Released in 1967, a watershed year for youth culture and social upheaval, The Happiest Millionaire romanticizes Philadelphia's upper crust circa 1916. Its title character, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (MacMurray), is a militant industrialist urging America's mobilization against Germany, and noteworthy for an eccentric lifestyle that includes his own bible study classes, martial arts training, and (in a lone nod toward any remotely modern social values) a readiness to empower his lovely, headstrong daughter, Cordelia (Warren).
Under Norman Tokar's busy but routine direction, the project does muster moments of charm, and packs its story line with enough twists to partly explain its excessive 144-minute length. But the unintended irony of paeans to capitalism and conservative politics in an era of Sgt. Pepper isn't masked by the Shermans' music, which is eminently forgettable, despite the game mugging of Tommy Steele as an immigrant Irish butler. Equally game is MacMurray, but as a singer, he's no Rex Harrison. --Sam Sutherland
The plot is a fictionalized account of real life circumstances that concern an eccentric Philadelphia millionaire, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (Fred MacMurray). He runs a combination Bible and physical fitness college of sorts, loves boxing and keeps alligators in a solarium adjacent his dining room. When immigrant John Lawless (Tommy Steele) becomes Biddle's new butler he does indeed find his new surroundings rather odd. 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 loveable reprobate of congenial good humor, thanks to Tommy Steele's remarkable performance. The plot is thread bare to the point of nonexistent. It concerns 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 where she meets and becomes engaged to New Yorker Angie Duke (John Davidson). Mrs. Duke (Geraldine Page) is social snob but Angie doesn't share her values. He wants to forgo the family business and build automobiles in Detroit. True to Disney form, everything does indeed work 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 Mary Poppins, a glowering jungle of towering chimneys blackening the skies with the aftershocks of modernity.
Plot construction 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. Equally curious is the fact that after the film takes great pains to introduce the Biddle two sons Tony and Livingston (Paul Petersen and Eddie Hodges) - even giving them a song - it suddenly loses interest in their character development by sending them off to school where, as an audience, we forget that they ever existed.
Of course, the plot - such as it is - would be largely forgivable if Disney's resident song writers, the Sherman Brothers had come up with a score worthy of their best endeavors. Tommy Steele opens the show with a bang with, Fortuosity, but the rest of the score does not live up to expectations and, in spots, is painfully sweet and cuddly. Valentine Candy or Boxing Gloves is so coy one wishes for the elegant Tommy Steele to burst into the room and tap dance its treacle into silence. All in all, Steele is remarkably well served by the score, belting out I'll Always Be Irish and several other songs with such austerity and charm that he easily dismisses the awkward lyrics. His choreography by Mark Breaux and Dee Dee Wood showcase Steele's finer points, particularly in the barroom number that closes the second half of the show. Unfortunately, there are no memorable showstoppers that leave one with a sudden urge to run out and buy the soundtrack or even leave the theater humming.
THE TRANSFER: This re-released DVD of The Happiest Millionaire is about as dismal as the film itself. Everything's present: the Overture, Entr'acte and Exit music, but the transfer is not enhanced for widescreen televisions. Unlike the previously available DVD from Anchor Bay, colors seem somewhat more dated this time around and fine details breaks apart with a considerable amount of pixelization and edge enhancement, especially when viewed on a larger monitor. There are also several cases where mis-registration of the camera negative results in an excessively blurry print - something else absent on Anchor Bay's version. This DVD compresses the entire running time on one side of the disc, which I suspect is the biggest problem. There are no extras, not even the trailer.
BOTTOM LINE: Get the Anchor Bay version instead!
As the final production completed while Walt Disney was alive, this film deserved better... Read more