The most baffling thing about Disney’s The Happiest Millionaire is its intended audience. It’s hard to imagine many youngsters sitting through a 172-minute musical (though there were multiple versions, including a “shorter” 116-minute edition). The leading characters are a middle-aged millionaire and his 20-year-old daughter. And the plot is basically a love story with some eccentric characters added for flavor. Ultimately, The Happiest Millionaire is too childish for grown-ups and too grown up for children.
Despite such challenges, the film gets off to a perky start with Tommy Steele singing and dancing to “Fortuosity” along the streets of 1916 Philadelphia. Steele plays John Lawless, an Irish immigrant fresh off the ship, who hopes to work as a butler for the wealthy Biddle family. What John doesn’t know is that the Biddles, especially father Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (Fred MacMurray), are a bit eccentric. Mr. Biddle keeps pet alligators in the conservatory and teaches bible classes that incorporate boxing. Indeed, all the Biddle children–includinge the only daughter, Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren)–are well versed in the pugilistic arts.
Cordy’s Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper) suggests that the young woman attend the Wingfield School for Girls to learn the finer social graces. Surprisingly, Cordy agrees, much to her doting father’s dismay. While attending a dance, Cordy meets Angier “Angie” Buchanan Duke (John Davidson) and it’s love at first sight. However, it quickly becomes apparent that neither set of parents approve of a possible marriage between their children.
On paper, The Happiest Millionaire must have resembled a box office winner. MacMurray, who was still popular thanks to TV’s My Three Sons, had appeared in some of Disney’s most successful live-action films – The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), among others. Newcomer Warren had charmed television viewers three years earlier in the lead role in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Greer Garson and Geraldine Page headed an impressive supporting cast. And composers Richard and Robert Sherman were just three years removed from their monster hit Mary Poppins.
Alas, a strong pedigree doesn’t result in a good movie. Yes, there are a handful of inspired musical numbers: the previously-mentioned “Fortuosity”; Warren and Davidson’s pretty duet “Are We Dancing?”; and Davidson and Steele in a barroom production number called “Let’s Have a Drink on It.” However, for most of its lumbering length, The Happiest Millionaire vainly tries to turn on the charm. Steele, who can be too energetic (e.g., Finian’s Rainbow), tries to inject life into the proceedings, often talking to the audience or offering a sly wink. Unfortunately, his butler character fades to the background for most of the film.
From a production standpoint, The Happiest Millionaire offers a feast for the eyes. It earned an Oscar nomination for its costumes, but equally impressive are the elaborate sets, the recreated period look, and the bright autumn colors. The film was also the studio’s last project to be overseen (in part, at least) by founder Walt Disney, who passed away from lung cancer the year before its release.
Interestingly, there really was an Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, who was indeed an eccentric Philadelphia millionaire interested in boxing and alligators. And, as portrayed in The Happiest Millionaire, his daughter Cordelia married Angier Buchanan Duke (whose family established an endowment to Duke University). In 1955, Cordelia co-wrote a biography about her father, which was adapted as a play starring Walter Pidgeon. Apparently, no live alligators were in it!
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!