I recently re-watched Disney’s 1967 live-action musical The Happiest Millionaire. This was the last live-action film that Walt Disney worked directly on before his untimely death in 1966.
The film is based on a non-musical stage play of the same title by Kyle Crichton, which in turn was based on the book My Philadelphia Father by Cordelia (“Cordy”) Drexel Biddle and Kyle Crichton.
Trying to capitalize on the “roadshow” (three-hour event-style movies with reserved seating) movie musical mania sweeping across the U.S.A. (think The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady), the Disney Studios heads put together an impressive creative team and cast for the project. Directed by Norman Tokar, and with songs by Richard and Robert Sherman (the soundtrack is available on Apple Music), the film had an all-star cast, including Fred MacMurray in the title role, Greer Garson, Tommy Steele, Gladys Cooper, and Geraldine Page, along with newcomers Leslie Ann Warren and John Davidson.
The story is focused on Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (played by the always great Fred MacMurray), a highly eccentric millionaire living in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century, along with his wife (played by the luminous Greer Garson in her final big screen role), and their three children–two boys (who are only in one scene of the film) and daughter Cordelia/”Cordy” (played by Leslie Ann Warren in her first film role; this character wrote the book upon which the film is based). When Cordy goes off to finishing school and falls in love with the Angie Duke (played by John Davidson in his first film role, too), who is also a child of wealthy parents, the romance sends both mega-rich families into a mega-competitive tail spin and the young lovers into a state of confusion. It’s up to the Biddle’s family butler John Lawless (played by Tommy Steele) to help bring the young lovers and their families back together. (For an excellent, entertaining, and thorough recap of the entire plot, please visit the blog of my movie buddy Ibraheem.)
Although it was the last movie to bear the personal imprint of Walt Disney himself, sadly, I find the film to be quite a snooze-fest (particularly given its 170-minute run time) and really not one of the studio’s best. Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin in his fantastic book The Disney Films (Disney Editions, 2000), said this about the film’s plot:
“The film has a few lulls, although if one examined it objectively to prune out the extraneous matter, two-thirds of the film might go down the drain.”
One of the challenges of the film for me is that it unsuccessfully and unsatisfyingly straddles the fine line between realism and whimsy. The role of the butler John Lawless illustrates this point. Leonard Maltin said:
“Most reviewers agree that Tommy Steele as John Lawless was one of the film’s saving graces, but he too throws things off balance, for his singing and dancing music-hall style, and comic antics with the alligators make it more difficult to understand whether this is supposed to be realistic or whimsical. The film, as a result, fails in both departments.”
What I did love about the film are its gorgeous sets and costumes and just seeing these wonderful actors on screen. Set designers Emil Kuri and Frank R. McKelvy and costume designer Bill Thomas really did outstanding work on this production. Some art used in the creation of the film, along with some components of the set, have ended up in Disneyland park over the years (check out this interview with Leslie Ann Warren on the official Disney Parks Blog). And, really, when is it not a pleasure to watch a movie with Fred MacMurray or Greer Garson in it?
I really hate to be negative, particularly about a Disney movie, for crying out loud. While imperfect, The Happiest Millionaire definitely has some things to like. Leonard Maltin says it best:
“The Happiest Millionaire is no classic. It is, however, a lively and largely entertaining film. When one considers the ratio of good to bad films in Disney’s career, one misfire isn’t such a disgrace.”
My rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars