Box Office Bomb: Budget: $17 million. Box-Office: $9 million. It was one of many costly bombs by 20th Century Fox in the late 1960s that nearly killed the studio.
Cut Song: "Where Are the Words?," sung by Anthony Newley, and "Something in Your Smile," sung by Rex Harrison. Both songs appeared on the soundtrack LP and CD, however, and the latter song may be heard under the film's opening titles.
Hostility on the Set: Rex Harrison didn't make himself any friends onset. He particularly had it in for Anthony Newley, as he was jealous of the younger actor's superior singing ability. Harrison demanded Newley's role be reduced and disrupted scenes featuring him. He even disparaged his costar as a "Jewish comic," a "Cockney Jew" or a "sewer rat." Samantha Eggar said of Harrison:
Yes, he was unkind and vitriolic and very mean-spirited, but he was also very funny - until, of course, he turned on me, too.
Magnum Opus Dissonance: Apparently no one on the film production liked the song "Talk to the Animals," but that is the song that won the Oscar for Best Original Song and since has become the signature music of the whole media property.
Never Work with Children or Animals: The film's budget ballooned massively from this, and it's seen as a major reason it became a Box Office Bomb. Whole books have been written about the horror stories of over 1200 animals refusing to obey directions, including ducks forgetting how to swim and needing to be rescued, a goat that ate a script, a parrot yelling "Cut!", a squirrel that refused to sit still until it was rendered drunk, a piglet that had to be replaced multiple times due to outgrowing its own role, and a giraffe that stepped on Rex Harrison's crotch.
Star-Derailing Role: Rex Harrison permanently damaged his career when the film became a colossal bomb, made possible in part by his acting as a drunken prima donna; he demanded endless script rewrites, completely impractical production changes, and ridiculous cast changes so he could guarantee that no one could show him up singing, and also hurled anti-Semitic insults at his Jewish co-stars. It didnt help that Harrison, older than most leading men by the late '60s, outright refused to play supporting roles. A few years later, Sam Spiegel approached him to play Count Witte in Nicholas and Alexandra, a small but important character. Harrison took offense, angrily telling Spiegel "I dont do bit parts!" The role went to Laurence Olivier, who famously had no such reservations.
Following years of legal battles with Hugh Lofting's family, work on a Dolittle film finally began in 1964 with Alan Jay Lerner employed as scriptwriter and composer. When a year passed and Lerner had nothing to show for it, producer Arthur Jacobs fired him and tried unsuccessfully to entice The Sherman Brothers away from Disney before settling on English composer Leslie Bricusse, who took just two months to provide a full treatment complete with song ideas and tempering the racist content in a way that met with the Lofting family's approval. However, Bricusse unwittingly included an original scene from a rejected script by producer Helen Winston (assuming it was from the book), who sued Fox for $4.5 million.note The case settled out of court, and the scene, in which Britain's animals go on strike in support of Dolittle, was only alluded to in the finished film.
Rex Harrison, fresh from his star turn as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, was contracted to play the title character, but tried to back out after Lerner's dismissal. To do that, Harrison made ridiculous demands to piss off the producers like demanding that Sammy Davis Jr. be replaced with the non-singing actor Sidney Poitier, because he didn't want to work with an "entertainer" (Read: someone who could sing better than himself). He also demanded contradictory rewrites from Bricusse, made pointless explorations for new shooting locations and other songwriters (most notably, he looked into replacing Bricusse with Michael Flanders and Donald Swann), and wanted to record his songs live as opposed to standard sound recording in studio. Christopher Plummer, fresh from his star turn as Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music, was paid $300,000 to stand by as Harrison's replacement during production. Harrison eventually returned, but was extremely difficult to work with during production, suffering various personal crises and constantly insulting and arguing with castmates, such as Anthony Newley for being Jewish, and crew members.
Over 1,150 animals were trained for the film... in California. Because of British animal quarantine laws, they were unusable for location shooting at Castle Combe in Wiltshire, and another set of animals had to be trained at great expense. The animals proved almost as difficult to work with as Rex Harrison; a fawn drank from an open paint can and had to have her stomach pumped, a goat ate director Richard Fleischer's script, squirrels chewed through several key pieces of scenery, Rex Harrison was frequently urinated on by sheep while filming a field scene, a flock of ducks sank when placed in the water as the scene was shot at a time of year when their feathers were not water-repellent, several animal roles had to be repeatedly recast when the "actors" grew too large, some of the trainers got hepatitis from being bitten repeatedly, and the unexpected co-operation of the animals during the first take of "The Reluctant Vegetarian" was rendered irrelevant when Polynesia the Parrot shouted "Cut!" - and Harrison assumed it had been Fleischer who spoke.
The location shoot in Castle Combe, posing as Dolittle's home village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, had other unexpected problems. Just as the weather reports the studio ignored warned, the rain fell in torrents all summer - except when the crew tried to film scenes set on rainy days. The film crew clashed with local residents when they insisted on the removal of their anachronistic television aerials, and an artificial dam built to enlarge the local lake was almost blown up by future explorer-adventurer Ranulph Fiennes, then a demolitions expert in the SAS, who saw the dam as an act of vandalism.note Fiennes was dishonourably discharged from the SAS for improper use of explosives and fined a considerable sum for his act of "countervandalism".
Filming moved to Marigot Bay in St. Lucia for the Sea-Star Island scenes, and the problems continued apace. The weather remained unco-operative, and there were frequent problems with swarms of local insects. A key scene in which Dolittle's companions leave the island on the Great Pink Sea Snail enraged the locals, the children among whom had just endured a food poisoning epidemic caused by freshwater snails, and they pelted the prop Snail with stones. Harrison deliberately ruined filming of a beach scene in which he was not involved by sailing his yacht into the shot and refusing to move. Studio sets had to be built in California for costly reshoots of the village and island scenes.
As set decorator Stuart Reiss recalled in the book Pictures at a Revolution, the California sets had to be built on a slant so they could drain in case animals (such as cows or birds) made a mess. They also had laborers on standby with brooms, and all of the furniture had to be hosed down and washed every night. And there had to be duplicates of everything, even the walls, in case a big animal backed up into it or kicked it. Furthermore, the sets had the problem of a nasty stench resulting from animal waste and the gallons of ammonia used to clean them. To add to this, despite birds being tethered to railings, a few of them escaped and managed to get caught in the netting on the ceiling of the soundstages.
Despite initial optimism from producer Arthur Jacobs (who had a heart attack during production), the final budget was a then-outrageously high $18 million ($136 million adjusted for modern inflation), three times original estimates. Preview audiences (which notably included very few children) and critics were unimpressed, and the film was a box-office bomb, earning just $9 million despite a merchandising blitz (nine different versions of the soundtrack were recorded, with a million records pressed, but they sold so poorly that they are often found in bargain bins to this day).note It was ten years before another film, a space opera helmed by George Lucas, tried the merchandising angle again. Public opinion soured further when Fox essentially bribed their way to nine Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) by hosting lavish dinners and free screenings for Academy voters.note It won two: Best Special Effects and Best Song for "Talk to the Animals".
As well as ending Rex Harrison's career as a leading man, Dolittle is often credited, alongside Warner Bros.' Camelot (which came out two months earlier), with killing the family musical, as both opened to a negative critical reception and general lack of interest. Fox, already committed to releasing the similarly disappointing musicals Star! in 1968 and Hello, Dolly! in 1969, almost went bankrupt again, only making one film in 1970 and not recouping their losses until a 1973 re-release of The Sound of Music. The only good thing to come out of Doctor Dolittle was that Arthur Jacobs was able to make Fox greenlight, under promise of not exceeding a $5 million budget, a discredited Pierre Boulle-penned sci-fi story that he had been seeking to adapt for years... called Planet of the Apes.
John Huston was considered as director, but producer Arthur P. Jacobs nixed the idea. Vincente Minnelli and William Wyler were also considered but Minnelli was felt to be too "old fashioned" and Wyler's reputation for expensively shooting far too many takes of a scene eliminated them from the running.
Bumpo originally appeared in the film and was to be played by Sammy Davis Jr.. Harrison vetoed this, refusing to work with a song-and-dance-man and suggested Sidney Poitier. The character was later dropped from the script and Willie Shakespeare was added.
In the original cut of the movie, Dr. Dolittle and Emma did eventually begin a relationship. He sang "Where Are the Words?", when he realised he was falling in love with her, but in a revised version, it's actually Matthew who falls for Emma and it is his recording of the song which is featured on the soundtrack album. Both versions were filmed and both actors recorded their respective versions, but the footage for both, as well as the vocal track by Rex Harrison have been lost to history. In both scenarios, "Something In Your Smile" is sung by Dolittle when he realizes he himself has fallen for Emma, however, although Harrison's vocal for the song survives, the footage does not.