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The Happiest Millionaire: Restored Roadshow Edition
Disney DVD Review

The Happiest Millionaire

Theatrical Release: June 23, 1967 / Running Time: 172 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Norman Tokar

Cast: Fred MacMurray (Anthony J. Drexel Biddle), Tommy Steele (John Lawless), Greer Garson (Mrs. Cordelia Biddle), Geraldine Page (Mrs. Duke), Gladys Cooper (Aunt Mary Drexel), Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Worth), Lesley Ann Warren (Miss Cordelia Biddle), John Davidson (Angie Duke), Paul Peterson (Tony Biddle), Eddie Hodges (Livingston), Joyce Bulifant (Rosemary)

Songs: "Fortuosity," "What's Wrong with That?", "Valentine Candy," "I'll Always Be Irish," "Bye-Yum Pum Pum," "Are We Dancing?", "Watch Your Footwork," "Detroit," "Strengthen the Dwelling," "There Are Those," "Let's Have a Drink on It," "It Won't Be Long 'Til Christmas"


The Happiest Millionaire, the last film Walt Disney oversaw, is a grand-scale production in the style of the classic musicals of the day. It's 1916, and the wealthy Drexel-Biddle family is prominent in Philadelphia. We are first introduced to this family through John Lawless (Tommy Steele), a slick, optimistic Irish immigrant seeking the position of butler.

There's a lot going on in the household, we seem to be told. First and foremost, there is Anthony Drexel Biddle, the father (Fred MacMurray). At first look, he simply appears to be an attention-seeker on a chocolate cake diet. Anthony runs a bible and boxing class in one of the back rooms of the mansion. Though married and with three kids, the focus of the film certainly remains on Anthony, and his one daughter, Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren).

With an upbringing of prizefighting training, Cordy wishes she could have a more normal life and meet a guy. In an early scene, when the most popular boy in town calls for her, Cordy's brothers appear, try to scare him off, and then knock him out cold.

Fred MacMurray and Greer Garson are Mr. and Mrs. Biddle. Fred MacMurry and Lesley Ann Warren share a father-daughter moment.

When Cordy announces her plans to go away to school, Mr. Biddle reluctantly agrees to let her go. Away, at school, Cordy still dreams of meeting a man and turns to her roommate (Joyce Bulifant) for an impromptu lesson (in song, of course) on how to flirt.

Finally, Cordy meets a man, Angier Duke (John Davidson), who dreams of going to pursue his passion of automobiles. The rest of the film's long running time is mostly devoted to the daughter and this love she finds. The nature of a three-hour Roadshow production allows the relationship to be more fleshed out than most on-screen romances. Still, it is not the most engaging love story and elements of reality are contrasted by the lavish musical numbers.

Cordy and Angie plan to wed, although the news at first infuriates Mr. Biddle. The biggest challenge for the young lovers will be meeting the other's parents. Mr. Biddle's quirks and manners instill fear into Angie, but the boy wins over his future father-in-law by taking him on in a fight, jujitsu-style!

Things hit a bit of a snag when the Biddles meet Angie's mother, Mrs. Duke (Geraldine Page, the voice of The Rescuers' Madame Medusa). Mrs. Duke is not amused by Mr. Biddle or the people he introduces her to. She's unmoved by Philadelphia, thinking it cannot compare to her beloved New York. Further complications arise when the Duke family's wedding invitations get misplaced.

Cordy gets a lesson on "Bye-Yum Pum Pum" from her college roommate. And then she meets Angie Duke.

The Biddles and Dukes clash, and the song "There Are Those" spells out the differences that have been subtly accumulating. Can Cordy and Angie work things out, in the midst of the bold personalities of Mr. Biddle, Aunt Drexel, and Mrs. Duke? As with everything else, the film takes its time to explore this relationship and conflict for most of the second act.

The film was adapted from a short-lived play, which itself was based on Cordelia's real-life memoirs. As a result, unlike Mary Poppins (the success of which inspired this film's creation), The Happiest Millionaire is not a fantasy musical. It is an attempt to portray real characters and real issues with larger-than-life musical numbers and a nearly-cartoonish lead patriarch.

It's an effort that does not entirely work, but one which remains mostly entertaining, nonetheless. Though the Disney studio would like to compare this to Mary Poppins, this one lacks the magic and universal appeal of that earlier film.

The songs, written by Richard and Robert Sherman, have a catchy quality, but they occassionally feel like a detour to the film's more grounded narrative. Though these numbers, from the men who penned so many popular Disney songs from Parent Trap and Poppins to "Portobello Road" and Pooh, usually possess a spirit and charm, they're just not the team's best work.

Inspired by their cheerful Irish butler, Mr. Biddle and Cordy break into dance. To jujitsu fighting, Fred MacMurray says "Bring it on!"

The title character, Fred MacMurray's opinionated patriarch, may have a great looming presence, but he doesn't have very much to do in the story arc. Certainly, Mr. Biddle is well-defined. He's a prominent, wealthy man who values religion, the United States, and his twelve pet alligators. But narratively, he takes a strange backstage to his young daughter and her romance. Somehow, his training of a corps for the Great War just doesn't seem all that important.

MacMurray may not be the best singer and though his character is given eccentricities, it seems more distant than the leads he played in The Absent Minded Professor or Follow Me, Boys!. The film calls for MacMurray to scowl more than it calls for him to make the audience laugh, and so his comedic abilities go unused for the most part. We must settle for Mr. Biddle trying to communicate with his alligators.

In their first feature film performances, both Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson do a rather well job as the young couple. They significantly carry the film with their story, even if it's done to excess.

One of the real stars of the film is Tommy Steele. As the audience's guide to the events, his character addresses the camera from time to time. While his butler character may feel like he's operating on an entirely different plane (and that seems to be the case), Steele oozes energy and charm.

Tommy Steele provides fun as John Lawless. The Biddle Brothers disappear after just this one song to one of Cordy's suitors.

The rest of the Biddle family is given suprisingly short treatment. As Mrs. Biddle, Greer Garson may appear in many scenes, but she is overshadowed by MacMurray's paterfamilias in every way. Then, there are the two Biddle sons, who appear in just one number early on and disappear for the remainder of the film. Save for one mention of them later on, it's as if the brothers have no reason to exist, except to make the household appear busy on first appearance.

The Happiest Millionaire has been presented in a number of forms over the years. The film was initially created for a blooming Roadshow format, with pricy reserved seats and high-class theaters. By the time it was released (six months after Walt's death), though, theaters were overpopulated by such films and many were being ignored by the moviegoing public. Trimmed to 144 minutes, the film found an audience at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. Sometime, over the years, there was an even more considerably chopped-up cut running 118 minutes.

When it was first released to DVD, along with a bunch of other less-valued Disney films, by Anchor Bay, The Happiest Millionaire came in two different flavors: a fullscreen 144-minute theatrical cut and a letterboxed 170-minute Roadshow cut. Disney made the wide decision to include the full version of the film. This runs 172 minutes, including overture, intermission, and exit music.

Surprisingly, at its colossal near-three-hour running time, The Happiest Millionaire isn't too poorly paced. Sure, there are parts that could be trimmed. But going into the film expecting a grand-scale musical, it's easy to appreciate how it takes its time.

Buy The Happiest Millionaire from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.66:1 Non-anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Surround 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: June 1, 2004
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Happiest Millionaire is presented in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen and it doesn't look too good. Any shot that's not a close-up seems out of focus. It's plagued by edge enhancement, halo effects, and a lack of genuine sharpness in general. The picture looks very dated; colors don't always seem accurate, and there's a murky quality to the picture. For the most part, there weren't too many specific imperfections to mar the frame, but artifacts did turn up from time to time. Mostly, the transfer is consistent, but just not very pleasing.

I have never come across the Anchor Bay disc, so I can't compare the two, but I would imagine the Roadshow DVD looks similar to this. With proper remastering work (and anamorphic enhancement), I have no doubt the film could look quite a bit better. While the picture quality may call to mind the technical shortcomings of laserdisc or even VHS, this is the best you can expect the film to look on this format.

The Happiest Millionaire DVD's Main Menu Mr. Biddle gets his future son-in-law with a left jab.

That said, Disney deserves praise for presenting this and other catalogue titles in their original aspect ratio, a positive new trend that should bode well for the studio's upcoming batches of catalogue debuts.

The film is presented in Dolby Surround, and it too, could use some improvement. The soundtrack is sometimes muffled and dialogue is occassionally distorted. There are instances, either due to poor recordings, poor looping, or poor mastering, that characters don't sound like themselves.

The music that plays a significant role in the film, does make some good use of the soundfield. However, there are times when it sounds a bit harsh, which I do not suspect is the original score's intentions.

EXTRAS

Unfortunately, there are no bonus features of any kind. The disc opens with the widely-seen 90-second trailer for classic live acction films from the '60s and '70s on Disney DVD and video.

Such an elaborate production certainly lends itself to supplemental features. It's a real shame we don't get any glimpses at the making of Walt's last film.

Fans of this film may look forward to the July DVD release of The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. Songwriter Robert Sherman and stars Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson have apparently recorded an audio commentary for that film, released a year after Millionaire.

The menus are 16x9 still frames featuring selections from the film's score.

Alligators abound in "The Happiest Millionaire" Father and daughter share a dance.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Happiest Millionaire is the last film Walt Disney physically had a part in. It may not be one of the best films of his career, but this grandiose musical is genuinely entertaining and features some catchy Sherman Brothers lyrics. The DVD's presentation of the film's full-length Roadshow cut and in widescreen are very satisfying, but the audio/video quality leaves much to be desired.

I can't help but feel that the full potential for The Happiest Millionaire on DVD has so obviously not been realized. For instance, while the full Roadshow cut is preferable, Disney effortlessly could have also included the shorter theatrical cut with seamless branching. The complete lack of extras is disappointing, as even a classic trailer would have put some context to the film.

Since both Anchor Bay DVDs of The Happiest Millionaire are long out of print and have been fetching high prices in online marketplaces, Disney's DVD release is appreciated. It essentially offers everything the better of the two Anchor Bay discs did, and for a lower price. Still, while many will jump at the opportunity to simply own this production on DVD, I wish it was given even better treatment.

More on the DVD

Related Reviews
Follow Me, Boys! (1966) | Bon Voyage! (1962)
Son of Flubber (1963) | The Gnome-Mobile (1967)
Candleshoe (1978) | Freaky Friday (1977)
Monkeys, Go Home! (1967) | Blackbeard's Ghost (1968)
The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) | Snowball Express (1972)

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