Most people know Mary Poppins (1964). Even if they have not seen the film, they know the music, or they have heard of the story. The film is widely recognized as Walt Disney’s crowning achievement, at least in terms of his live-action work. Of course, I cannot compare this film to Mary Poppins. For me and for most of the world, Mary Poppins holds a special place in our hearts. It was Academy Award-nominated for best picture, and really does deserve the title of “masterpiece.” Nothing can really shake Poppins from that pedestal.
When it comes to Disney’s live-action musicals however, usually that is the only one that comes to mind. Disney fans will also remember Pete’s Dragon (1977) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) fall into this category. After those two however, you really do draw a blank. Sure, there are many live-action Disney films that have one or two songs scattered in between, but strictly musicals? There aren’t that many that people remember (excluding animation). However, sometimes even the most dedicated Disney fanatic has not heard nor seen The Happiest Millionaire (1967), released only three years after Poppins in pre-release engagements on June 23, 1967, and to the rest of the world in January of 1968.
Being a huge Disney fan myself, I had heard of this movie, but did not know much else other than the title and that this was the last live-action film that Walt Disney oversaw and was personally involved in, similar to The Jungle Book (1967), except in the category of animation. Trying to improve my Disney film knowledge and see more films, I set out on the goal to watch all of the live-action films that Walt Disney was personally involved in that I had not seen. The Happiest Millionaire was one of them, and it was the one I started with because I thought it would be interesting to see Walt Disney’s official last film (not even paying attention to the fact that this year in fact is the 50th anniversary of this film until now). And I am so glad I started here, because I absolutely fell in love with it.
After the success of films like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music (1965), The Happiest Millionaire was created in part to join the frenzy of the epic musical film efforts, but while it did not do too favorably in that regard at the time of its release, the film remains an absolute joy from start to finish; while the official runtime cut of this film is 2 hours and 52 minutes, it goes by in a flash. It stars an incredibly talented and immensely enjoyable cast of Fred MacMurray, Tommy Steele, Greer Garson, and both John Davidson and Lesley Ann Warren in their feature film debuts. It also stars Hermione Baddeley as a maid, who also played one of the maids in Mary Poppins.
Directed by Norman Tokar, and based off of the book and play by Kyle Crichton and Cordelia Drexel Biddle, The Happiest Millionaire centers on a variety of characters, who each you could argue is the main character of this story. Irish immigrant John Lawless (Tommy Steele) comes to Philadelphia for work (who talks and banters with the audience), specifically as a butler of sorts to a certain millionaire by the name of Biddle (Fred MacMurray), who runs a boxing school at his mansion’s establishment. He and his wife (Greer Garson) raise three children, the last of whom is getting ready to leave the nest, Cordelia (enchantingly played by Lesley Ann Warren), who later falls in love with motorcar enthusiast and dreamer Angie (John Davidson).
While it may be hard for really young children to get into the film, the songs will have their attention for sure, and despite the wealthy status of all of the characters, they are all surprisingly relatable and irresistibly charming and likeable, with great singing talents.
Not many people know of this film probably due to the fact that it unfortunately was not really a critical or financial success when it hit theaters. So often only the “successful” or “award-winning” works of a creator or filmmaker are shown or watched, and sometimes that can really be a shame, especially in this case here.
Something that makes The Happiest Millionaire so great is the music. This is certainly no surprise as it is the instantly recognizable music of Richard and Robert Sherman, Disney composer regulars of such classics as Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Jungle Book, and many, many more, including the MGM musical classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). While the words themselves to Millionaire’s up, bright, and energetic songs are not always immediately memorable, the tunes are easy to whistle after you watch the film, and they’ll be stuck in your head for days (but in a good way). The music is nothing short of perfect, and as familiar and feel-at-home as you would expect from the Sherman Brothers. Combined with outstanding dance numbers like the drinking song, “Let’s Have a Drink on It,” with Lawless and Angie’s marvelously choreographed bar twirling, jumping, and somersaulting, easily make this particular musical film Broadway material. “Are We Dancing” is particularly memorable, romantically shot on a terrace under the stars with Cordelia and Angie.
Most Memorable Tunes:
“Watch Your Footwork”
“I’ll Always Be Irish”
“Are We Dancing?”
“Let’s Have a Drink on It”
“It Won’t Be Long ‘til Christmas”
There are two scenes in particular that, while they remain fairly subtle, show a deeper, heartfelt condition and thoughtfulness that this film contains. One is towards the beginning of the film, when John Lawless sings his spirited, “I’ll Always Be Irish,” explaining his heritage and pride to Mr. Biddle and Cordelia. The three of them start to jig, and soon the maid even joins in. Then the four of them are holding hands, dancing in a circle, and the phone just a few feet away from them starts to ring, but the four of them pay it no mind as it continues, not so much as a glance or pause in their moment of joy. Mrs. Biddle comes down the stairs and sees them dancing, and with some amusement, eventually answers the phone herself. It is a brief moment, but it carries a message I think.
The second scene is towards the end of the film, where Cordelia finally gets married and moves out of the house. Mr. Biddle begins to walk into the parlor in the now almost-empty house, and hears a creak in the floor. He says to his wife something along the lines of, “Dear, what’s that noise? Do you hear it… in the floor?” She says something like, “Dear, this house is seventy years old.” Mr. Biddle looks confused, “Oh. I guess I just never noticed it before.” They then enter the parlor and a clock on the wall goes off. “Is that a new clock?” he asks. Mrs. Biddle laughs and says, “No dear, we’ve had that clock for years.” “Oh,” he again replies with a concerned frown. Mr. Biddle has never noticed these sounds in the house before because, well, there were voices to hear before. Hearkening back to film storyline elements like Father of the Bride (1950), the story presents a familiar, relatable situation of a father having to say goodbye to his daughter. The film ends with Mrs. Biddle singing an emotional, heart-tugging song to her husband, “It Won’t Be Long ‘til Christmas,” telling him that it’s time to let their children go and spread their wings.
While The Happiest Millionaire cannot top Poppins (which one should keep in mind going into see this for the first time), it does, I think, surpass Pete’s Dragon and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and if Mary Poppins is an A+ (which it deserves), then The Happiest Millionaire is an A, or at least a B+. Part of this might be because, while Walt was not personally involved in Dragon or Broomsticks, he was here, and it shows. While both of those musicals are fun, delightful films to be sure, there is something missing from them that keeps from making them fantastic or cinematic homeruns. That’s not the case here. It is hard to pin down exactly what and where it is, but Walt Disney’s imprint is on The Happiest Millionaire. His touch is there. The magical feeling is there, and it’s not the sometimes contemporary wannabe magic we get nowadays; while the characters do go through real-life struggles, the film is overcast with joy and heart, and it sparkles in every scene in every song on every performer’s face. It is a special film that will touch your heart on more than one occasion, and only one man could help make the film that way. Is this a perfect movie? No. Are there better Disney films? Sure. But, this film deserves so much more; it is now on my list of favorites. While the film does have its quirks (pet alligators and a boxing Bible school), it deserves the titles of “iconic” and “classic,” and hopefully people will recognize it for being a sweet, funny, happy, and reflective musical treat for the eyes and ears.
If you don’t have time to watch the entire film, I implore you to at least listen to the music, which some links are provided to below.