Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Happiest Millionaire

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Happiest Millionaire

Throughout the 1960s, Hollywood studios pumped millions of dollars into lavish epic musical extravaganzas and when they hit, they hit big. Disney had first-hand experience with this. In 1964, Mary Poppins became a phenomenon, becoming the highest-grossing film in the studio’s history and winning five Oscars. Needless to say, Walt wanted to do that again. But The Happiest Millionaire, which ended up being the last live-action film released bearing Walt Disney’s personal thumbprint, failed to recapture that old Poppins magic.

The Happiest Millionaire was based on a play by Kyle Crichton (no apparent relation to Michael Crichton, despite what IMDb may say), which was in turn based on My Philadelphia Father, a book Crichton cowrote with Cordelia Drexel Biddle. The Happiest Millionaire was not a musical when Walt acquired the rights to it. It was evidently Mary Poppins producer Bill Walsh’s idea to turn it into one. But Walt didn’t keep Walsh on the project. Instead, he turned it over to Bill Anderson, who had produced a lot of things for the studio (most recently The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin) but no musicals.

Anderson wasn’t the only one making his first musical. Screenwriter A.J. Carothers had been responsible for such non-singing-and-dancing films as Miracle Of The White Stallions and Emil And The Detectives. The closest Norman Tokar had come to directing a musical sequence was Fred MacMurray leading his boy scouts in the title song of Follow Me, Boys! That tune had been written by house songsmiths Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Once again, they’d be the ones primarily responsible for guiding the musical elements of the show.

Walt again cast his favorite leading man, Fred MacMurray, in the starring role. MacMurray was not the Shermans’ first choice (or, indeed, their second or third). They hoped to get Rex Harrison, star of My Fair Lady. But Walt had the final say on all casting decisions, so once he got his heart set on MacMurray, nobody else really stood a chance. You can understand why the Shermans might have wanted someone else. Despite his background as a saxophonist and vocalist early in his career, MacMurray wasn’t exactly known as a song-and-dance man anymore.

Second billing went to Disney newcomer Tommy Steele. Steele had become a star about a decade earlier in the UK. Considered Britain’s first rock and roll star, Tommy hit the top of the pops with songs like “Singing The Blues”. He made his movie debut (as himself) in 1957’s The Tommy Steele Story (released in this country as Rock Around The World because nobody over here had any idea who Tommy Steele was).

With his broad, toothy grin and ingratiating manner, Tommy Steele was an unlikely pop star, even by late ‘50s England standards. Still, he continued to be a big deal across the pond for a number of years. As the 1960s opened, Steele left rock ‘n’ roll behind to focus on acting. In 1963, he appeared on the West End in Half A Sixpence, a new musical developed specifically around his talents. Steele later took the show to Broadway and reprised the role again in the film version, which was made right after he finished work on The Happiest Millionaire.

Tommy Steele has a big, playing to the rafters energy that makes him an ideal musical theatre star. I’m sure seeing him live on stage was quite a treat. Heck, it may still be quite a treat. Now 84, the recently knighted entertainer was still performing as recently as 2018 in The Glenn Miller Story in London. But on the big screen, Tommy can be a lot. He’s the first character we meet in The Happiest Millionaire and his opening number, “Fortuosity”, reminds me a little bit of the “You’re Gonna Like Me” song Gabbo introduces himself with on The Simpsons.

“Fortuosity” sets the stage for everything that works and doesn’t work about The Happiest Millionaire. It’s a pretty good song that effectively sets up the story. Steele plays John Lawless, fresh off the boat from Ireland in Philadelphia, on his way to start a new job working for an elegant millionaire and his elegant family. The song is built around one of the Shermans’ favorite devices, a completely made-up word that the song defines. And Steele sells the hell out of the song, giving it all he’s worth.

It feels like the song is going to be one of those big Broadway-style opening numbers but that never really happens. Steele sings and dances all over the elaborate Main Street USA set, which is thoroughly populated by pedestrians in their best 1916 finery. But those passersby really do just pass on by. Nobody once joins in. Now in a musical, when you’ve got an energetic, effervescent guy singing and dancing up a storm, you kind of expect his enthusiasm to be contagious. But if life goes on like normal all around him, he just looks crazy.

At any rate, John arrives at the Biddle house where housekeeper Mrs. Worth (Hermione Baddeley, possibly wearing her old Mary Poppins costume) makes vague allusions to the family’s eccentricities. He gets an example of this almost immediately as patriarch Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (MacMurray) bursts in demanding chocolate cake and complaining that one of his alligators bit his finger. This, we soon discover, is not a euphemism. Lawless also meets the Biddle children, Cordelia or “Cordy” (Lesley Ann Warren), Tony (Paul Petersen) and Livingston (Eddie Hodges). All four are wearing identical turtlenecks emblazoned “Biddle Bible Class”, making the whole family look a bit like a cult.

Now at this point, I had to stop watching the movie to try and figure out what the hell was going on. Who are these people? Turns out, the movie is more or less based on a true story. The real Anthony J. Drexel Biddle’s family fortune gave him the freedom to focus on his passions: boxing and the Bible. He was a proponent of something called “Athletic Christianity” and considered a bit of a kook by Philadelphia’s upper crust. And he did in fact raise alligators for some reason.

Maybe if you live in Pennsylvania, the Biddles are more commonly known and you already knew this. But I had no idea and the movie makes no effort to clue us in. The movie is a bit reminiscent of Life With Father, another semi-autobiographical Broadway show depicting family life in the 1880s. But in that case, you don’t really need to know who the Day family really was because they’re presented as a fairly typical New York family of the era. The Biddles are anything but typical. The movie just throws us into the deep end with these folks and hopes we’ll figure it out as we go along, which makes the madly grinning John Lawless our guide and surrogate. Heaven help us.

Theatrical release poster for The Happiest Millionaire

The film’s primary conflict is between father and daughter, Cordy. Like her brothers, Cordy has been raised to be a fighter, which doesn’t help attract gentlemen callers. (The brothers are given one song, “Watch Your Footwork”, to size up a potential suitor, then completely disappear from the movie altogether.) Worried about Cordy’s future, Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper) arranges for her to attend a private boarding school. Biddle isn’t sold on the idea but Cordy enthusiastically agrees to the arrangement.

At school, Cordy attends a dance hosted by some more rich relatives. Here, she meets Angier Buchanan Duke (played by future game show host John Davidson). “Angie” is expected to take his rightful place in the family’s tobacco business but what he really wants to do is move to Detroit and design cars. Angie and Cordy get engaged and Mr. Biddle is won over by the young man’s knowledge of jiu-jitsu. But the road to the altar hits a snag when Cordy realizes Angie won’t stand up to his domineering mother (Geraldine Page).

The wedding is called off and John Lawless, who has become a vital member of the household, follows Angie to a nearby bar. John gets him good and drunk, starting a barroom brawl that lands him in jail. Mr. Biddle comes to bail him out and, with a little reverse psychology, persuades Angie to run off to Detroit with Cordy and elope.

Now from that description, you may have noticed that The Happiest Millionaire appears to primarily be about Cordy and Angie and not so much about the top-billed stars, Fred MacMurray and Tommy Steele. This is true but both MacMurray and Steele still have plenty to do. As World War I draws near, Mr. Biddle makes repeated trips to Washington, offering to train men in the art of hand-to-hand combat. A new maid accidentally leaves a window open, freezing the alligators in blocks of ice. Somehow they manage to survive and Lawless spends several minutes trying to round the gators up. But all this business is just window dressing to the main romance.

The love story is not all that compelling in and of itself and the Shermans’ love songs, like “Are We Dancing?”, are the weakest parts of their score. If you end up caring about these people at all, it’s thanks entirely to the likable performances of Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson. Warren came to Walt’s attention after she starred in the TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Davidson also came from television, appearing in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of The Fantasticks and hosting The Kraft Summer Music Hall variety show. Both were making their film debuts in The Happiest Millionaire and they’ll both be back in this column before long.

Both Warren and Davidson are capable singers and dancers but the Shermans don’t do them any favors. The songs they’re given are either boring (the aforementioned “Are We Dancing?”), ridiculous (“Bye-Yum Pum Pum”, a duet between Warren and Joyce Bulifant that’s essentially a rewrite of “Feminity” from Summer Magic) or both (“Valentine Candy”, Warren’s solo lament in which she tries to decide if she’s “valentine candy or boxing gloves”).

Davidson at least gets to participate in the film’s biggest, most energetic number. “Let’s Have A Drink On It” is a rousing setpiece, led confidently by Tommy Steele. Here, finally, is the big, cinematic musical number that “Fortuosity” should have been. It comes a little late in the proceedings to solve everything but it’s a taste of what a better version of this movie might look like.

Tommy Steele is certainly a unique screen presence and it’s a little disappointing that he won’t be back in this column. After this, he only made one more Hollywood film, appearing as Og the leprechaun in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Finian’s Rainbow. He then made a couple more British movies before returning to the stage for good. That was probably the right choice and it certainly seemed to work out well for him. But a part of me wishes he’d stuck around to inject more of his sugar rush energy into a few more Disney movies.

Comic book adaptation of The Happiest Millionaire

The Happiest Millionaire premiered in Hollywood on June 23, 1967. Intended as a roadshow attraction, it made its way across the country gradually with higher, reserved-seating prices. In November, it was booked at Radio City Music Hall as their Christmas attraction. But since it would be playing with a live stage show, the venue demanded that it be cut down. Twenty minutes were chopped out, bringing it from 164 minutes to 144. As the roadshow experiment faltered, the studio cut it down even further. By the time it made it into general release, the running time had been slashed to just under two hours.

One of the first things to go had been the song “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas”, sung by Mrs. Biddle (Greer Garson) as her husband struggles with empty nest syndrome. It’s actually one of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs in the entire movie. Fortunately, Disney has restored the complete roadshow version and that’s the one you can find on Disney+.

Casting Oscar winner Greer Garson as Mrs. Biddle must have been quite a coup for Disney. She was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, racking up seven Academy Award nominations over the course of her distinguished career. But she’d slowed down considerably in recent years, making occasional TV appearances and appearing in the Debbie Reynolds vehicle The Singing Nun. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot to do here, either. But “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas” is a nice spotlight for her and a tender moment among all the other wacky shenanigans.

When all was said and done, The Happiest Millionaire only earned about $5 million at the box office, just about enough to break even. The movie did mange to get a single Oscar nomination for Bill Thomas’s costume designs (it lost to another mega-musical, Camelot) and Tommy Steele was nominated for a Golden Globe in the Most Promising Newcomer – Male category (he lost to an even more promising newcomer, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). But the general consensus was that The Happiest Millionaire simply didn’t work.

It’d be nice to say that the general consensus was wrong and that Walt Disney’s last live-action project is really a misunderstood gem. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. There are individual moments in The Happiest Millionaire that sparkle but the whole thing never really comes together. Walt was nothing if not ambitious. But in this case, his ambitions got away from him and ended up smothering a project that never quite figures out what it wants to be.

VERDICT: This is almost (but not quite) a Disney Plus buried inside a Disney Minus.

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.