"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."
"Doctor Dolittle" grew out of a massive attempt by Twentieth Century-Fox to duplicate its earlier success with The Sound of Music (1965) by producing three expensive, large-scale musicals over a period of three years, Star! (1968) and Hello, Dolly! (1969) 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.
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.
This movie set was no picnic:. (1) One of the fawns snacked on a quart of paint during a scene break and had to have her stomach pumped. (2) - Gub-Gub the Pig had to be replaced several times during filming since piglets grow so fast. (3) - Squirrels ate through several key pieces of scenery, costing the crew thousands of dollars in repairs. (4) 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. (5) One of the goats broke loose during a scene, got ahold of the director's script and ate it. (6) 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.
There was a huge outcry when the movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar despite having received almost universally terrible reviews. According to the 1994 book "Behind the Oscar" by Anthony Holden, this is because Fox mounted an unparalleled nomination campaign in which Academy members were wined and dined. As a result, the film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture.
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: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) and profit spectacularly from it.
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! (1968) and Hello, Dolly! (1969) with similar results.
The film's first sneak preview in September 1967 at the Mann Theatre in Minneapolis was a failure. The audience consisted largely of adults, who were not the primary target audience. The general audience response was muted during the screening and comment cards rated it poorly, with frequent complaints about the film's length. A shorter edit of the film previewed in San Francisco was no more successful; a still shorter edit previewed in San Jose was well enough received to be approved as the final cut.
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.
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.
Producer Arthur P. Jacobs originally thought he could interest Sidney Poitier in the role of Bumpo, 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, but Rex Harrison refused to work with an 'entertainer' (Read: someone who could sing better than him). The character was ultimately removed from the film and replaced with William Shakespeare X.
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.
The film's US premiere was a benefit for Project HOPE (December 19, 1967) at the Loew's State Theater 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 Theater (December 20, 1967) the Hollywood opening was held at the Paramount Theater 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 and top hat all appeared at the Hollywood premiere.
Anthony Newley was incensed by comments made by Rex Harrison that he deemed anti-Semitic. Harrison was apparently jealous of his Jewish co-star's participation, and demanded Newley's role be reduced and disrupted scenes featuring Newley.
One scene required a squirrel to stay put next to Polynesia the Parrot for a few seconds, long enough for Dr. Dolittle to sing a few lines to it. After tying the squirrel's paws to a perch with wire didn't work, one of the producers went looking for a vet to help him sedate the creature for the afternoon shoot. Using a fountain pen, they fed the squirrel drops of gin until it was sufficiently drunk. Rex Harrison later wrote: "They got a few seconds of the squirrel, nodding and swaying... before it passed out cold."
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.
Hundreds of 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.
Just prior to release, 20th Century Fox was sued for $4.5 million by Helen Winston, a producer involved early in the development of the film. She claimed that the plot point about animals threatening to go on strike on Dolittle's behalf was lifted from her rejected screenplay. Leslie Bricusse, who had read Winston's script, assumed it was from the books and included it in his own treatment by mistake. Because the producers only had rights to the content of the original books, they had no legal defence and were forced to settle out of court. The animal strike is mentioned in the movie but was not actually filmed.
A key scene in which Dolittle's companions leave the island on the Great Pink Sea Snail enraged the locals of Marigot Bay, the children among whom had just endured a food poisoning epidemic caused by freshwater snails, and they pelted the prop Snail with stones.
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.
Rex Harrison demanded contradictory rewrites from Leslie 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.
As set decorator Stuart A. 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 labourers on standby with brooms, and all of the furniture had to 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.
Filming in Castle Combe proved problematic. The producers chose to ignore reports of the area's frequently rainy summers (except when the crew tried to film scenes set on rainy days), and the resulting weather continually interfered with shooting and caused health problems for the animals. Some of the producers' decisions (such as removing TV aerials from personal residences in town) irritated the population.