Top critical review
NOT THE HAPPIEST, BUT CERTAINLY THE MOST TYPICAL FROM DISNEY
on June 22, 2004
Walt Disney's was a visionary film pioneer; he took the fledgling craft of animation and transformed it into an art form of the highest order, and, in the process, altered our collective perception of what childhood is all about. However, occasionally that vision was marred by Disney's own lack of foresight into changing audience tastes. By the end of the 1950s the Walt Disney Studios had incurred huge expenses on Disney's foray into live action films, the birth of his theme park - Disneyland - and the lack luster box office response to his most recent and most expensive animated feature - Sleeping Beauty. Though the old master was set to recoup his losses, the sumptuously mounted, though often dismal, The Happiest Millionaire (released the year after Disney's death) was the personal and financial failure that rounded out Disney's tenure as the mogul of one of Hollywood's great cinema dream factories.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s road show engagements for movies of distinction were quite common. Road shows were designed to elevate movies to the lofty ambitions of live theater. They usually began with a lush orchestrated prelude, included an intermission half way through, and exit music to escort audiences out of the theater after the final credit sequence. One often dressed up for this sort of premiere event, certainly paid extra to attend and was often provided with a printed program as a keep sake from the occasion. Disney had attempted the road show only once before, on Fantasia (1940) and the result had been an unqualified financial disaster. What a pity then, that The Happiest Millionaire - what should have been an eighty-minute tune-filled - if antiseptic and sexless - melodrama, is over inflated into a gargantuan three hours spectacle that, quite simply, fails to dazzle.
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!