I’ve seen 1967’s Doctor Dolittle several times in my life, but all of those times were when I was much younger. Watching the movie recently was the first time I’d seen it in years, and seeing the movie through adult eyes made it clear just how bizarre it is. Of course, there’s already an element of the fanciful when you’re going into a movie about a veterinarian who has developed the ability to speak to animals–that is, to speak and understand their language–but it goes beyond that. The movie is bizarre for the things it focuses on, and for the things it refuses to fully acknowledge.
We are introduced to the good doctor (Rex Harrison) when an unabashed Irish stereotype and a little boy come to his office to have a wounded duck healed. John Dolittle informs his guests that he was convinced to learn the animals’ languages after being convinced by his English-speaking parrot that it was possible. He always hated being a boring ol’ human doctor, so why not put his medical training to use in a field he has absolutely no training in? In any event, John’s parrot teaches him a few simple phrases in Pig and long story short, our man now knows 498 animal languages. Excuse me, 499 once he learns goldfish. But what’s truly amazing, yet never commented upon in the film, is that apparently the animals also understand English fluently. Sometimes, John will mewl or bray or what-have-you to converse with his patients, but often he’ll just speak normally and the animals apparently understand him. Hold on, you’re blowing my mind, John. Animals are able to understand English perfectly? The ramifications of this revelation are endless. Now that they have an advocate/interpreter in the human world, I see no reason why they couldn’t integrate themselves into our society, engage in political discussions, contribute to the arts.
As a matter of fact, here comes John with a second blow to your pre-conceived notions about what the world is like. While Matthew and Tommy (the aforementioned drunk Irishman and little boy) are hanging out at the doctor’s home, John sees a fox whose child has flat feet. While performing calisthenics with the cub, John casually mentions that the mother fox’s husband was killed by a hunter. His human companions don’t bat an eye, but in the audience I am jumping out of my seat. WHAT? WHAT? Foxes have husbands?!? Foxes have complex social institutions such as marriage? You’re opening my eyes to another plane of existence I didn’t even know existed, John. This is hardly the only time he drops these nuclear knowledge-bombs. When his parrot first encouraged him to learn the animals’ languages, she notes that she’s been bandying the idea about at League of Animal meetings. Animals are unionized?!? She also tells the doctor that she speaks 2,000 animal languages, including Unicorn. Unicorns are real?!?
Yet nobody says anything. To be fair, John does sort of acknowledge the impact that these revelations have had on his life: he breaks into a song about the fact that he is a vegetarian… although reluctantly. As the song progresses, he begins raving about how good it would be to slice open a Pig and eat some bacon. It’s disturbing. When you know animals are all sentient beings with complex languages and social institutions, eating pork has gotta be some kind of unforgivable moral transgression. Nonetheless, the knowledge doesn’t stop Matthew and Tommy from gobbling down some roast lamb later in the movie, and it certainly doesn’t prevent Matthew from doing his job as a fishmonger. How can he continue to push a cart full of dead fish corpses, just selling them to people – selling the bodies of intelligent beings to be used as food for their pets. As a matter of fact, John has a few animals that Matthew refers to as “pets”. How can Doctor Dolittle keep pets? Unless he was using the term in a very informal sense, the “pet” relationship smacks of slavery and subjugation. Is it just that becoming a vegetarian was hard enough without being forced to give up all the other indices of human privilege?
The movie from here becomes kind of a series of vignettes about John’s adventures. He is sent a rare animal which he exploits in a traveling circus for cash. He is actually called out on the hypocrisy of joining a circus, where animals are routinely abused and embarrassed in front of crowds of slack-jawed onlookers, yet he doesn’t attempt to justify himself and the movie moves past this. What it moves to is something insane. John realizes that Sophie, a seal who works for the circus, is depressed because she has been away from her husband too long. He devises a plan to help her escape by dressing her up as a human woman, then riding out in a carriage with nobody being the wiser. When he gets to a cliff above the ocean – and I assure you I am not joking about this – he sings a love song to the seal, kisses her passionately, then chunks her into the ocean. His perverse deed is unfortunately seen by locals who, thinking the seal is a 2-foot tall woman, call the police. John Dolittle is on trial for murder!
I’ll spare you details about the murder trial because I don’t want to totally spoil the movie for you. I won’t go into the gory details about John Dolittle’s execution either. Let me just say that he defends himself on the stand with a passionate monologue/song about the ways we mistreat animals. He points to the use of animal furs for clothing; insensitive slurs like “dumb as an ox”; hitching mules to plows to serve as subservient labor. He seems to be changing some hearts, but I noticed he conspicuously left out charges such as, “You are tearing husbands away from their wives” and “You are disrupting their finely-tuned systems of government.” If he’d gone into the details of what he actually believes to be true about the animal world, the jury would easily find him insane.
So it goes. Did I mention John is intensely misogynistic? Oh yes, he’s constantly talking down to his sister and degrading Emma Fairfax, a woman who is inexplicably charmed by the anti-social veterinarian. Fairfax, incidentally, sings a song early on where she dreams of being a man–Matthew, for his part, refers to her as “Fred” throughout the movie. I could not stop thinking of her as a pre-op transsexual, just another cog in the cavalcade of weirdness the film was serving up.
I could go into even deeper detail. I could describe the racist depiction of a tribe of cannibals, or the plot about John’s quest to find a legendary giant, pink sea-snail. But I’d hate to deprive you of the joy of finding that all out for yourselves. Apparently, the movie was a massive flop when it was released; despite the kid-friendly premise, it’s not hard to see why. The movie is an ungainly, strange, mess of a picture. Endearing, in a way, largely thanks to Harrison’s committed portrayal of the mad doctor at the center, but otherwise a strange beast indeed. Maybe hard to love, but fascinating nonetheless.