Disney Movie of the Month

“The Happiest Millionaire”

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.

Original theatrical release poster (© Disney)

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.

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Walt Disney on the set with the cast of THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (© Disney)

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.”

John the butler (Tommy Steele) wrangling one of the family’s alligators in THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (© Disney)

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.”

Leslie Ann Warren and John Davidson falling in love in THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (© Disney)

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?

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Greer Garson and Fred MacMurray in THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (© Disney)

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

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Disney Movie of the Month

“Pete’s Dragon” (1977)

Walt Disney Productions' 1977 big budget musical Pete's Dragon (not to be confused with the 2016 non-musical remake) is an ambitious musical comedy that tries hard but, due to many factors, just doesn't quite hit the mark.

Following the template set by Walt Disney's magnum opus Mary Poppins (1964), and to a much lesser extent Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Pete's Dragon is another attempt to merge live-action and animation into a family-friendly musical (although Pete's Dragon inserts an animated character in a live action environment rather than live actors in an animated environment). The film's premise is a clever one–an orphaned boy is befriended and protected by an animated dragon that only he can see. The Disney Studios' bosses of the mid-1970s pulled together a talented team to try to re-ignite the Disney musical magic. Veteran Disney director Don Chaffey was tasked to direct the project. Hot (at the time) Hollywood songwriting duo Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn were hired to write original songs for the film. The legendary Irwin Kostal composed the film's score. Internationally acclaimed pop star Helen Reddy signed on to play the female lead (it was her first film), Broadway star Jim Dale was cast to play one of the villains, and Hollywood veterans Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters, and Red Buttons all came on board for the project, too.

In a nutshell, the story has orphan Pete (played by Sean Marshall) and his mostly invisible dragon Elliott (animated by Ken Anderson and the Disney Animation team) on the run from Pete's super creepy hillbilly foster family, the Gogans (played by Shelley Winters, Jeff Conaway, and others), whose evil purpose in wanting Pete is for him to be their slave. Pete and Elliott arrive in the town of Passamaquoddy (which looks like somewhere on the coast of Maine) and meet Lampie the lighthouse keeper (played by Mickey Rooney) and his daughter Nora (played by Helen Reddy) who show pity on poor Pete and let him stay with them in their lighthouse. Nora looks after Pete and becomes a mother figure to him, helping him to integrate into life in the town. In the meantime, crooked snake oil salesmen Dr. Terminus (played by Jim Dale) and Hoagy (played by Red Buttons) arrive in Passamaquoddy and try to sell the townspeople on their fraudulent elixirs. Dr. Terminus finds out about Elliott and turns his focus on to capturing him, killing him, and using his body parts to concoct a new line of magic elixirs. Consequently, the Gogans continue to pursue Pete, Dr. Terminus is determined to terminate Elliott, and the plot continues on from there.

So what went wrong? Lots, as far as I'm concerned. But first let's focus on the good parts. Even with all of the great human talent on and off the screen, the real star of the show is animator Ken Anderson's Elliott the dragon. Elliott has such a great character design with his beautiful green color, bright pink hair and wings, and fluid shape. Elliott's charm is in his bumbling yet informed innocence, which is perfectly expressed by the terrific animation done on his character. The special effects wizards at the Disney Studios contributed significantly to Elliott's performance as they had to create visuals to match the invisible movements of the dragon through the human environments. I was especially impressed with all of the effects near the beginning of the film when an invisible Elliott is inadvertently destroying everything he comes in contact with when Pete and Elliott arrive in Passamaquoddy. Also impressive are the backgrounds and visual effects done by the Disney Studios' Process Lab.

 

The uneven script and musical numbers really cause the problems for me. The script is convoluted and overly cluttered with multiple villains, unnecessary subplots (which I won't bore you with here; I'll let the film do that), and a lack of focus. And at a running time of 128 minutes, it's simply too long (more about that later). While "Candle on the Water" and "Brazzle Dazzle Day" are the delightful musical high points in the film, there are disastrous musical low points such as "The Happiest Home in These Hills" horrifyingly sung by Shelley Winters and company, the onerous "Passmashloddy" sung with one dimensional earnestness by Jim Dale and Red Buttons, and the pleasant but out of place anthem "There's Room for Everyone." Mickey Rooney and Helen Reddy do their best with the barrel dancing scene "I Saw a Dragon," but the segment pales in comparison to "Step in Time" from Mary Poppins or any of the great musical dance numbers from Hollywood's or Disney's golden ages. Overall, the talented cast does the best they can with the material, but, sadly, the material is just not that good.

Although there is sentimental pleasure and comfort in watching a Disney-produced film from this era, the unevenness of the final product is a shame. The film had so much potential, even if it was trying to recreate a type of film whose best efforts were in the past. It would take another decade for the musical to flourish again at Disney with the renaissance of Disney Animation and their string of hit animated musicals beginning with 1989's The Little Mermaid.

Now one more thing about the film's lengthy running time. It sounds like this was problem from the get-go and different cuts of the film have been released over the years. I found this blurb about it on IMDb:

This Disney film has a troubled history as far as the many different versions released over the years. It originally ran 134 minutes. After its premiere engagement in Hollywood, it was cut down to 121 minutes before it premiered in New York. When it was released in Europe, it ran 105 minutes, with the following edits: "Candle on the Water" (which survived only as an instrumental passage over the credits replacing the original overture) and "The Happiest Home in These Hills" were eliminated entirely; verses from "I Saw A Dragon," "Passamashloddy," "There's Room For Everyone," and "Every Little Piece" were cut; 21 scenes were shortened. This version was used for the original home video release in 1980, while every video since then has run 128 minutes, restoring the songs and the majority of dramatic material. However, when Disney re-released it in theaters, it was the European cut. Even further cuts were made for the TV version of the film, which premiered on "The Disney Sunday Movie" in 1986.

I watched the 2009 "High-Flying Edition" DVD of the film and I assume that it contained the 128-minute cut. (I would very much like to talk with someone with knowledge about this at Disney. I think it would be great for them to do a restored version of the 134-minute original edit, but, then again, that's a lot of time to have to sit through this film again.)

On a happier note, the special features on the "High Flying Edition" DVD were enlightening and a lot of fun. I particularly I liked the short documentary "Brazzle Dazzle Effects: Behind Disney’s Movie Magic," which described some of the remarkable special effects developed over the years at the Disney Studios that were incorporated into the making of the film (the mini-documentary has been bootlegged on YouTube in two sections–part one and part two; these are highly recommended for any major Disney fan). The special features also contained four audio tracks from a 7" promotional EP with pop versions of songs from the film. My friends and I were in stitches as we listened to the pop version of "Brazzle Dazzle Day" which had modified lyrics and a sound that would do Richard Carpenter proud. (I would really love to find a copy of this record!)

Overall, Pete's Dragon only holds up as a sentimental trip to the past that wasn't that great of an trip to begin with. (But I still want to talk with someone at Disney about that 134-minute cut along with that 7" promotional record.)

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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Disney Movie of the Month

“Cool Runnings”

© Disney

Leon, Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba, and Doug E. Doug in “Cool Runnings” (1993) © Disney

Y’all know that I’m a big fan of the Walt Disney Studios. I thought it would be fun to watch one Disney film a month from here one out and blog about it. This month’s entry is Cool Runnings, the 1993 sports comedy based on the true story of the bobsled team from Jamaica that competed in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

The film tells the inspirational story of Jamaican runner Derice Bannock (played by actor Leon) who decides to form the island’s first bobsled team after an unfortunate event crushes his dreams of representing Jamaica in the Summer Olympics. Bannock meets former American bobsledder Irv Blitzer (played by John Candy) who happens to be living in Jamaica and they recruit three more locals for the team (Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba, and Doug E. Doug). Blitzer becomes the team’s coach and together they overcome multiple obstacles to qualify and compete in Calgary. It’s also an ultimate fish-out-of-water story, with the Jamaicans trying to figure out what it means to compete in the cold and on the world stage.

While the film is in many regards your basic sports movie, it rises above the standard clichés with its winning (and funny) script, terrific acting, and great direction from director John Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping, National Treasure). It is a fun and inspiring film.

One final bit of trivia—Cool Runnings was released in October 1993, just months before John Candy’s untimely death in March 1994. I’m glad he was able to see his terrific performance in the film.

Rating: 4 of out 5 stars

Cool Runnings is currently available on Netflix.

Have you seen Cool Runnings? What do you think of it? Leave a reply below.

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Current Cinema

First Look at “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Image © Lucasfilm and Disney

Image © Lucasfilm and Disney

One thing I never thought I’d see in my lifetime was another Star Wars movie with a storyline past Episode VI (and particularly with the prequel trilogy leaving such a bad aftertaste). Now, as we all know, that’s changed and Episode VII, or Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be coming to a galaxy near you in December 2015.

The first teaser trailer is here and it makes me feel like I’m 12 years old all over again. What do you think of it?

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Thoughts on Movies

“The Little Mermaid” 25th Anniversary

Image © Disney

Image © Disney

Can you believe it’s been 25 years since this film was released? Disney Animation’s The Little Mermaid was issued in
wide release in U.S. theaters on November 17, 1989.

I re-watched the film this week and I don’t think I stopped smiling once. Pure charm and delight from start to finish. I hope you’ll re-watch it soon, too.

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