THE adventures of a top hat-wearing eccentric who can talk to animals has delighted children and adults alike for 100 years.
Now the latest incarnation of Doctor Dolittle is about to hit cinemas, starring Robert Downey Jr in the title role plus Michael Sheen and Antonio Banderas.
But while the movie has a happy ending, the life of Dolittle’s creator couldn’t be more different. Author Hugh Lofting was first encouraged by the reaction of his fellow soldiers in the trenches of World War I as he read out tales he’d written for his children of a physician who could talk to animals.
He called his hero Dolittle, the nickname he had given his somewhat lazy son. One soldier later said those stories saved his sanity in the midst of the horrors.
However, Hugh might have dressed as impeccably as his famous character, but his own story was mired in misery, trauma and alcoholism.
Even those close to him say he was an enigma, with publisher G. Wren Howard describing him as “rather quiet and shy, shut up inside himself.”
Born in a Catholic family in Maidenhead, Berkshire, to an English mother and Irish father, Hugh always had an affinity for animals. His mother, Elizabeth, was horrified to discover that as a child he turned the linen cupboard into “a combination zoo and natural history museum.”
‘DOLITTLE COULD DO THINGS HE COULD NOT DO’
But it was far from an idyllic childhood. One of six kids, Hugh was packed off to a Jesuit boarding school in Chesterfield when he was just eight years old, and rarely saw his family afterwards.
He had always been drawn to writing and drama but his stern father wanted his children to have stable professions. Hugh chose civil engineering, studying at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US, before returning to London to finish his studies in 1906.
He worked all over the world, doing a stint as a gold prospector in Canada and working on railways in West Africa and Cuba, before settling in New York in 1912, where he met his first wife, Flora. Even then, he would send short stories to magazines and manuscripts to publishers.
At the outbreak of World War I, Hugh enlisted in the Irish Guards and served as a Lieutenant.
According to his eldest son Colin, instead of sleeping in the dirty trenches, Hugh risked bedding down above ground.
It was at Flanders that he dreamed up the adventures of a physician who lived in the fictitious West Country town, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, who preferred treating animals to people. In 1916, when Hugh was 30, Flora urged him to satisfy the curiosity of their children, Colin, five, and Elizabeth, four, with letters about life on the front line.
Instead, he wrote stories about a dapper man in a top hat and coat tails who learned to speak hundreds of animal languages.
It’s said his inspiration was John Hunter, the Scottish scientist whose dedication to medicine is said to have extended to giving himself a dose of syphilis so he could study the disease. Hugh’s youngest son Christopher, 83, said at the release of the 1967 movie starring Rex Harrison: “There were thousands of cavalry horses in the war, and also farm animals and pets who got caught in the crossfire.
“My father invented Dolittle, the man who could speak with animals and cure them, as a superhero who could do things he could not do.” A piece of shrapnel in his thigh from a grenade ended Hugh’s time in the Army in 1917. It couldn’t be removed and caused him pain throughout his life.
After he was discharged, the family moved to Connecticut. But the mental scars of war saw him spiral into depression. Flora, who had urged Hugh to publish his books, suffered mental illness too, and died in 1927.
The following year, he married Katherine Harrower-Peters. She caught pneumonia on their honeymoon and died a fortnight later.
His devotion to animals was such that in August 1930, while visiting his trainee cowboy son Colin in Wyoming, he freed a group of wild horses, getting attacked by a rustler with a knife in the process.
Colin, who was 15 at the time, had been mortified when his dad arrived at the ranch wearing “spats” shoes. But he was clearly impressed when his dad snatched a rustler’s rifle, unloaded the bullets and walked back to camp with “blood running down his chin.”
‘ACCUSED OF BEING WHITE RACIST AND CHAUVINIST’
Afterwards, Hugh apologised, saying: “I hope I haven’t got you men into any trouble.”
Later, he married Josephine, a nurse half his age, and they moved to California. Their son Christopher was just 11 when Lofting died in 1947.
Drunk squirrel, sinking ducks, a dead giraffe: Curse of 1st film
THE new £130million film, based on the second of Lofting’s books, The Voyages Of Doctor Dolittle, has been panned by critics.
Clearly, Hollywood was hoping it might replicate the success of the hit 1998 version starring Eddie Murphy.
But instead it is being likened to the cursed 1967 Doctor Dolittle, starring Rex Harrison and Sir Richard Attenborough.
That movie won two Oscars, for Best Song and Best Effects, but it lost nearly £9million, almost bankrupting 20th Century Fox.
Even before the cameras rolled, a scriptwriter was fired for being too slow.
The film company was sued by producer Helen Winston when a scene from her rejected screenplay was used for the film. 20th Century Fox settled out of court for £3.2million.
On set, My Fair Lady star Harrison was nick-named “Tyrannosaurus Rex” for his huge ego. He demanded Sammy Davis Jr be replaced by Sidney Poitier as the African prince Bumpo Kahbooboo. Poitier was then fired and the character cut.
Having 1,200 animals on set made for testing moments. Trained animals had to be quarantined on arrival in the UK, meaning local replacements had to be hired.
Harrison was bitten by a chimp, a puppy, a duck and a parrot as well as having to work with a drunk squirrel that had been fed gin in an attempt to “calm” it.
A giraffe died, a goat ate director Richard Fleischer’s script, a fawn had its stomach pumped after eating paint and a parrot caused chaos by imitating Fleischer’s shouts of “cut”.
Unfathomably, ducks in a pond appeared to forget how to swim and started to sink.
Local Sir Ranulph Fiennes – freshly out of the SAS and outraged that a trout stream had been dammed to make the pond – tried to blow up the set in Castle Combe, Wilts, with stolen explosives. He was fined £500.
On location in St Lucia, mobs of angry people threw rocks at the giant snail prop. In a terrible coincidence, the island’s children had been stricken by a stomach bug epidemic – caused by freshwater snails.
The final kick in the teeth was the £152million of merchandise unsold after the film flopped.
Hugh had tried to enlist in the army again when World War II broke out, but was turned down.
Depressed at the state of the world, he sought solace in drink, inflicting irreparable damage on his liver. In his final years, despite his success at publishing 12 Dolittle books, he raged at being pigeon-holed as a children’s author and longed to write for adults.
It took him 13 years to write his final Dolittle story, Dr Dolittle And The Secret Lake, which was published a year after his death. Propped up in bed, suffering ulcers, he could write just a few pages a day.
Two decades later, his innocent animal tales became controversial. Librarian Isabelle Suhl publicly accused the author of being “a white racist and chauvinist, guilty of almost every prejudice known to modern white Western man.
The original edition contains the N-word — along with references to “darkies” and stereotypical minstrel-type pictures of Bumpo and his mother Queen Ermintrude, drawn by Lofting himself. In one subplot, when an African man wishes to marry a white princess, Dr Dolittle bleaches him white, which gave off a “burning brown paper” smell.
Suddenly, his books vanished from libraries in America. By the 1988 reprint, racist tropes had been edited out and Bumpo’s appearance cut down, and the books reappeared.
Christopher, who controls the rights to the books, said his father “would have been appalled at the suggestion that any part of his work could give offence and would have been the first to have made the changes himself.”
When Eddie Murphy was cast in the role for the 1998 movie Doctor Dolittle, Christopher admitted: “I think it will bury the concept of a racist Dolittle once and for all.” Literary giants have praised the novels, including Alan Bennett who narrated some of the audiobooks, and novelist Sebastian Faulks.
Conservationist Jane Goodall said the books inspired her to travel to Africa to work with chimpanzees.
More than 70 years later and Dolittle lives on, ready to entertain a new generation of children.
However, critics have described Robert Downey Jr’s latest portrayal as “lacklustre” with a “dodgy” Welsh accent and the film “boring”.
The £130million movie sees the widowed doctor travelling to a fantastical island to find a cure for the young Queen Victoria, who is gravely ill, and features big names voicing the animals, including Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes and Rami Malek.
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