Earlier this year, I reviewed the legendary dismal 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon; and would would like to suppose that it's enough to have hacked through just one of that year's most notorious genre misfires. But if one is looking at the ebb and flow of Hollywood filmmaking over the years, it would be a terrible mistake to try and get away without coming to grips with the other hideous mega-musical from '69, Hello, Dolly! For it is even better as an example of the overwhelming awfulness of the insanely indulgent system of mindless spectacle-mongering that was being replaced by the raw aesthetic of the New Hollywood Cinema. Though both films saw huge box office returns that didn't offset their even huger budgets, it was Hello, Dolly! that somehow managed to scratch its way to three Oscar wins and another four nominations, one of them for Best Picture - the third time in six years that 20th Century Fox had managed to hoist one of its gargantuan, tacky megaproductions into that nominally august company, after 1963's Cleopatra and 1967's Doctor Dolittle (and credit where credit is due: Hello, Dolly! may be a tasteless behemoth, but it's still far better than the enervating Dolittle, surely among the worst movie musicals ever made).

The Oscars are no measure of quality, of course, but they're a good barometer of what the Hollywood establishment thought to be important, socially and cinematically, in any given year. That Hello, Dolly! was taken to belong in the same set of nominees - to say nothing of the same aesthetic universe - as the urban realism of Midnight Cowboy and the politically incendiary foreign import Z is mind-boggling; that it and the shaggy, indulgent radical madness of Easy Rider could occupy consecutive slots on the year's list of Top 10 box office hits feels like a dadaist joke. But it is what it is; and what it is pretty damn ugly, not as hilariously terrible as Paint Your Wagon, but also lacking that film's car-crash novelty. It's a doomed attempt to marry some kind of realistic shooting style with bluntly artificial everything, buoyed up by the comic energy of a nevertheless stunningly miscast lead, hobbled by Jerry Herman's samey, mostly anemic songs. It's sad to think that in 800 years, this will be the last scrap of pop culture left on Earth to teach the robots that follow us about emotions, but there you have it.

Adapted by Ernest Lehman from a record-setting 1964 Broadway musical that was itself based on Thornton Wilder's 1955 play The Matchmaker (which based on Wilder's earlier The Merchant of Yonkers and onward back to the beginning of time), Hello, Dolly! opens in New York City, where the region's most famous and beloved matchmaker/factotum Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) is heading off to the suburb of Yonkers, with her own marriage in mind: she's hellbent on snaring wealthy, grumpy hay & feed store owner Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthew). This requires a great deal of plotting on her part, for Horace is just now heading into New York City to propose to wealthy lady haberdasher Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). The scheme involves encouraging Horace's bored 28-and-three-quarters-year-old chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) and his young coworker Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin) to head into the city themselves to meet Irene and her clerk Minnie Fay (E.J. Peaker); simultaneously, she encourages Horace's despondent niece Ermengarde (Joyce Ames) to sneak off with her illicit boyfriend Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune), to compete in the dance contest being held at the classy restaurant Harmonia Gardens. Farce ensues, by the end of which everybody is paired off with the most ideal person, assuming that there exists a world in which 27-year-old Streisand and 49-year-old Matthau qualify as an ideal pair.

That kind of spirited nonsense requires a very special light hand to carry off, and at no step of the way does Hello, Dolly! evidence any such thing. Not in the directing, not in the choreography, not in the acting, not in the source material. It is a lead-footed beast that has been made in a style that's simultaneously overbearing and emaciated, with hundreds of thousands of dollars obviously plastered everywhere in the fussy period sets and costumes, and yet it feels chintzy as a community theater production made by people who weren't feeling terribly inspired. For any megaproduction to have the enervating overproduced, under-imagined energy of this would offensive: it's a despairing, mortal sin for one directed by Gene Kelly and choreographed by Michael Kidd, both of whom absolutely deserve to be called geniuses for their earlier contributions to the movie musical at MGM under producer Arthur Freed. Every song is exactly fucking the same: a couple of people dancing and then every new cut adds a couple more until the whole of the Todd-AO frame is crammed full of people who have no earthly reason to be there except to add a lot of moving bodies, for the hell of it. And Kidd is addicted to a tiny range of dance movies: oh, how much kicking, taking a half-step back, and leaping there is in Hello, Dolly! Or, in the enormous prologue to the even more enormous title number, there are waiters tossing around trays with plastic food glued to them in gestures that make not the tiniest effort to convince us of the reality of what's going on, and those seem remarkably unimpressive, no matter how much obvious energy the dancers are expending. In all cases, it's a great deal of complicated, busy movement without any emotional connection to any other scene - any other shot - in the movie, a gaudy conviction that "more is more!" that proves deeply incorrect in this instance. Less would be a great deal more than the teeming heaps of dancing bodies Kelly and Kidd puke out all over their musical, all so much desperate, flop-sweaty nonsense filling the frame just for the sake of filling it. Widescreen is only "for snakes, and funerals", Jean-Luc Godard once ventriloquised through Fritz Lang; the dances in Hello, Dolly! are as good a proof of that contention as exists, for they are awfully damn funereal.

I do not mean to pick on the dancing. But for all its failures in other areas - a bloated, heavy farce, or a character comedy full of generally tedious cartoons - its abysmal shortcomings as a musical are the saddest. Compounding things, in a fit of perversity, it's the show's two stand-out numbers in a sea of rather shallow musical noodles - "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "Hello, Dolly!" - that have the gaudiest, busiest staging. The whole thing is too depressing for words: hunting for anything that gives a hint of interest to any of these sequences, whether it's an interesting use of color, or an unexpected gesture. Even a playful spin on one of the lines. There's nothing, though - every beat is pre-embalmed, the look of the thing glazed and waxy, the sound mixing alarmingly awfully and erratic.

The film's failures as musical spectacle are so complete that it's missteps as farce are merely annoyances. It's too slow (in part because of how completely it jams on the brakes for those lumbering musical numbers), and the puckish inevitability of Dolly's schemes never feels like it takes on momentum of its own. And the performances are pretty consistently unfortunate: Matthau is so effectively crabby (on top of his singing, which resembles an infant cow keening for its mother) that he's more unpleasant than comic, and his eventual thawing-out comes from nowhere whatsoever. Crawford's rubber-faced exertions are slightly painful to watch; nobody else in the cast emerges as anything other than an object in a dithering narrative.

Except for Streisand, of course. This was just her second film performance, one year after Funny Girl, and it's obvious why that film recommended her for this one: a period comedy (though some 20 years later than Hello, Dolly!), numbers that demand a big voice, jokes that require a certain fearless corniness. The difference is that in Funny Girl, Streisand had a top-notch director of actors in William Wyler; and that she was actually appropriate for a the role of Fanny Brice. Dolly Levi requires a wholly different bearing: Carol Channing was 43 when she created the role onstage, and that's just about the minimum required for a worldly widow who has spent a lifetime tinkering with everybody else's lives, before deciding that dammit, it's her turn now. Streisand simply didn't have the visible miles to sell that aspect of the character. And it shows in her frequently nervous expressions that she knew it, too.

That being said, Streisand is frequently the only thing worth watching onscreen: she's probably playing "Barbra Streisand" more than the role in the screenplay in her best moments, where she launches into vivacious patter or privately amused innuendos, but if that's what it takes to drag some real sparkle and comic energy into the dessicated proceedings, than so be it. She sings the songs in the same way - Channing on the original cast recording is playing a character, where Streisand is performing a pop album - and I'm inclined to be less forgiving of that, but then, it's acknowledged that Streisand had a good voice, and once again, even inappropriate pleasures from Hello, Dolly! are better than no pleasures at all.

There is a shot that, I think, sums up the whole movie, and it comes early on. As Matthau and an inexplicable cast of dozens choke through "It Takes a Woman", Crawford is standing by a horse, that turns and pokes its nose right into his face. The actor steadily retains his composure, bless him, but the moment is so patently a mistake, and either nobody making the film cared enough to do it over, or they gave up trying to keep the horse in check. And all without thinking, gee, maybe we could move the goddamn horse so it's not in the center of frame. But that's the kind of film this is: the kind where having animals on set was more important than doing interesting or coherent things with that animals. It's gigantic, sloppy, unbearably boring, and tackily obsessed with its own sense of scale. As an exemplar of a decadent, soon to be extinct way of filmmaking, it could hardly be topped.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1969
-Gordon Parks's adaptation of his own novel The Learning Tree is the first studio film directed by an African-American
-Sydney Pollack directs the piercing comparison of the Depression and the Vietnam era They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
-The Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes series ends after nearly 40 years with Bob McKimson's forgettable, racist cartoon Injun Trouble

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1969
-Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow ignites the first Iranian New Wave
-One of the leading lights of the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder makes his feature debut, Love Is Colder Than Death
-Andrei Tarkovsky's final cut of Andrei Rublev premieres at Cannes, three years after its completion in the U.S.S.R., where it remains unreleased until 1971