Walt Disney’s was a visionary film pioneer. Occasionally however, that vision was marred by his lack of foresight into changing audience tastes. Such is the case with the sumptuously mounted, though leaden scripted, The Happiest Millionaire (released one year after Walt’s death). The pity of it is that Norman Tokar's The Happiest Millionaire (1967) could have been an eighty-minute tune-filled – if antiseptic and sexless – musical about real life millionaire turned military adviser, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle. Instead, it became an over inflated three hours spectacle that, quite simply, fails to dazzle.
The plot concern eccentric, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (Fred MacMurray) who runs a combination Bible/physical-fitness College out of his fashionable Bostonian mansion. Tony loves to box and he keeps alligators in a solarium adjacent his dining room. When immigrant John Lawless (Tommy Steele) becomes Biddle's new butler he finds his new surroundings rather odd to say the least. Not that Lawless isn’t odd himself – it’s just that, unlike Biddle’s quirkiness, which can be grating to the point of distraction, Lawless becomes a genuinely lovable reprobate of congenial good humor, thanks to Tommy Steele’s remarkable performance.
The plot is threadbare to the point of nonexistent, concerning Biddle’s only daughter, Cordelia (Lesley Ann Warren). She’s a sort of tomboy desperate to be feminine and sent off to a lady’s finishing school. She becomes engaged to New Yorker Angie Duke (John Davidson). But Mrs. Duke (Geraldine Page) is a social snob. Angie doesn't share her values or her view point and wants to forgo the family business to build automobiles in Detroit. True to Disney form, everything works out in the end with Angie and Cordelia driving off, toward an unintentionally apocalyptic matte painting that depicts the Motor City as something of a cross between Blade Runner and the chimney tops from Mary Poppins, a glowering jungle of towering stacks blackening the skies with aftershocks of modernity.
Plot construction in J.A. Carothers screenplay is problematic. As Cordelia’s mother, Greer Garson is given extremely little to do. One of Disney’s good luck charms - Hemione Baddeley has even less of a say. After the film takes great pains to introduce Biddle’s two sons Tony and Livingston (Paul Petersen and Eddie Hodges) – even giving them a song – it jettisons them entirely from the plot.
Most of these structural flaws would be largely forgivable if the Sherman Brothers had come up with a score worthy of their best endeavors. Regrettably, the songs do not live up to that expectation. There are no memorable showstoppers to leave one with a sudden urge to buy the soundtrack or even depart the theater humming.
Tommy Steele acquits himself nicely of 'I'll Always Be Irish' and 'No Schilly-Schallying'; two high stepping super sized production numbers. Steele also introduces us to the musical repertoire with 'Fortuosity' - a number designed to introduce us to his character immediately following the main title sequence. The film's best remembered song is 'Valentine Candy or Boxing Gloves' a rather painfully awkward lament sung by Leslie Ann Warren.
The worst of the lot is Tony and Livingston's bizarre, 'Dynamite Up Your Sleeve' in which the boys taunt one of Cordelia's potential suitors and eventually knock him out. 'Are We Dancing' tries too hard to be elegant and lilting (it is neither), while 'Let Them Go' is a woefully undernourished attempt to recapture the melodic introspective perfection of Mary Poppins' 'Feed The Birds'. At the time of its release, The Happiest Millionaire did little more than strain the studios coffers and effectively put an end to Disney's most lavish live action features. Although the studio would continue to produce live action movies with varying degrees of success, few would rival the elephantine budget of this colossal stinker.
The Happiest Millionaire comes in a fairly attractive DVD transfer, despite not being enhanced for widescreen televisions. Colors are bold and refined. Blacks are deep and solid. Two versions of the film are available – one from Anchor Bay, the other from Disney. The image quality is almost identical, but the Disney release contains pixelization that was not present on the original Anchor Bay release. Anchor Bay’s disc is a flipper. Disney’s is not. The audio is a 5.1 remastering effort with a rather impressive and bombastic acoustic spread. There are no extras, not even the trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Anchor Bay 4
Disney DVD 3.5