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The Happiest Millionaire

The Happiest Millionaire
1967 / Color / 1:66 flat letterbox / 141 172 min. (164 without overture, ent'racte and exit music) / Street Date June 1, 2004 / 19.99
Starring Fred MacMurray, Tommy Steele, Greer Garson, Geraldine Page, Gladys Cooper, Hermione Baddeley, Lesley Ann Warren, John Davidson, Paul Petersen, Eddie Hodges
Cinematography Edward Colman
Art Direction Carroll Clark, John B. Mansbridge
Film Editor Cotton Warburton
Original Music Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman
Special Effects Peter Ellenshaw, Eustace Lycett
Choreographers Marc Breaux, Dee Dee Wood
Written byA.J. Carothers from the play and book My Philadelphia Father by Cordelia Drexel Biddle and Kyle Crichton
Produced by Bill Anderson, Walt Disney
Directed by Norman Tokar

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Happiest Millionaire was released a year after Walt Disney's death, and it looks like a personal Disney production that lacks his finesse and judgment. It's an intolerably long movie about a Disney-like paterfamilias dealing with family problems. What should be an eighty-minute lark is almost three hours long and sinks from its own weight. One gets the feeling that had Walt lived to oversee the production the end product would have been very different.


Eccentric Philadelphia millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (Fred MacMurray) runs combination Bible and physical fitness classes, loves boxing and keeps alligators in the house. Immigrant John Lawless becomes Biddle's new butler, while his daughter Cordelia (Lesley Ann Warren) upsets him by meeting and becoming engaged to New Yorker Angie Duke (John Davidson).

In Joe Dante's wonderful 1992 comedy Matinee we're shown a snippet of a fake Disney movie called The Shook-Up Shopping Cart. It recreates perfectly the wholesome vapidity of this overblown musical. When Disney was in charge, more often than not there was some kind of solid content behind his squeaky-clean, sexless and perpetually smiling characters. The Parent Trap, for example is a thin comedy that nevertheless charms us with its essentially honest emotions.

The Happiest Millionaire main title style is lifted from The Saturday Evening Post and its tone is Norman Rockwell-lite. The story is set in a neighborhood that seems just off Main Street in Disneyland, which if it were part of the the amusement park would have to be called Denial-land. It's 1916 in Philadelphia. Our hero Biddle is rich without any visible source of income. He runs religion-free Bible classes for bums and alcoholics, meeting that are actually feel-good exercise sessions. When not exercising Biddle promotes boxing and trains a Philadelphia corps of soldiers to fight in WW1; the 40ish millionaire is the darling of the Marine Corps because they admire his fisticuffs. Biddle himself becomes enthusiastic about Ju-Jitsu after being introduced to it by his future son-in-law. Combat in this movie is the social icebreaker that brings people together.

The social setup pits the Biddles against a new money Tobacco family from New York, represented by Geraldine Page as Mrs. Duke. The Dukes are social snobs but their son Angie (John Davidson) doesn't share their values; he wants to go off on his own and start an automobile empire in Detroit, the place "where it's really happening."

Anthony Biddle's biggest non-problem is his sentimental disappointment over his daughter growing up and leaving home. And that's it. The artificial musical context doesn't make any social statements. The Happiest Millionaire came from an autobiographical book like I Remember Mama or Cheaper by the Dozen but would seem to have no contact with reality. The "world" has no big issues except the War. The need to fight battles overseas is accepted mainly as a necessity for military tradition. There are no minorities except for the pixie-like Irishman John Lawless and his immigrant cronies down at the local pub. They're a pack of harmless, sociable cartoon characters.

For comedy relief, the Biddles are given a spa full of alligators. Their bellowing and roaming around the house are a poor substitute for real comedy but they provide the film with an undeniable visual hook, mainly Tommy Steele cakewalking with a big 'gator in real time. Undercranking the camera makes the reptiles move faster than normal, but there are a number of scenes with amusing contact like Steele dragging one by its tail. A close look shows that their jaws are often wired shut. What exactly the alligators are meant to contribute to the story, I don't know. It all comes under the heading of Shook-Up Shopping Cart logic. How else are we going to get terrorized maids running around the house screaming for the trailer? Nothing much else happens in the movie.

And then there's the music. The redoubtable Sherman Brothers songwriting team come up with one okay ditty Fortuosity, a couple of other tunes with promise and at least eight or nine completely forgettable songs. The damage to the movie is how they are used - almost every scene in the first half is interrupted by a long song & dance and the movie proceeds at a crawl. It's the Rodgers & Hammerstein formula where we're supposed to move from showstopper to showstopper without having the chance to catch our breath. But for that to work one first needs showstoppers.

The only exceptional musical talent in the movie is Tommy Steele (Half a Sixpence) and he can sing and dance up a storm. The choreography by Mark Breaux and Dee Dee Wood gives him some slick moves in the opening solo and some light moments in a barroom number in the second half of the show. For everyone else the order of the day seems to be canned dubbing. If Fred MacMurray is dubbed, it's by a singer with an excellent voice match.

The Happiest Millionaire is watchable because of the accumulated nostalgia that comes along with its cast. Fred MacMurray was probably the best Disney father figure, a pleasantly assertive do-gooder with a kindly disposition. His character is inconsistent and slightly infantile but MacMurray's presence holds it together. A couple of minutes into the show and we're remembering The Absent-Minded Professor, not the lecherous bigwig from The Apartment.

Greer Garson has little to do, Hemione Baddeley even less, and the story introduces the Biddle sons Tony and Livingston (Paul Petersen and Eddie Hodges) and then banishes them off to school where we forget they exist. Geraldine Page is the only villain in a story without real conflict. When Page and opponent Gladys Cooper have a petty spat, it's the movie's best scene.

Much of the picture deals with the antiseptic romance between John Davidson and Lesley Anne Warren. Warren is a true find who puts snap and freshness into her dancing and pop-up smiles. Her bright face with its dark eyes (something like young Susan Sarandon) also suggests a potential for complexity. John Davidson is as vacant as the Anglo adonis with the perfect smile and perfect hair. He's studiously bland, the perfect non-threatening dream date for the parents in the audience. In fact, the entire youthful romance is a Lawrence Welk dream, hands on the table, legit and wholesome. When the pair dances their big waltz on the outdoor terrace it has to be the most artificial and phony scene in Disney history.

So why the negativity? The Happiest Millionaire is just light entertainment from the establishment point of view, where a pleasant fantasy about family life might be a respite from a steady diet of more realistic fare. Although 1967's The Graduate burst a number of myths about the American success story, much of the country rejected it in favor of Lawrence Welk-ish entertainment. What's wrong with Cordelia and Angie dancing their Good Housekeeping-approved dance? I don't have an answer and my response is a personal one. I was a fairly well-off teenager in 1967 with no particular need to sneer at this kind of show, but to me The Happiest Millionaire just seemed irrelevant.

Director Norman Tokar started with the Leave it to Beaver TV show and his direction is devoid of the style of previous Disney regulars David Swift or Robert Stevenson. The lighting is flat indoors and out, day and night, so flat that I suspect that throwing one master switch in the morning was the only creative lighting done on the whole movie. The lack of visual depth or variety hurts the movie more than anything else. Peter Ellenshaw's atmospheric matte paintings are the most interesting shots in the show. 1

Disney's DVD of The Happiest Millionaire is a plain-wrap affair. The entire film is here with Overture, Entr'acte and Exit music and comes in at a sore-bottom length of just under three hours. The non-enhanced transfer has okay color but detail breaks down completely on a large monitor, where sub-par encoding gives characters multiple sets of lips and teeth and sometimes three nostrils. It is matted to 1:66 but mattes off nicely on a widescreen set, for compositions at least.

There are no extras, not even a trailer. I'd have liked to learn more about the film. Did Walt pre-plan it and are the picture's problems any indication of company confusion after his passing? The "old Walt" would have had the film rewritten, reshot and recut until it was more entertaining.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, rates:
Movie: Fair or a very low stratum of Good
Video: Fair ++
Sound: Good
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 20, 2004


1. The final shot is an unintentional deja-vu horror ending. Cordelia and Angie motor off to Detroit, and the skyline of the future is an industrial smoke-scape of sooty factories and belching chimneys. It's as dispiriting as the strip mines and freeways representing America's great future at the end of How the West was Won.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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