Long before I had a real awareness of classic film, I was unknowingly exposed to it through Disney’s feature films of the 1960’s and 70’s. These movies introduced me to the fading stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, names like Dorothy McGuire, Jane Wyman, Adolf Menjou, Maureen O’Hara, Karl Malden, Donald Crisp, Maurice Chevalier, Walter Brennan and David Niven. One of my favorite of these films was the musical The Happiest Millionaire. It features some of the most talented actors of decades past – Fred MacMurray, Greer Garson, Gladys Cooper and Geraldine Page in a story of a wealthy but eccentric Philadelphia family.
John Lawless (Tommy Steele) is an Irish immigrant fresh off the boat who arrives at the Biddle household to apply as a butler. He is invited to wait for Mrs. Biddle (Greer Garson) to approve his employment. But before she can arrive, he has a rather unconventional introduction first to Mr. Biddle (Fred MacMurray), then to his daughter Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren), his sons and the starchy family matriarch Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper). He quickly becomes embroiled in the household while also acting as the narrator for the story.
The main plot centers on Cordy, who wants to grow beyond being her father’s little girl. With the help of Aunt Mary, she convinces her father to send her off to a finishing school. While there she meets and becomes engaged to Angier Buchanan Duke (John Davidson). When she announces her engagement to her parents, her father is not pleased. While he doesn’t oppose the engagement, neither is he in favor of it. Cordy then runs into the added obstacle of Angie’s socialite mother(Geraldine Page) who doesn’t think Cordy good enough for her little boy.
The rest of the film revolves around the antics of Anthony Biddle who keeps his entire household on their toes with his boxing buddies and pet alligators. Yes, you read that right. Mr. Biddle keeps several pet alligators in the house that are constantly escaping. Then there is his constant lobbying of the government to enter World War I. Mr. Biddle believes that the Marines could benefit from his expertise.
The Happiest Millionaire is based on the life of Anthony Drexel Biddle and his family. Biddle was born into wealth, being a descendant of bankers on both sides of his family. That wealth allowed him to pursue his interests including writing, boxing and even hand to hand combat. He was so skilled in his physical pursuits that he was once called the “boxing’s greatest amateur”. Biddle joined the Marines while in his forties and trained men in the Corp in hand to hand close combat. He also established his own military training facility and a movement called Athletic Christianity.
After his death his daughter Cornelia collaborated with an author to write a book about her father titled My Philadelphia Father. This book served as the basis for The Happiest Millionaire. First produced as a play starring Walter Pidgeon in 1956, it was finally adapted for the screen over a decade later.
Walt Disney spared no expense for this movie. He even recruited Tommy Steele from Broadway to star as the butler. Steele along with Warren and Davidson made their film debuts in The Happiest Millionaire. Rex Harrison, Brian Keith and Burt Lancaster were considered for the part of Anthony Drexel Biddle but in the end, it was Fred MacMurray who won the role and his sixth outing in a Disney film. This would be the last film with Disney’s personal involvement as he died before it could be released.
Disney’s death had an unintended impact on the film as he died before final editing was completed. This resulted in an overly long run time which hurt The Happiest Millionaire at the box office. There are several versions with different run times, but the one I watched clocks in at two hours and forty five minutes. As much as I enjoy it, that is a little too long even for me.
Similar to Tolkien’s Return of the King where it seems as if you’ve reached the end only for it to continue to yet another ending, The Happiest Millionaire gives the same experience. In fact, in my memories, I remember the picture ending with a happy resolution for Cordy and Angie. But nope, after they ride off into the sunset, we follow Mr. and Mrs. Biddle back home where they contemplate their now empty nest. The last ten minutes or so are completely unnecessary.
The Happiest Millionaire is typical of Disney fare of this time period. It is infused with joy and family values. The costumes and some of the settings may be lacking in historical accuracy, but I didn’t mind. The film includes many aspects of Anthony Drexel Biddle’s such as his obsession with boxing and his Bible club. It is less than factually accurate in depicting Cordy’s fiance, Angier Duke.
Despite the film’s flaws, the cast is top notch. Veteran actors MacMurray, Garson, Cooper and Page give The Happiest Millionaire class and talent. Garson has the least demanding role as the calm in the Biddle storm. But only Greer Garson could believably command alligators to return to the conservatory and have them obey her. It’s the kind authority in her voice. MacMurray’s experience with Disney films and father roles serves him well here. In fact, if I had to envisage the perfect Disney dad, it would be MacMurray. And he even has the chance to utilize his real life singing skills.
Cooper and Page have one of the best scenes in the whole film, when the two face off in a battle of wills. These two snobs ‘duke’ it out over the merits of old money versus the noveau riche. Cooper’s aristocratic bearing clashes delightfully with the airs put on by Mrs. Duke (who calls her son Ahn-jay, as if they are French).
The newbies in this movie add youth and vitality in their debuts. Warren and Davidson have good chemistry as the young Angie and Cordy. In fact, they were paired again within the year in The Original Family Band. On his own, Davidson is a bit dull. But Warren was one of my favorite actresses as a child. Watching her as Cordy I remember why. She is so sweet, fresh and innocent. Tommy Steel as the Biddle butler, John Lawless, may be my favorite thing of all about this movie. Though many feel he overacted his part, I enjoy his enthusiasm. He has some of the best scenes as he quickly adjusts to this eccentric household and becomes a willing accomplice to Mr. Biddle. I love how he occasionally breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience.
The other highlight of The Happiest Millionaire is the music. Written by the Sherman brothers Richard and Robert, the songs infuse the film with joie de vivre. From John Lawless’ opening number Fortuosity, to Cordy’s boarding school duet Bye-Yum Pum Pum, to Mr. Biddle’s stubborn nature displayed in What’s Wrong With That? to Lawless and Angie’s saloon duet Let’s Have a Drink On It, they have a great beat with memorable lyrics and are just a lot of fun. I’ve even found myself humming these songs under my breath several days later. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone sing about Detroit with such hope and passion as Angie does.
Despite its’ flaws and overly long run time, I thoroughly enjoyed re-visiting this blast from my past. I had forgotten just how much fun The Happiest Millionaire is to watch and just how happy it makes me.