Disney’s Dud: The Happiest Millionaire
Walt Disney had a lot of hit films in his career. Indeed, many of the films made in his lifetime ranked in the top-five movies of the year that they were released. After his death, however, many of the films that followed fell into what is considered a mediocre time of the studio where projects seemed either aimless, or did not have that Disney stamp of excellence. The last project that Walt Disney green-lit was the live-action 1967 musical The Happiest Millionaire. It is interesting to think what the final product would have looked like had Disney survived to infuse it with his special brand of magic. Woefully, he did not and the final product is one of the biggest duds the studio has ever churned out. That is not to say that The Happiest Millionaire doesn’t have little bursts of excellence within its overly long original 164 minute running time.
Based on the true story of the eccentric Philadelphia millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle and his family (particularly his daughter Cordelia), The Happiest Millionaire follows their lives rather aimlessly and without much of a build toward any climax or point. Some characters are introduced and are never seen again, including two of Cordelia’s younger brothers who have a big duet early in the film. The real problem with the film is that it never really seems to know what it wants to be. Is it Mary Poppins without the cartoons to jump into? Is it a true story with musical numbers to bring it to life? It feels as though the studio is trying to recapture the perfection and magic of Mary Poppins, but doesn’t quite know how to fit the pieces together.
The film’s star was a Disney favorite Fred MacMurray who had done well by the studio with The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. If, however, he was the right person to play the larger-than-life Biddle, he never demonstrated it in The Happiest Millionaire. Perhaps it was the writing, but MacMurray was always better in more loveable, understated roles. He feels out of place in this big, splashy, period musical. Lesley Ann Warren, recently having played the title character in a made-for-TV remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella fares better as daughter Cordelia, singing and dancing with aplomb. Unfortunately, the material doesn’t give her much to work with and her character to is hard to care about. Perhaps the most uncomfortable performance in the film is the ever-combustible Tommy Steele who overacts with such ferocity that it feels like he is in an entirely different picture altogether. At least he appears to be giving it his all. The best performances of the film come from small supporting roles, especially Gladys Cooper and Geraldine Page, the former representing old money and the latter representing new money, squaring off in the delightful duet “There Are Those.” Paul Petersen (of The Donna Reed Show) and Eddie Hodges (of Broadway’s The Music Man) play the two younger brothers who quickly disappear. It’s a shame they do because their duet “Watch Your Footwork”, meant to terrorize Cordelia’s latest beau, is loads of spirited fun and makes you wish they were in the film longer. Greer Garson plays the two-dimensional mother with as much excitement as wet cardboard in a windstorm. Garson was a great film actress, so, again, you have to blame the limits of the material and writing.
Where The Happiest Millionaire is severely underrated is in its Sherman Brothers’ score. Say what you want about their optimism and overt perkiness, they could write a catchy melody better than just about anyone. With better material, I suspect that The Happiest Millionaire could have been one of their greatest scores. In the end, their efforts are quite good, but relegated to the back seat of their accomplishments because the film was never a hit. Listen to the music sometime if you have a chance. Outside the confines of the turgid script, “What’s Wrong with That?”, “Watch Your Footwork”, “I’ll Always Be Irish”, “Bye-Yum Pum Pum”, “Are We Dancing?”, “Detroit”, “Fortuosity”, and “Let’s Have a Drink On it” are infectious musical numbers that will set your toes tapping and are, in some cases, brimming with a sharp wit that the team of brothers have seldom revealed.
Could The Happiest Millionaire have been a great movie musical? It is doubtful. It came at a time when big movie musicals of this kind were beginning to die out in Hollywood. Walt Disney saw a rough cut of The Happiest Millionaire before he died and he had some problems with what he saw, but decided to put it in the hands of the film’s director Norman Tokar. Had Disney survived, would he have considered re-filming or fixing plot issues? Would his intervention made a difference in the final product? That’s doubtful. The Happiest Millionaire, although it was a bit of a labor of love on Disney’s part, was misbegotten from the beginning when a clear plot couldn’t not be created out of the vignettes that made up Biddle’s life. But the music is well-done and worth a listen for those who like a musical theatre song with an insistent melody and a touch of class.