The last of Walt Disney’s live-action endeavors to bear his personal stamp of approval, The Happiest Millionaire (1967) at once put a definite period to the studio era in elegant ‘turn of the century’ recreations. It also marked the beginning of some very uncertain times at the ‘mouse house’, Walt’s untimely passing sending his creatives into an extended mourning period from which, arguably, they never were to entirely recover. Perhaps no other studio in the history of the world – certainly, none in Hollywood, then or now – has been as inextricably linked to a singular personal philosophy of its founder, as all-pervasive the point of view of just one man. So long as Walt lived his never-ending wellspring of dreams and his ideals were universally adopted by virtually everyone who toiled under his benevolent guidance. Afterward, the surviving heirs to his magic kingdom would chronically be asking themselves two nagging questions: ‘what would Walt do?’ and ‘would the ole grandmaster have approved of the decisions made in his absence?’
Viewed in its road show format, at a rather elephantine 164 minutes, The Happiest Millionaire is, in many ways, an extraordinary achievement, made under the duress of an ailing captain steering his ship into unfamiliar waters; Walt, seemingly unable to see how the sixties had evolved to shun his particular brand of wholesome family entertainment. At the time of his death, Walt had supervised virtually all of the movie’s principle photography under Norman Tokar’s direction; the postproduction editorial decisions left in producer, Bill Anderson’s hands, later necessitating wholesale cuts to make the Radio City Musical Hall Christmas premiere. That The Happiest Millionaire landed with a resounding thud at the box office and strained the studio’s coffers considerably proved a very sad epitaph to Walt’s uninterrupted streak of megahits, blackening the ‘third eye’ of his extrasensory abilities to accurately predict what the public wanted to see.
Walt’s decision to transform The Happiest Millionaire into a musical may have been colored by his overwhelming success on Mary Poppins (1964). Indeed, he had purchased the rights to a moderately successful non-musical stage play about the life of Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle starring Walter Pigeon. Perhaps Pigeon could have made something of this Disney-fication. Alas, the actor showed no interest in partaking at a second bite of the same apple. If he had, it would have marked his return to co-star billing with Irish wit, Greer Garson (cast as Biddle’s wife, Cordelia). Once considered the epitome of uber-sophisticated marrieds on the movie screen, Garson and Pigeon had not appeared together in the movies since 1950’s The Miniver Story at their alma mater, MGM. In Pigeon’s absence, Walt chose another good luck charm from his roster of regulars: Fred MacMurray, who had made the successful transition from playing eager young lads, rues and cads to beloved and befuddled patriarchs imbued with a stern exterior, though a very soft center.
It’s rather interesting to momentarily ponder what The Happiest Millionaire might have been if made at the studio at the beginning, instead of the end, of the 1960s. In the personage of eccentric millionaire, Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle I (1874–1948), Walt had a veritable paradigm of the Disney hero and yet, with Fred MacMurray as his star, the picture never quite comes together as it should. The fault is only partly MacMurray’s. And it is too easy to pin The Happiest Millionaire’s fiscal flop on changing audiences’ tastes in popular entertainment, although these undoubtedly had their part to play in the misfire. But if anything, the machinations as scripted by A.J. Carothers, cribbing from the novel, ‘My Philadelphia Father’ (a loving exaltation written by Biddle’s only daughter, Cordelia), pales to the oddness of the man himself or, on the flipside, appears far too strange to be taken at face value. In reality, Carothers retained an uncannily faithfulness to Drexel Biddle’s passionate private pursuits: amateur theatrics, self-publishing and the founding of a new pseudo-religious movement, known as ‘Athletic Christianity’ – in essence, combining his verve for pugilism with a strong Christian ethic and Bible-study program. Oh yes, the man also kept alligators as pets! All of these eccentricities are celebrated in The Happiest Millionaire; playing off an inimitable bro-mantic chemistry between MacMurray and his devoted Irish manservant, John Lawless, a fictional creation willed into effervescent and charming existence by the superbly-timed comedic genius of England’s elfin gemstone, Tommy Steele.
In hindsight Steele, possessing boundless energies and talent that made him ‘England’s Elvis Presley’, carries this show, at every turn outshining MacMurray who, ensconced as the quintessentially stodgy patriarchal figure of fun, quite simply cannot pick up enough steam to make his part the better half of the two. Hence The Happiest Millionaire increasingly becomes ‘The John Lawless Story’ before Steele is unceremoniously sacked mid-way into the movie to favor a rather turgidly structured and even less effectively acted ‘young love’s first kiss’ scenario involving Biddle’s daughter, Cordelia. Early in The Happiest Millionaire’s gestation, Walt had fallen in love with Tommy Steele as a performer, making the ill-fated decision to skew the plot of his multi-million dollar production to provide Steele with a showcase for his formidable talents.
To be sure, Steele is worthy of this honor; a bundle of electricity with a breezy/toothy exuberance that reaches all the way to the back of the theater with immense sincerity and warmth. Alas, he is not the title character and therefore arguably not entitled to the lion’s share of the comedy, singing and dancing. Even more lamentably, Steele’s ebullient performance is frequently diffused as the screenplay suddenly reverts to a very conventional – and tragically contrived – ardor between Biddle’s headstrong tomboy of a daughter, Cordelia (played with reluctant sighs and nasal-plagued artificiality by Leslie Ann Warren) and heir apparent to a New York fortune, Angier Buchanan Duke (the lethally antiseptic John Davidson, nevertheless, in very fine voice in his movie debut). Woefully, neither ingénue is capable of sustaining a scene. Together they lack the essential spark of vigorous on-screen chemistry that would have made their burgeoning love affair, at the very least, palpable.
It behooves the reader, first and foremost, to reconsider Walt Disney as a showman par excellence; yet, one perhaps unable to remain clear-eyed when too close to his work. Such had been the case with Walt’s investment of time and money in the all-star non-musical, Pollyanna (1960); an infinitely more engaging and as sumptuously appointed, star-making vehicle for Hayley Mills. Alas, it too did not perform up to Walt’s expectations. If anything, The Happiest Millionaire is Walt’s second, and even more ill-advised, attempt to recoup these mislaid returns. The turn of the century milieu in The Happiest Millionaire is nearly identical to Pollyanna. One need not even look closely to discover a veritable storehouse of artifacts; Aunt Polly’s hand-me-downs in Carroll Clark and John B. Mansbridge’s art direction; the rooms now brightly lit as though for a very expensive Disney Sunday TV movie of the week, lensed by cinematographer, Edward Colman. The Happiest Millionaire is equally adorned with a superb cast of stalwart Hollywood and Disney Inc. alumni: Greer Garson as Biddle’s affectionate wife, Cordelia, Gladys Cooper (a very tight-lipped, Aunt Mary), Geraldine Page (an even more caustic matron, as Mrs. Duke), Hermione Baddeley (perpetually cast as a domestic in Disney movies, herein, the cook - Mrs. Worth), and, Paul Petersen and Eddie Hodges (a sort of road company Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran) as Cordelia’s playfully scheming brothers, Tony and Livingston respectively, who manage to knock her latest suitor, Charlie Taylor (Larry Merrill) senseless during a contrived musical number.
The best that can be said of The Happiest Millionaire is that it sports an embarrassment of riches from the Disney stables, including an intermittently memorable score co-written by the studio’s resident tunesmiths, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Their efforts are most exuberantly realized by Tommy Steele, the opening number, ‘Fortuosity’, and later, ‘I’ll Always Be Irish’ ringing with a spirited sense of London’s ole-time music hall revues. Too bad we are in Philadelphia, the cradle of libertarianism. For a musical set in America, The Happiest Millionaire repeatedly, and quite nonsensically, feels like a very ‘English’ romp about the same sound stages that once housed Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane for Mary Poppins. There is even a My Fair Lady-esque rambunctious pub crawl and barroom brawler, ‘Let’s Have a Drink on It’ – sung by Tommy Steele and John Davidson. The Sherman brother’s score is at its most effective and appealing when Leslie Ann Warren warbles ‘Valentine Candy’ – a lament to that ‘coming of age’ moment when childhood must surrender its daydreams for a more mature – if still incredibly naïve and youthful folly: first love. Later, The Shermans create a rapturous moment as Cordelia takes a twirl around a stately courtyard on Angier’s arm to the tune of ‘Are We Dancing?’ It is in moments such as these that The Happiest Millionaire is most alive and…well…happy; a pseudo-joyousness creeping into its peripheries to momentarily divert, gladden and entertain.
Regrettably, there are not enough of these jiffies to sustain the musical repertoire. The rocky gestation of The Happiest Millionaire is evident in the ill-advised decision to give virtually every character a song; the most awkward of the lot, Hodges and Petersen’s ‘Watch Your Footwork’ – a needlessly elaborate confrontation between the brothers Biddle and Cordy’s latest love match, Charlie Taylor. The song drags – severely – the boys having great sport with their sister’s novice Lochinvar before unintentionally knocking him out with a double left and right uppercut. The Shermans have even less success with the clumsily conceived, ‘Detroit’ – Angier’s anthem to Henry Ford and his own aspirations to build the automobiles of tomorrow. For a film supposedly built around its title character, Fred MacMurray is given precious little to croon: a chronically reprised ‘complaint’ song, ‘What’s Wrong With That?’, a truncated anthem to physical fitness, ‘Strengthen the Dwelling’ and the aria, ‘Bella Figlia Dell'Amore’ from the opera, Rigoletto. Rather awkwardly, the latter half of the picture immediately following its intermission is more top-heavy in songs. Garson and MacMurray, surveying their empty home after all their offspring have vacated, croak the careworn, ‘It Won't be Long 'Til Christmas’, leaving dowagers, Aunt Mary and Mrs. Duke to trade social barbs with ‘There Are Those’; undeniably, the uber-wittiest of the lot.
At the time of its release, critics found The Happiest Millionaire maudlin, overly sentimental and cloying; an artifice-laden claptrap of wasted opportunities and talents. There is something to this assessment and yet it seems grossly unfair to dismiss the picture outright as an artistic failure. The chief problem with the movie is it distinctly lacks a core character the audience can root for and follow through from beginning to end. Fred MacMurray’s take on Biddle - the industrialist, is more bumbling than self-appointed, his involvement as an advisor to the U.S. military plagued by bouts of chronically indigestible ‘know-it-all’ advice, lauded over by a gentlemanly interloper in the affairs of Washington. The real Biddle’s wealth and fortitude ought to have provided for an exceptionally colorful backdrop on which to hang the Sherman brother’s songs. Alas, the finished product boils over with perfunctory performances and saccharine-flavored songs.
We begin in the autumn of 1916 with the arrival of John Lawless – a newly landed immigrant, sent by an employment agency to the Biddle’s Philadelphian manor as the family’s new butler. Lawless is first met by the housekeeper/cook, Mrs. Worth, who hints at some of the eccentricities he is about to confront. However, nothing can prepare Lawless for his first encounter with George, Biddle’s favorite pet alligator, kept in a tank inside a manicured solarium adjacent the living room. Aunt Mary arrives, demanding the Biddle’s daughter, Cordelia be sent away to a finishing school to refine her tomboyish traits before being presented as a very reluctant debutante. Mary is both curt and commanding; Lawless relaying her presence to Biddle, presently in the middle of his Bible-study/pugilism tutelage program with a select group of devout young men. Cordelia’s date for the evening, dapper Dan, Charlie Taylor is promptly given the old heave-ho by Cordy’s brothers, Tony and Livingston. In her bedroom, Cordelia laments before her full-length mirror the fact she is ill-prepared to charm young men who might be interested in courting her. Meanwhile, Aunt Mary appeals to Mrs. Biddle to see things her way. A finishing school is exactly what Cordelia needs to become a young lady of quality. Reluctant to part with his only daughter, but begrudgingly forced to admit Mary has a point, Mr. Biddle makes his daughter a sincere promise: she can come home from school at any time.
But Cordelia soon discovers the finishing school is far from a prison. In fact, she bonds almost immediately with fellow schoolmate and flighty socialite, Rosemary (Joyce Bulifant), who encourages Cordelia to accentuate her femininity in order to land a handsome suitor at the approaching ‘coming out’ party. Instead, Cordelia attracts the attentions of Angier Duke; an amiable heir to a tobacco fortune who finds most girls a bore, but cannot resist Cordelia’s out-of-step freshness. Soon Angier and Cordelia are desperately in love. However, Mrs. Duke does not find Cordelia suitable for her son. It is very likely no girl would suffice, since Mrs. Duke is rather possessive of Angier, relying on him entirely. Unable to say no to his mother – partly – the romance between Angier and Cordelia reaches an impasse at a party the Biddles gives to welcome the Dukes into Philadelphian society. Mrs. Duke and Aunt Mary spar over which city – Philadelphia or New York – holds the rights to call itself the most sophisticated in the union. Under duress and frustrated to prove himself a man, Angier storms off to a nearby pub to get quietly drunk. He is tailed by John Lawless who encourages him to reconsider his many options; also, to take a stand for true love.
Regrettably, a bar room brawl ensues, Lawless ensuring Angier is incarcerated along with the rest of the drunks before returning to the Biddle mansion to collect Mrs. Duke and his employer, both of whom rush to post bail. Elated and sober, Angier defies his mother, hoists his fiancée over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and carries her off to Detroit. Mrs. Duke blushes, recalling the streak of impulsiveness her late husband displayed under similar circumstances many years before. A short while later, the Biddles return to their mansion alone, somewhat saddened to realize their lives have changed. Mercifully, this disquieting ‘quiet life’ does not last for very long. The marines Biddle has indoctrinated into his Bible studies program arrive and relay a very welcome message; that the Washington political machinery, once vehemently opposed to Biddle’s terms for unilateral training, have reconsidered, and invited him to pursue a national Bible-studies program in conjunction with their defense strategies. As rambunctious cheers erupt from the front parlor, two nondescript dowagers pass in the street in front of the mansion, utterly appalled by the ruckus they hear coming from inside. A series of moving postcards herald the cast with the final insert showing Angier and his new bride driving towards a rather apocalyptic vista of billowing smoke stacks, presumably to launch Angier’s ambitions in the auto industry.
The Happiest Millionaire was by far Walt’s biggest financial disappointment, a flop he mercilessly never lived to see, dying on December 15, 1966. By then, a rough cut had already been assembled for his viewing, Walt supposedly encouraging producer, Bill Anderson to remain steadfast in his judgement calls on the final edit. After Walt’s passing, Anderson and Disney COO, Card Walker came to a heated disagreement over the movie’s length; also, the song ‘It Won’t Be Long Til Christmas’ that Anderson felt slowed the tempo of the last act to a grinding halt and also did not present Greer Garson in a very flattering light. The Happiest Millionaire would, in fact, be Garson’s final movie. But Walker won the battle and the number stayed in. Regardless, at 164 min., The Happiest Millionaire opened to very mixed reviews. Worse, to satisfy their Christmas engagement at Radio City, Anderson was forced to cut an additional 20 min. from its program. Finally, the general release debuted at a scant 118 min. With so much riding on its success, the implosion of The Happiest Millionaire all but guaranteed the studio would shelve it in perpetuity – and did, for nearly twenty-five years, until 1984; coincidentally, the same year Cordelia Drexel Biddle died.
Viewed today, The Happiest Millionaire can hardly be called a Disney classic, although there are some very fine performances and moments to recommend it. Still, it somehow lacks the warmth of, say, Pollyanna; also, the courage of Walt’s convictions, never entirely satisfied by the final cut. There is a residual clumsiness that clings to the narrative structure, further hampered by a sort of lumbering ennui creeping in almost from the moment the main titles begin; the richness in its family entertainment occasionally smothered by some truly mawkish moments. Running true to form for a Disney film, everything works out in the end. Yet, Angier and Cordelia wistful approach to the Motor City is rather ominously rendered, as though something of a cross between Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Walt’s own ‘Step in Time’ from Mary Poppins; a glowering roof top landscape of piped chimneys blackening the skies in aftershocks of modernity. All of these oversights would be largely forgivable if only the Sherman Brothers had come up with a more memorable score, reminiscent of their best efforts at the studio. Regrettably, the songs are unevenly inspired at best. There are no showstoppers to create the sudden urge to run out and buy the soundtrack or even depart from the theater humming. Hence, the lasting impression The Happiest Millionaire gives is one of undeniable well-intended and good-looking A-list family entertainment that nevertheless, and quite simply, fails to entertain.
It is high time The Happiest Millionaire was given a suitable transfer on home video. Back in the late 1990’s, for reasons only clear to the powers that be at Disney Inc., a small trickle of their lesser known catalog (The Watcher in the Woods, Tron, The Black Hole, and, The Happiest Millionaire) were released to DVD via third party distributor, Anchor Bay. After these rights elapsed, Disney simply chose never to renew, resulting in most of the aforementioned movies going out of print. The Happiest Millionaire, however, received a reprieve…well, sort of. Disney’s own DVD of the 164 ‘road show cut’ is non-anamorphic widescreen, framed on all sides in its accurate 1.66:1 aspect ratio. I suppose it could have been worse. They might have chosen 1.33:1 full frame instead! Bottom line: this DVD transfer in no way replicates the movie in a fitting visual presentation that would even remotely satisfy today’s hi-def consumer. While color reproduction is fairly impressive, in so far as a non-anamorphic transfer quality is capable of rendering it, and contrast is reasonably solid; there really is no point to extolling such limited virtues when even the basics have not been adhered. To be sure, remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital, The Happiest Millionaire on DVD sounds better than it looks. But I wouldn’t give it any awards for best audio of the year. Running true to form for Disney’s recent spate of home video releases, particularly deep catalog titles, there are no extras, not even a trailer. Bottom line: emphatically not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)