3 February 2008 | gftbiloxi
Charming Version of the Stage Classic
The history of THE MATCHMAKER is quite interesting from an academic point of view. In 1835 English playwright and drama critic created a one-act play titled A DAY WELL SPENT, a lightweight comedy of mismatched lovers, mistaken identities, and foolish misbehavior. In 1842 Austrian playwright and actor Johann Nestroy developed Oxenford's work into a full-length comedy titled EINEN JUX WILL ER SICH MACHEN, which was (and remains) very popular in German-language theatre. American writer and scholar Thornton Wilder came to the material in the 1930s--and in 1938 returned the story to the English language under the title THE MERCHANT OF YONKERS. It was an instant disaster, receiving incredibly dire reviews and running all of 39 performances in its New York debut.
It was quite a setback for Wilder, who had previously won Pulitzers for the novel THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY and the play OUR TOWN. Even so, actress Ruth Gordon and Tyrone Guthrie strongly felt the play was sound, and in the 1950s both began to pressure Wilder to rework his script. With Gordon starring and Guthrie directing, and with the title changed to THE MATCHMAKER, it opened on Broadway in 1955--and was a smash hit. It attracted the attention of Hollywood, and in 1958 it became a vehicle for Tony and Academy Award-winning actress Shirley Booth.
The film version alters Wilder's script quite a bit, and not always for the better, occasionally over-reaching itself in a grab for broad farce; all the same, it does manage to capture the innate charm of the original. Much of this is due to Shirley Booth. Although she is not well recalled today, she was easily among the finest actresses of her era, and her performance here is a warm and glowing jewel, clever, witty, and very gently sly. The remaining cast follows suit--and what a cast it is! Memorable character actors Paul Ford, Perry Wilson, and Wallace Ford; rising stars Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine; and even a very young Robert Morse. Few films can lay claim to an equally gifted line up. The production values are also quite fine, capturing the charm of the 1880s without recourse to the gaudy edge one so often sees in films set in that period.
The story itself is equally beguiling. Miserly businessman Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford) is eager to marry and employs professional busy-body Dolly Levi (Shirley Booth) to fix him up--but when he takes the day off to visit prospective bride Irene Malloy (MacLaine) his two clerks (Perkins and Morse) follow suit. A series of chance encounters bring all concerned together--and with a little not-so-gentle nudging from Dolly, Vandergelder makes the discovery that the matchmaker herself is his own perfect match. If all this sounds a bit familiar, it should, for THE MATCHMAKER had yet another, slightly later incarnation: with music by Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart, it became HELLO, DOLLY!, one of Broadway's most celebrated musicals, which itself reached the screen in 1969.
There is nothing in the way of bonus materials--a tremendous pity given the astonishing cast--but the DVD does offer the film in near-pristine transfer, and while THE MATCHMAKER doesn't quite rise to the level of the stage play's spark, it is nonetheless a gentle, amusing, and extremely well performed film, an overlooked gem from late-1950s Hollywood.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer