ⓘ The Happiest Millionaire

                                     

ⓘ The Happiest Millionaire

The Happiest Millionaire is a 1967 musical film starring Fred MacMurray, based upon the true story of Philadelphia millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle. The film, featuring music by the Sherman Brothers, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design by Bill Thomas. The screenplay is by A. J. Carothers and based on the play that was based on the book My Philadelphia Father by Cordelia Drexel Biddle, the daughter of Anthony Biddle.

The film first premiered in Hollywood on June 23, 1967 and had an original running time of 172 minutes. In the early 1960s, Walt Disney acquired the rights to the play. It would be the last live-action musical film to be produced by him, who died during its production. Originally at a length of 164 minutes, The Happiest Millionaire was edited down twenty minutes for its November 1967 premiere at the Radio City Music Hall. For its general release, the film was again edited down to almost two hours. The film was poorly received by critics, who criticized its running time but praised the music and cast, and it was a box office disappointment.

                                     

1. Plot

The story begins in Autumn of 1916, and follows an Irish immigrant named John Lawless Tommy Steele as he applies for a butler position with eccentric Philadelphia millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Fred MacMurray. Even though the family is a bit strange, Lawless soon learns that he fits right in. Mr. Biddle takes a liking to him immediately. For the rest of the film, Lawless serves as the narrator/commentator.

Mr. Biddle busies himself with his Biddle Boxing and Bible School located in his stable and with his alligators in the conservatory. He is also anxious to get America into the War in Europe World War I, despite the governments policy of neutrality. His wife, Cordelia Greer Garson, stands quietly by, accepting his eccentricities with a sense of pride and class. Their two sons, Tony and Livingston Paul Petersen and Eddie Hodges, respectively are headed off to boarding school, never to be seen in the film again. Their daughter, Cordy Lesley Ann Warren, in her film debut, is a tomboy with a mean right hook who was educated by private tutors and has had limited contact with conventional society. She is frustrated by her apparent inability to attract suitors and wants to see what is beyond the Biddle manor.

Mr. Biddle reluctantly lets Cordy go to a boarding school as well after some prodding from both Cordy and from his Aunt Mary Gladys Cooper, where her roommate teaches her how to lure men with feminine wiles, known as "Bye-Yum Pum Pum". At a social dance hosted by her aunt and uncle, Cordy meets Angier Buchanan Duke John Davidson, in his film debut and they fall in love. He tells Cordy that he is fascinated with the new automobile and wants to head to Detroit, Michigan to make his fortune there, instead of taking over his familys tobacco business.

That winter, Cordy comes back to her parents home and tells them that she is engaged. At first, this is a difficult thing for Mr. Biddle to take. He does not want to give up his little girl. But, after meeting Angie and witnessing first-hand his Jiu Jitsu fighting skills, Mr. Biddle takes a liking to him and accepts the engagement. Then Cordy travels with Angie to New York City to meet his mother Geraldine Page. Soon the Biddles and the Dukes are making arrangements for a very grand wedding.

Constant condescending comments from Angies mother anger Cordy. To make matters worse, their families elaborate planning for the "social event of the season" it is by now the spring of 1917, makes both Cordy and Angie feel pushed aside. The tension reaches a climax when Cordy learns that Angie has abandoned his plans for Detroit, and is instead taking his place in the family business, following his mothers wishes. Cordy angrily calls the wedding off, thinking of Angie as a mamas boy, and Angie storms out of the house. Both families are instantly in a tremendous state of upheaval. Mr. Biddle sends John Lawless to look after Angie.

John finds Angie at the local tavern, contemplating what he will do next. During a rousing song-and-dance sequence, John tries to convince Angie to go back to Cordy. However, Angie is stubborn and thinks of other ways to deal with his problems, among other things saying that he wants to join the Foreign Legion. Angie unwittingly starts a bar fight with a little help from John and is hauled off to jail.

The next morning, Mr. Biddle comes to bail Angie out. He tells Angie he has to forget about his own dreams and accept his place in the family business. His words have the desired effect, inspiring Angie to defy his mother and elope with Cordy and go to Detroit. Cordy, however, believes her father talked Angie into it, so to prove his sincerity, amid the cheering of the cell mates, Angie throws Cordy over his shoulder and carries her out of the jail house to start their new life together. The short version of the film ends at this point. After Mr. and Mrs. Biddle return home a delegation of Marines arrive to inform him he has been made a "provisional captain" in the Marine Corps; and is wanted immediately to go to Parris Island to help/continue training the recruits, now that America is finally entering the War. Mr. Biddle accepts with delight, and the hearty congratulations of his suddenly appearing Bible Boxing Class. Behind the final credits, a car with two people apparently Cordie and Angie is seen driving toward a city skyline apparently Detroit dominated by factories spewing smoke to blacken the sky over the city.

                                     

2. Cast

  • Jim McMullan as Lt. Powell
  • John Davidson as Angier Buchanan Duke
  • Gladys Cooper as Aunt Mary
  • Greer Garson as Cordelia Biddle
  • Joyce Bulifant as Rosemary
  • William Wellman, Jr. as Lt. Grayson
  • Tommy Steele as John Lawless
  • Paul Petersen as Tony
  • Frances Robinson as Aunt Gladys
  • Sean McClory as Police Sgt.
  • Larry Merrill as Charlie Taylor
  • Lesley Ann Warren as Cordy
  • Eddie Hodges as Livingston
  • Geraldine Page as Mrs. Duke
  • Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Worth
  • Aron Kincaid as Walter Blakely
  • Fred MacMurray as Anthony J. Drexel Biddle
                                     

3.1. Production Origins

The film had its origins in the 1955 book My Philadelphia Father by Cordelia Biddle as told to Kyle Crichton. The New York Times said the story was told with "charm". There was early interest in the book for stage adapation. Crichton did his own adaptation and Howard Erskine and Joseph Hayes agreed to produce it.

The play, now called The Happiest Millionaire, opened on Broadway on November 20, 1956 at the Lyceum Theatre. Walter Pidgeon portrayed Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, while George Grizzard played Angie. It was Pidgeons first appearance on Broadway in 21 years. Film rights were optioned to MGM in exchange for them letting him do the play. H.C. Potter was to direct until replaced by Guthrie McClintock. McClintick left the production before opening night. The New York Times called the production "decent and amusing" and Pidgeon "wonderful". The production ran for 271 performances, closing on July 13, 1957.

                                     

3.2. Production Development

In the early 1960s, Walt Disney acquired the rights to the play, but he had no intent of making it into a musical at first. After noting the collective box office success of Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, the first of which he actually produced, the films original producer, Bill Walsh, decided to make the film into a musical. Afterwards, Walt reassigned him to Blackbeards Ghost, replacing him with Bill Anderson.

The job of writing the songs went to the Sherman Brothers. While the Sherman Brothers wanted Rex Harrison for the lead role, Walt Disney insisted on, and eventually got, Fred MacMurray. Harrison would have been unavailable anyway, as he was shooting Doctor Dolittle for 20th Century Fox.

In January 1966, a key role went to Tommy Steele who had achieved a success on Broadway in Half a Sixpence. Lesley Ann Warren, whom Walt had seen in the 1965 CBS television production of Rodgers and Hammersteins Cinderella, made her film debut here. She also met her future husband, Jon Peters, during the films production. The role of MacMurrays wife went to Greer Garson, who called the film "a delightful Life with Father type picture. I dont have much to do but I love working with Fred MacMurray."



                                     

4. Music

  • "Whats Wrong with That?" - Fred MacMurray
  • "Detroit" - John Davidson and Lesley Ann Warren
  • "When a Man Has a Daughter" - Fred MacMurray
  • "Finale Lets Have a Drink On It" - Tommy Steele and Chorus
  • "Bye-Yum Pum Pum" - Joyce Bulifant and Lesley Ann Warren
  • "It Wont Be Long Til Christmas Roadshow version only - Greer Garson and Fred MacMurray
  • "Ill Always Be Irish" - Tommy Steele, Fred MacMurray, and Lesley Ann Warren
  • "Are We Dancing?" - John Davidson and Lesley Ann Warren
  • "Watch Your Footwork" - Paul Petersen and Eddie Hodges
  • "Strengthen the Dwelling" - Fred MacMurray and Biddle Bible Class
  • "Lets Have a Drink On It" - John Davidson", Tommy Steele, and Chorus
  • "There Are Those" - Gladys Cooper, Tommy Steele, and Geraldine Page
  • "I Believe in This Country" - Fred MacMurray
  • "Fortuosity" - Tommy Steele
  • "Valentine Candy" - Lesley Ann Warren

The song "Detroit" contains the lyric "F.O.B. Detroit" free on board. According to the Shermans, Walt Disney was walking down the hall of the studio animation building and overheard them singing the song. Walt, misinterpreting the phrase as "S.O.B.", immediately went into their office and scolded them for using such offensive language in a Disney movie. The Shermans explained Walts misinterpretation and they all had a good laugh about it.

The original cast soundtrack was released on Buena Vista Records in stereo STER-5001 and mono BV-5001 versions. A second cast recording with studio singers and orchestrations by Tutti Camarata appeared on Disneyland Records in stereo STER-1303 and mono DQ-1303.

The cast soundtrack was re-released on CD in 2002 60781-7, remastered from the original 8-track master tapes to reduce the heavy reverb from the original LP. It is currently available on iTunes.

Diana Ross and the Supremes covered "It Wont Be Long Til Christmas" for their planned album of Disney covers, but the tracks from that session were not released until the 1980s.

                                     

5. Release

When Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966, the film had a first cut already completed. Walt told Anderson to use his own judgement, but added, "Dont let the distribution people rush you." Anderson wanted to shorten the film as he disliked the musical number "It Wont Be Long Til Christmas" and Greer Garsons performance of it, but not as much as Disney COO Card Walker wanted to. They fought bitterly over the extent of the cuts. The film opened at 164 minutes, on a "reserved seating" basis.

Robert Sherman was in England during the films Hollywood premiere at the Pantages Theatre, but he became furious when he discovered in the Los Angeles Times that a theater in the vicinity was showing a double feature of The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor at a much lower price. In order to satisfy requests from Radio City Music Hall, the site of the films New York premiere, Disney cut twenty minutes from the film after the Los Angeles premiere. For the general release, the film was shortened even further to 118 minutes. After that, it never had any theatrical reissues or appeared on television until 1984 coincidentally, the same year the real Cordelia Drexel Biddle died, when the 164-minute version was screened at the Los Angeles International Film Expo and aired on The Disney Channel, especially as a tribute after Fred MacMurray passed away.



                                     

5.1. Release Home media

The film was first released to VHS in 1983, then reissued in 1986. Both releases are of the 144-minute version.

Anchor Bay Entertainment released separate DVDs of both the long and short versions on July 20, 1999. The long version, presented on video for the first time, was in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen, but the short version was 1.33:1.

Disney released its own DVD of the film on June 1, 2004, including only the long version. It adds two things missing from the Anchor Bay DVD: the Intermission music at the end of act I and the exit music at the end of act II.

                                     

6. Reception

Bosley Crowther, reviewing for The New York Times, panned the film writing that "the whole picture is vulgar. It is an over-decorated, over-fluffed, over-sentimentalized endeavor to pretend the lace-curtain millionaires are - or were - every bit as folksy as the old prize-fighters and the Irish brawlers in the saloon." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in his review that he felt "adults will find the plot thin and the characters one-dimensional. Lots of kids will find little to hold their interest except the alligators. The adults will wonder how John Davidson could have possibly been cast in such an innocent and naive role when he looks at least 25 years old. I mean, thats a little late to steal your first kiss. As for the musical numbers, I found them eminently forgettable, with the sole exception of a nicely staged Irish reel."

Richard Schickel, reviewing for Life, remarked that "What is missing, quite literally, is magic. The movies length, period, cost, even its eccentric central figure indicate Disney was trying for another Mary Poppins. It desperately needs her magic umbrella to lift MacMurray and the whole project off the ground. But the people who created the highest moments in Poppins with the dance across the rooftops are absent." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times stated the film was "a disappointment". He compared the film unfavorably to Mary Poppins by further writing "There is no such unity of interest and identification in The Happiest Millionaire. If there is not really anybody to root against except maybe Geraldine Page as the tart-tongued Mrs. Duke, there are too many people to root for, and each of them is pursuing his own story-line." On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 50% based on 6 reviews with an average rating of 5.65/10.