"Doctor Dolittle" grew out of a massive attempt by Twentieth Century-Fox to duplicate its earlier success with The Sound of Music by producing three expensive, large-scale musicals over a period of three years, Star! and Hello, Dolly! being the others. All were released amidst massive pre-release publicity and all lost equally massive amounts of money for the studio. The result was that several top studio executives lost their jobs, and the studio itself went into such dire financial straits that it only produced one picture for the entire calendar year of 1970. In truth, it would never recoup its losses until a highly successful theatrical reissue of "The Sound of Music" in early 1973.
"The Reluctant Vegetarian" number proved to be one of the hardest to film, mainly because of the number of animals that had to sit still for a lengthy period. Hours of rehearsal and preparation went into it before filming actually started. During the first take, it looked like they might actually get it done without any additional shooting but then Rex Harrison stopped singing. Director Richard Fleischer asked him why he stopped, and Harrison said he heard him yell "Cut!" Fleischer denied this, and just as they were starting to argue about it, both of them heard a voice yell "Cut!" The guilty party turned out to be Polynesia the Parrot, who obviously had heard Fleischer yell this word many times during the production. Harrison took this in good humor, saying, "That's the first time I've ever been directed by a parrot. But she may be right. I probably can do it better."
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.
Rex Harrison was under contract to play the title character but after the departure of original scriptwriter and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, Harrison tried to back out of the project. Christopher Plummer was hired as a replacement. When the studio successfully lured Harrison back they paid Plummer his entire agreed-upon fee of $300,000 to sit out the production of the film. Harrison was wary of Leslie Bricusse writing the score since he was an unknown quantity to him and, on his own, had English songwriters Donald Swann and Michael Flanders try their hand at songs for the film. Swann and Flanders signed a contract with Fox in February 1966 and completed at least four songs (Animalitarians/I Won't Be King/A Total Vegetarian/Goodbye to Sophie) which Harrison recorded as demos before Harrison heard and approved the Bricusse score for use in the film.
Hugh Griffith was seriously favored for the part played by Richard Attenborough but the production team did not hire him because of his drink problem.
Angered by the filmmakers' attempts to enlarge a pond in Castle Combe, Wiltshire, UK, for a scene in the movie, Sir Ranulph Fiennes - then a member of 22 Regiment, the "SAS" - set charges in the dam they had built (using the Army's explosives) and attempted to destroy it. He was arrested, and as a result he was dismissed from the regiment and served out the rest of his military career in the Royal Scots Greys.
In a massive attempt to influence AMPAS members at Oscar nomination time in 1968, 20th Century-Fox hosted several mammoth dinners for Academy members promoting the under-performing 'Dolittle' as a potential nominee. The strategy worked, netting the film seven nominations, including Best Picture, and the still-controversial Best Original Song win for "Talk to the Animals." Similar campaigns were launched for the studio's other musical failures, Star! and Hello, Dolly! with similar results.
Nine separate versions of the musical soundtrack were commissioned in several languages, with over a million copies pressed total. Almost none of them sold, which is why to this day the soundtrack turns up in many thrift stores and 99-cent "cut out" bins.
No one expected that shooting a scene with ducks swimming in a pond would be difficult. However, when the ducks were placed onto the pond they sank! Apparently it was the wrong time of year and the ducks had lost their water-repellent feathers and couldn't swim.
Producer Arthur P. Jacobs originally thought he could interest Sidney Poitier in the role of William Shakespeare X, even hiring Broadway actor Gilbert Price to provide Poitier's singing voice. Poitier turned the part down, explaining "I'm an actor not an entertainer". 'Sammy Davis Jr' was also briefly considered. In the finished film the character does not sing.
The film's massive critical and commercial failure effectively ended Rex Harrison's career as a leading man.
The film's release was accompanied by one of the most massive merchandising tie-in campaigns in Hollywood history. Among the items merchandised were puzzles, a reprint of the original Hugh Lofting series of books by Dell Publishing, children's toys (including talking Pushmi-Pullyu and Rex Harrison dolls from Mattel), school supplies, a line of pet foods, and, in a truly bizarre move, small toy figures in each package of "Shake-a-Pudding". Additionally, as well as the obligatory soundtrack album, several major artists recorded "Talk to the Animals" and other songs from the picture, with star Anthony Newley recording an album of nothing but "Dolittle" songs for RCA Victor. Sammy Davis Jr. and Bobby Darin' also released all "Dolittle" albums along with instrumental albums from jazz musicians Joe Bushkin and Gordon Beck. Most of the merchandise sold poorly, killing off movie studio interest in such revenue streams. Ten years later, this attitude allowed George Lucas to easily get the merchandising rights for Star Wars and profit spectacularly from it.
The films U.S. premiere was a benefit for Project HOPE (December 19, 1967) at the Loew's State Theatre in New York City. The festivities were the subject of an hour long TV show on WPIX hosted by Barry Gray. After the Chicago premiere at the Michael Todd Theatre (December 20, 1967) the Hollywood opening was held at the Paramount Theatre the following day. The L.A. premiere was a benefit for the Hollywood and Television Relief Fund and Joey Bishop taped his ABC talk show there. Sophie the Seal wearing a diamond necklace, Jip the Dog in a jeweled collar, Gub-Gub the Pig in a sequined harness and Chee-Chee the Chimp in white tie, tails & top hat all appeared at the Hollywood premiere.
The producers felt Rex Harrison was too old at 58 to play Dolittle, but hoped his name would help recreate the success of My Fair Lady.
There was a huge outcry when the movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar despite having received almost universally terrible reviews.
This movie set was no picnic:
- One of the fawns snacked on a quart of paint during a scene break and had to have her stomach pumped.
- Gub-Gub the Pig had to be replaced several times during filming since piglets grow so fast.
- Squirrels ate through several key pieces of scenery, costing the crew thousands of dollars in repairs.
- In the scene where Rex Harrison is singing in the field of sheep, he had to be sprayed down repeatedly for flies. Worse, the sheep urinated on him as well, forcing multiple retakes.
- One of the goats broke loose during a scene, got ahold of the director's script and ate it.
- The first several weeks of filming in Castle Combe were disrupted by torrential downpours, after the producers had ignored detailed climate reports warning about the area's weather patterns - and a homemade bomb, set by a disgruntled member of the town the crew was filming in.
Two songs were originally written for the picture, and filmed, but didn't make it to the final cut of the picture, "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.