My Friend, the Doctor

No, not THE Doctor. Not this time. My memory of children’s movies (especially musicals) from the ’60s and ’70s is, perhaps, a little unusual given the fact that I was born in the mid-80s. Hands up, all ye who can sing even a few lines of The Gnome-Mobile. No takers?

Yeah, I thought not. (Sisters and St. G cousins, y’all don’t count.)

My grandparents had an excellent collection in pristine condition, and visits to their house included frequent screenings of The Gnome-Mobile, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Willky Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and, my personal favorite, the 1967 Rex Harrison Doctor Dolittle.

I don’t remember the last time I had my hands on a copy, but I’m fairly certain it was college or earlier, so you can imagine I was nostalgically delighted to see it pop up on Netflix recently. When I queued it up with a cautious giddiness, I expected to be let down by the movie’s inability to hold up to expectations over time, or by a conflict in my adult ethical perspectives. You know, the sort of thing that kills our love of more than half of the movies we adored as kids? But from the moment the charming artwork played along with the overture in the opening credits, I was a kid sitting beside my sisters and grandfather in the basement of my grandparents’ old house in Waltham, the one the sold when I was six or seven.

I’ve never managed to get through the more recent Edie Murphy iteration of Doctor Dolittle, and the reason for that is apparent from the start of the movie. Murphy’s Doctor starts hearing the animals as if by magic and struggles to deal with it (as I recall…I honestly couldn’t stomach that stinkfest the last time I tried). Harrison’s Doctor, however, is something of a brilliant sociopathic Sherlock Holmes / House sort whose specialty happens to be animal linguistics and physiology. He chooses to work with animals because he finds them fun and delightful, while humans bore and distress him. His ability to speak with them is not some campy, improbable accident: it is a scholarly labor driven by a deep compassion for all living things…except for humans.

I love one particular moment in the movie where this constrast is demonstrated clearly. All throughout the movie, Dolittle speaks to animals whose language he hasn’t mastered in English, assuming that they understand him. I would chalk this up to convenient movie mechanics with a hint of Empiricism, except for the moment on Star Island where he first introduces himself to the leader of the natives who have imprisoned his ragged band. Instead of using standard English, he pulls out this “Me Doctor, you savage” nonsense. The reasons I am choosing to interpret this as an internal assumption that humans are stupid rather than a racist approach are (1) D.D.’s already eloquently established that humans are ignorantly horrible and (2) he immediately apologizes when the leader introduces himself in perfect English and proceeds to note that the Star Island community is structured around language and learning.

I’m not quite sure what this says about the writers and their perspectives on race and the problematic cultural narrative of the noble savage, but the more time I spend thinking about it, the more willing I am to just give them this interaction as a win that aptly illustrate’s Dolittle’s perspective.

Beyond the highly intelligent misanthropy that leads Dolittle to be a scholar of animals, the movie is just so darn quirky. It’s basically My Fair Lady meets The Odyssey meets The Life Aquatic meets the Voyage of the S.S. Beagle. Utterly glorious. For those of you who haven’t seen it and who doubt that it merits two and a half hours of your time (does one need to post spoilers warnings for films that are over half a century old?):

  • D.D. abandons life as a doctor for the landed gentry of England because they are cruel, self-involved, and stupid. His parrot sees his love of animals and suggests he become a vet, offering to teach him their languages. (“I speak over two thousand languages, including Dodo and Unicorn….I had a classical education.”) He devotes himself with great joy and enthusiasm to this task, with the consequence that he becomes poor (relatively speaking) and completely cut off from all human company, save that of an alcoholic Irish fishmonger with a touch of the Blarney.
  • In order to finance a search for the Giant Pink Sea Snail, a “Red Indian” (Tibetan) friend sends D.D. a two-headed llama thing called a pushmi-pullyu, so naturally, D.D., the fishmonger, and an 11-year-old boy called Stubbins run away to join the circus. In this routinely-exploitative-of-animals environment, D.D. is moved by the plight of a seal pining for her husband, and so helps her escape, which involves dressing her up in stolen clothing and throwing her off a cliff, though not before clasping her in his arms and singing her a love song and sighing, “If only you weren’t a seal…”
  • For this act of throwing what, at a distance, looks like a woman off a cliff, D.D. is brought up on murder charges, is acquitted on the basis of the fact that the cloak is verified as stolen, but is then sentenced to an insane asylum for a conversation with the magistrate’s dog (to prove he can, in fact, speak with animals), which reveals said magistrate to be a glutton. His parrot-tutor orchestrates an escape after the fishmonger and boy fail to come up with a decent idea, and all three set off on their sea voyage, accompanied by the stowaway niece of the aforementioned magistrate.
  • They set sail for a migratory island, a destination chosen by sticking a pin in an atlas, talk to many sea creatures along the way, and finally reach their destination with the aid of a storm that destroys their ship and a dolphin who understands Indiana Jones-like attachments to hats (in this instance, a top hat).
  • The storm has blown the island off course, causing the local wildlife to develop colds, which D.D. & co. deal with magnificently. Their encounters with the local folk (who are very educated due to the number of shipwrecked books they’ve recovered, but also very superstitious) teeter between godhood and death by torture, and eventually lands on the godhood side when the whale pushing the island back on course pushes them all the way back to the place where the island originally fell off the African coast.
  • The Great Pink Snail (which I like to think of as the Questing Beast for this movie) shows up on the shore with, inexplicably, the same cold that had plagued the animals on the island. D.D. cures him, for which favor the snail is willing to bring the company back to Puddleby. (“He must be the only snail on Earth with four bedrooms.”)
  • D.D. remains behind, to the sorrow of all, because he is an escaped convict in England. When news reaches him that all of the animals in England are on strike because of his sentence and the local magistrate is therefore begging to have him back, he builds a saddle for a giant lunar moth (“needs to compensate for a steep rate of incline”) and flies back home after a quick jaunt to the moon.

This movie is on the absolute best kind of crack. And in between the cracks, it makes an eloquent argument for humanity to exercise more compassion, especially to animals. It also makes a surprisingly decent, for 1967, attempt at feminism. There’s only one relevant human female, her songs are all complete crap, and she’s largely a trumped-up pivot for an ill-advised attempt to stuff a half-cocked love triangle into a story that is already overfull, BUT… (1) She has her own motivations which do not center around finding a man and (2) They have an overt conversation about gender which, though subtle and mostly squished into a montage, manages both to convey that feminism is about women being treated as competent, complete humans and to gently mock men for forcing women into the impossibly hard role of carrying a double workload before allowing them access to equal respect. The movie also manages to touch on the balance of the culture of empire vs. native culture and the question of education vs. superstition, and all in a light-handed, enchanting way that still raises interesting questions and offers perspectives without trying to achieve resolution, all without departing from quick-witted repartee and a great kindness of spirit.

In short: Doctor Dolittle is a helluva movie. And while you are adding it to your Netflix queue, I shall be pulling out my battered Hugh Lofting collection to see how the movie compares with the books. And in the meantime, because I love all my Doctors and this mashup is unbearably perfect, I shall leave you with this:

One thought on “My Friend, the Doctor

  1. Oh lord. The love song to the seal has been remade SO MANY TIMES, guys. This is Johnny Mathis, singing the same song Rex Harrison sang to Sophie the seal before resigning himself to sending her back to her husband: And Diana Krall: If I could travel back in time just once, I would definitely waste the trip to sit in on the meeting where the decision was made to create a moment with a seal so tender that the song would be the title track on an album nominated for a major award almost fifty years later.


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