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
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
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,
Movie: Fair or a very low stratum of Good
Video: Fair ++
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