Do you know what I love about Hello Dolly? The juxtaposition of the Cornelius/Irene sparky quick and dirty romance with the Horace/Dolly practical long-time-in-the-making romance. The Cornelius-Irene romance is a main plot line that’s in your face throughout the whole film, while Horace-Dolly’s is a subtle plot throughout the film. But how does the film end? With Horace and Dolly getting married. Their relationship isn’t steamy. It isn’t passionate. It is practical and real. They both see the ridiculous, selfish, and annoying bits of each other, and in spite of that realize that they need one another, that their lives are enhanced together. They realize that their personalities mesh perfectly. That together they find a new, stronger strength. Their affection isn’t based on some temporary spark but on a long-term affection and the realization that life isn’t as livable apart.
Cornelius and Irene’s storyline ends the way it begins. We don’t really know what’s going to happen. It seems impetuous and not-well-thought-out. It is all passion but no substance. Even the choreography for all their songs is flashy and energetic but ultimately ridiculous and overblown. The film is tricking us. It is putting all this attention on a relationship that has no substance, is based on some momentary reaction, on violins and shooting stars. On a mutual desperation of being 28 and 3/4 and not having a day off or a woman milliner who can’t go anywhere or do anything or find a man because “it’s bad for business.”
This juxtaposition becomes more stark in the two love songs in the film. Dolly’s love song (“Love Is Only Love”) is sung by her all alone in her bedroom. This widowed woman, who has multiple monologues about the nature of love directed toward her late husband, deconstructs love, reminding us that love isn’t a momentary flash in the pan. In fact, she bluntly states that the bells, whistles, and fireworks are a bluff. Love is what it is. It happens without violins or sounds of bells. You touch but you are still firmly on the ground. And even more beautiful and magical than bells, violins, and I daresay fireworks, is that love is simply wonderful because it can happen between a beautiful, young, and dynamic woman and a crusty, curmudgeon who grates our nerves with his off-key singing about a woman lovingly cleaning out the drain in the sink. Horace isn’t anyone’s ideal lover. In fact, Irene was only originally interested in him for financial stability. Dolly, on the other hand, while interested in Horace’s money, is only interested in it for the sake of using it to improve the world. And as the film progresses, we see Dolly falling more passionately in love with Horace. And not because this white, wealthy, and privileged man always gets what he wants, but because Dolly sees the potential in him and challenges him to be a better person, and he accepts her challenge because he sees just how lacking he is. What was purely practical at first become true, mutual affection. She reminds us that, in spite of how you picture your ideal partner, and in spite of their weaknesses, you love that person anyway, warts and all.
Cornelius’ love song (“It Only Takes a Moment”) is, by comparison, ridiculous. In an equally grating and off-key manner, this 28 and 3/4 year old who has never left Yonkers, NY, has never been in love, and has now twice sloppily and impetuously kissed a woman he has only known for half a day and spent most of that time lying to, informs us “It only takes a moment, for your eyes to meet, and then. Your heart knows, in a moment, you will never be alone again!” Really? Show of hands: how many of us have felt that way only to have it fall apart months later after we realize we have nothing in common, we can’t have a deep conversation, and that it takes more than a spark and sexy times to sustain a relationship. It gets worse when he declares “isn’t the world full of wonderful things? I have lost my job, my future, everything that people think is important. But I don’t care! Because even if I have to dig ditches for the rest of my life, I shall be a ditch digger who once had a wonderful day!” As Irene looks at him with big doe-eyes, the reality remains that the “moment” that will make ditch-digging “worth it” wears off after a couple years, and without true emotional connection that moment will pass, love will turn into bitter disdain, and forty years down the road will erode into soul-crushing hatred and, if you are lucky, and acrimonious divorce.
In the end, the film isn’t just making fun of the “classic” notion of sparky, passionate romance and “it only takes a moment” love portrayed by Cornelius and Irene. It takes it a step further and makes fun of us for reacting more emotionally to that romance than to Horace and Dolly’s. The whole song “It Only Takes a Moment” is the film jerking us along. Here we are tearing up about this absolutely ridiculous notion that love only takes a moment, when the reality is that passion only takes a moment (and only lasts a moment). Love is work, hard and frustrating work. It’s putting up with a person as extra as Horace Vandergelder or a Dolly Levi and realizing that putting up with their shit (that from any other person is exhausting) is easy. It’s reminding us that in the end love is only love, without the sound of bells and without the violins. Indeed, love is wonderful enough without all of those things. As the film ends, Dolly and Horace get the final word. As they exchange their only kiss in the film we aren’t bowled over by its energy or passion. It is dainty and polite, but it is so satisfying because we have been waiting for 2 hours and 28 minutes for it to happen. As they walk into the church, we know that their love won’t take a mere moment, there won’t be bells or shooting stars. We are pretty sure it will feature arguments, Dolly’s amusing and well-meaning subterfuge, and Horace’s pig-headedness. Even so, we know with certainty, by the silence in their eyes, that because of their practical, reflective emotional connection, they both will be loved a whole life long.