It is 1884 in Yonkers, NY and Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford), owner of a large general store and the wealthiest man in town, has hired Dolly Gallagher Levi (Shirley Booth), a widow who makes her living through various pursuits–but primarily as a matchmaker–to find him a suitable second wife. Dolly wants to marry Horace, but Horace has decided on Miss Irene Molloy (Shirley MacLaine), a New York City milliner whom he has been courting for several months. When Horace tells Dolly his plan to propose to Irene that afternoon, Dolly tells him about Ernestina Simple, a girl absolutely too good to be true, and Horace is so taken with her photograph that he tells Dolly that he wants to meet Ernestina for dinner after he visits with Irene. He then leaves the store in the hands of his chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Anthony Perkins) and apprentice Barnaby Tucker (Robert Morse). After Cornelius once again fails to get a night off from work, he and Barnaby explode some of the canned goods so that the store would have to be closed due to the smell, leaving them free to go to New York for the day so they can “live.”
Upon arriving in New York, Cornelius and Barnaby find themselves in front of Irene’s store where Irene is working on her window display. Cornelius is immediately smitten with her and convinces Barnaby that they should go in, pretending to be wealthy young men. While they are visiting with Irene, they find out that she is expecting Mr. Vandergelder any minute. Having no time to escape without being seen, they hide in the shop. Irene shows Horace and Dolly to the workroom, giving Cornelius and Barnaby a chance to escape, but Cornelius will not leave. Later, when Irene tells Horace that she has met Cornelius, Dolly makes up wild stories about how wealthy and well-liked that Cornelius is in New York. Soon it is discovered that there are men hiding in the shop, but Irene refuses to give an explanation and bids Horace good day, to which he says goodbye. Irene insists that the only way for Cornelius and Barnaby can make up for ruining her pending engagement and potentially her reputation is for them to take her and Minnie, her assistant, to a fine dinner at the best restaurant in town, The Harmonia Gardens. The guys know they cannot afford it, but do not know how to tell the girls without revealing that they are frauds, so they go along with it.
Of course, it turns out that Horace and Dolly have reservations in the next dining room. Through several mishaps, Cornelius ends up with Horace’s wallet and is able to pay for their meal, but he cannot stand lying to Irene anymore, so he and Barnaby make their escape. Cornelius leaves Irene a note explaining that he is just a simple clerk from Yonkers and apologizes for misleading her. Meanwhile, Horace figures out that there is no Ernestina and is very upset at being duped. He soon discovers Irene next door and quickly switches his attentions back to her. Dolly meets up with Cornelius and Barnaby on the trip back to Yonkers, and they hatch a plan to get everything they want. The next morning, Horace arrives in Yonkers escorting Irene and Minnie and finds his shop in disarray. They all head out the front door to find Cornelius, Barnaby, and Dolly setting up their own shop across the street. Irene (who has forgiven Cornelius and is in love with him) and Cornelius are reunited, and she and Minnie agree to work in the new store. Horace (hating the idea of being left alone) agrees to Cornelius’s terms and makes him a partner in the business and promotes Barnaby to chief clerk with 2 nights off. Horace even has a change of heart regarding Dolly and ends up proposing to her, to which she accepts.
When I saw that this film was being released on DVD through Warner Archive last fall, I was intrigued because this movie and the original play by Thornton Wilder are the source materials for one of my favorite musicals: Hello, Dolly! When I read the cast list, I knew I had to see it just to see how it played out. Shirley MacLaine is one of my all-time favorite actresses, so anything with her in it is fun–especially her early work, where her characters are so different from the ones she has played in the last thirty years. Her turn as Irene Malloy is no exception and fits in nicely with Ginny Moorehead (Some Came Running, also released in 1958) and Fran Kubelik (1960’s The Apartment). As for her co-stars, I was familiar with Shirley Booth, perhaps better known for her stage and television career, because of her role as Mrs. Claus in The Year Without a Santa Claus (a 1974 TV Movie). I think she does a fair job as Dolly Levi, but it is definitely no competition for Barbra Streisand’s portrayal in 1969’s Hello, Dolly! And Paul Ford was a surprise as Horace Vandergelder because while I did not know the name, I recognized him particularly for his work as Mayor Shinn from The Music Man (1962).
But the casting choice that seemed the oddest–and the one that really got me to watch this movie–was Anthony Perkins as Cornelius Hackl. Cornelius Hackl to me is the sunny dreamer trying to make his mark on the world, which is so at odds with the role that would later define Perkins’s career: Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). Perkins did a good job in the role, but it still feels a little odd looking back. Then again, Cornelius is played in Hello, Dolly! by Michael Crawford, who would go on to be the original Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, so maybe it is not so odd after all.
My only real complaint about the film is the constant breaking of the fourth wall. I am not talking about a character occasionally looking directly in the camera and talking to the audience so they are in on the joke, like you might have in a play. This is so much more than that. The characters not only know they are playing to an audience, they know it is a movie theater audience and comment as such. The film is tied up with Dolly telling the audience that it is the end because there is nothing else to say except for the moral, and then each character in turn tells what he or she thinks the moral of the movie is. I found this device to be very annoying and not necessary to the film.
As I mentioned above, The Matchmaker was released recently through Warner Archive’s MOD (manufactured on demand) service. The print quality is great, but like most of the films in this collection, there are no extras aside from English captions and scene selection.
While this film does have some flaws, it is still an enjoyable comedy and gives an interesting contrast to its better-known musical counterpart and a glimpse at the beginning of the careers of two of Hollywood’s best-known actors, Shirley MacLaine and Anthony Perkins.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of this film for the purposes of this review.