Revisiting 'The Happiest Millionaire,' One of the Weirdest Disney Movies Ever Made
(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
Mary Poppins was a mammoth success the likes of which Walt Disney Pictures had rarely seen in its live-action fare in the mid-1960s. And audiences seemed primed for big, splashy musicals. So in the wake of its success, Walt Disney himself worked with the same songwriting team on a new movie that would hopefully do for the extremely rich and the gearheads of the world what Mary Poppins did for the English.
And that’s how we have The Happiest Millionaire, finally available to stream on Disney+.
The 1960s were a decade where some of the biggest movies might seem recognizable in broad ways to the audiences of the 2020s. Big-name actors? Check. Expensive budgets? Check. Epic-length stories? Check. Extended sequences featuring physical activity of some kind? Check. The difference is key: the 1960s were an era of big, splashy, epic-length…musicals. Not action films, per se (though there’s something to be said for song-and-dance sequences being just as intense as that of explosions and car chases, and with bodies still very much in motion).
Walt Disney Pictures was one of many studios trying to harness and recapture the success of some of the earliest progenitors of the big, splashy epic films of the era. For the studio, their North Star was Mary Poppins. The film had made an international star out of Julie Andrews, who deservedly won an Oscar for her work as the practically perfect nanny. It was a generally massive success with audiences, with critics, and it had even garnered the studio its first Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. Whatever else can be said of the film we’re discussing in today’s column, it made perfect sense for Disney – the studio and the man – to try and capture the same lightning in a bottle.
The result was The Happiest Millionaire, an epic-length musical that shares a few similarities with Mary Poppins. Both films are wall-to-wall with songs written by Richard and Robert Sherman. Both films feature quirky families who need to get a grip on their personal issues, and do so in part thanks to the arrival of an odd outsider. Both films feature father figures whose personalities can serve to distract from the real problems their children have. But that is where the similarities end.
The Happiest Millionaire is one of the strangest 170-minute movies you’re ever going to see. (Anyone who was inexplicably grousing that In the Heights, itself based on a Broadway musical, had the temerity to be 143 minutes long will be displeased to learn that many movies based on Broadway musicals are that long, if not longer. And this one’s a good deal longer than that.) The premise of the film is that we get to spend some time with the Biddle family of Philadelphia in the year 1916. Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (Fred MacMurray) is the head of the family, and his financial largesse has allowed him to indulge in eccentricities like honing his boxing skills, teaching Bible classes, and caring for his alligators. His wife (Greer Garson) is phenomenally understanding and loving, while his daughter Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren, in her film debut) wants to explore the outside world, as opposed to being cooped up in their mansion. The arrival of Irish immigrant John Lawless (Tommy Steele) as their new butler sets in motion some changes, from Cordy moving to boarding school and falling in love to Anthony trying to get involved in World War I.
There is, if that paragraph is not enough of a clue, a lot going on in The Happiest Millionaire, so much so that you may have drifted past the word “alligators” above. But yes, there are alligators in this movie, mostly so there can be an extended slapstick setpiece in which new butler John tries to wrangle the alligators with little success. The script, by AJ Carothers, chooses to spread the wealth in terms of plot details that characters enter and vanish without a trace. The film, after an overture and opening credits, begins with John hopping off an ice truck and greeting the audience with the first of many Sherman Brothers songs, “Fortuosity”. Through the next 45 minutes – all of which takes place in basically real time on the same day – we meet many characters who end up barely having a presence. (For example, Cordy has two younger brothers, who get one song, which they perform while kinda/sorta intimidating a gentleman caller for their sister, and they promptly leave and never return.)
But John, who starts out as something of an audience surrogate/narrator (breaking the fourth to sing and talk to us), eventually recedes into the background. A good chunk of the middle of the film is thus shifted to Cordy as the lead, with her learning the ways of how to flirt with men (literally by her asking her boarding-school roommate, “Can you teach me how to flirt?”) and falling in love with Angier Buchanan Duke (John Davidson) as he struggles with his dream of moving to the fabled city of Detroit to pursue his passion of automobiles and living up to his family name.
The Happiest Millionaire – a title, by the way, that is outrageously misleading, considering that Anthony is rarely happy and more often grumpy and self-involved – is, if you cannot already tell, a very strange movie. In the year 2021, there’s something truly odd about a romantic lead singing a literal ode to Detroit (not because Detroit is a bad city, but because its own automotive legacy is a lot messier now than it may have been in the 1960s) to his love interest who is desperately trying to feign even an iota of curiosity about cars.
If you place this next to Mary Poppins, there are a number of reasons why it just doesn’t work (while still remaining genuinely fascinating). There aren’t any kids in The Happiest Millionaire, and there’s no magic or whimsy associated with the story – which, to note, is inspired by a true story, since Anthony Drexel Biddle and Cordelia Biddle Duke and Angier Buchanan Duke are all real people. John Lawless’s seemingly boundless, toothy joy recalls that of Bert the chimney-sweep in Mary Poppins (and it does help that Steele, unlike Dick Van Dyke, is actually from the United Kingdom). His fourth-wall-breaking narration, too, recalls Mary Poppins a bit, including one truly inexplicable moment where Anthony notices John talking to the audience, but doesn’t see us himself. But that’s as far as the quirk really extends here.
The Happiest Millionaire, as strange as it is, does end in as happy a way as possible (while also sticking to the broad outlines of the true story on which it’s based). Cordy and Angie have a brief falling-out when it seems that Angie won’t pursue his dreams of moving to Detroit to please his obnoxious mother (Geraldine Page, who would go on to voice Madame Medusa in The Rescuers). But after that fight and then a lengthy song-and-dance sequence at a local bar, Angie realizes the error of his ways, literally picks Cordy up over his shoulder, and they head off to Detroit. (That trip, by the way, is accompanied by the very last shot of the film, in which we see a car driving into a smoke-filled cityscape, meant to imply Detroit, that looks borderline apocalyptic instead of joyful.) Meanwhile, Anthony is recruited by the Marines to join the American war effort, and that’s that. Really.
The Happiest Millionaire was not a success upon its initial release. The reviews were unkind, and the film’s box office was tepid at best. Nowadays, The Happiest Millionaire is known for two of its songs, and for an important behind-the-scenes detail. First, the latter point: though this movie premiered in the summer of 1967 in Hollywood, it’s the last live-action production on which Walt Disney himself worked before his death. In retrospect, it’s easy to wonder if this could’ve been better had it been directed by Mary Poppins director Robert Stevenson (the man behind the camera instead is Norman Tokar), or if the story took far more liberties with the truth.
Consider the former point of the previous paragraph. If you’re a fan of the Disney theme parks and you haven’t seen this movie, you’ll likely recognize the music to “Fortuosity” and “Let’s Have a Drink On It” (the latter being the aforementioned song near the end set in a local bar). Steele takes the lead on both songs, and while they are largely superfluous to the story, they’re also the two best parts of the film. Part of it is that Steele’s energy is almost infectious. Part of it is that these two songs are the catchiest that the Shermans wrote for the film. “Let’s Have a Drink On It” is as excessive as the film gets – it’s a 10-minute sequence where John tries to carefully talk Angie into going back to the Biddle house to recover his relationship, by goading him into the pitfalls of going to places like China or a farm or Benghazi. (Yes, Benghazi. Yes, it comes up in the lyrics. Often. Yes. Really.)
Now, these songs are the best the Shermans wrote for the film, and there’s not much in the way of competition. Closest behind it qualitatively is “Are We Dancing”, a duet between Davidson and Warren that serves as their chaste romantic consummation. But then there are songs like “Bye-Yum-Pum-Pum”, in which Cordy and her roommate sing nonsensically about wooing men, and “Detroit,” the aforementioned ode to the Michigan city that puts a glaze over Cordy’s eyes.
For a long time, the most fascinating thing about the legacy of this film were its handful of full-length cuts. The film premiered at 164 minutes, before being trimmed to 144 minutes by request of roadshow-theater locations like Radio City Music Hall, and then trimmed again to just 118 minutes. The version you can stream on Disney+, however, is the so-called director’s cut – so-called, because it seems to basically be the 164-minute version, but with the overture and intermission added in.
The Happiest Millionaire is an oddity of Disney filmmaking. Is it good by most natural standards of cinematic judgment? Not particularly, no. Should you watch it? Honestly, yes. Movies like this do not get made anymore, by Disney or any other studio. There’s perverse joy to be had in the experience of this film. It’s not in the realm of hate-watching, both because the film isn’t that bad and because there’s nothing truly noxious about it that earns the status of watching it because it makes you mad. But The Happiest Millionaire, with its misleading title, its ungainly plotting, its hammy performances, and its inexplicable shifts between slapstick and drama, is one of the weirdest, most loony films you can stream on Disney+. In 1967, it felt like a natural progression. Today, it feels like an accident that you should watch before someone at Disney changes their minds.
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