the legendary Great Pink Sea Snail, locals pelted the prop with stones because their children had just suffered a spate of food poisoning caused by snails.
Dr Dolittle ended up costing three times its original budget.
In anticipation of its success, Fox had prepared millions of dollars worth of merchandising. Thousands of Dolittle clocks, watches, hats, medicine kits and a talking version of the two-headed pushmi-pullyu all went unsold.
And now we have another Dolittle which, some critics have suggested, could lose Universal Pictures up to £77 million.
History, like Polynesia the parrot, seems to be repeating itself.
Dolittle opens across the UK on February 7.
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