50th Anniversary of Walt Disney's The Happiest Millionaire (Mega Post!)
This year marked the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney's, The Happiest Millionaire. The film was the very last live-action film that Walt Disney oversaw production on, before passing away in December of 1966.
The Happiest Millionaire was originally a 1956 Broadway play, starring Walter Pidgeon in the title role.
The play itself, was based on the book, My Philadelphia Father by Cordelia Drexel Biddle (with Kyle Chrichton), which was published in 1955 and told the story of her eccentric millionaire father, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle and his family.
Walt Disney aquired the rights to the story in the early sixties, but he wasn't planning to make it a musical until the huge box office success of Mary Poppins in 1964. The Sherman Brothers, fresh off of their double Academy Award win with Mary Poppins (for Best Score and Best Song), were brought in again, to compose the music for The Happiest Millionaire.
I'm going to attempt to give a condensed synopsis of the movie. For anyone that wants to skip my synopsis, you can scroll down to the image of the white plastic "Happiest Millionaire" VHS case from Walt Disney Home Video and the other film-related merchandise.
Okay, here we go. Picture it....Philadelphia, 1916! "Elegant" millionaire, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (Fred Mac Murray) and his wife (Greer Garson) live in a large Philadelphia mansion with their "elegant" family and a handful of servants.
John Lawless (Tommy Steele), an Irish immigrant who is "one day off-the-boat," comes dancing down the street and singing about a potential job that is "nearly" his, with said "elegant millionaire and his elegant family." He tells us that we might call that luck and we might call it fortune, but he calls it, "Fortuosity."
"Fortuosity," is his byword. It also happens to be his "never feel alone" word, and his "twinkle in the eye" word.
Among the Biddle family members are tomboyish daughter, Cordelia/"Cordy" (Lesley Ann Warren). While growing up, Cordy was taught how to box by her father, who happens to run a boxing school at home under the name, "Biddle Bible Class."
Cordy has two brothers, Livingston (former Mouseketeer, Paul Peterson on the left) and Tony (Eddie Hodges on the right). They are always scaring away Cordy's potential suitors, by warning them that if they get too amorous with her, she'll give them "a jab, a right hook, or an uppercut!" Of course they do this through song ("Watch Your Footwork").
This leads Cordy to question her femininity. While looking into her bedroom mirror, she asks herself if she's "Valentine Candy" or boxing gloves.
John Lawless ends up getting hired as the butler and that's cause for a song and dance number with Mr. Biddle, Cordy and one of their servants, Mrs. Worth (Hermione Baddeley).
Yes, Hermione Baddeley....the Banks' maid in Mary Poppins and Bea Arthur's maid in Maude.
At the suggestion of Cordy's aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper), Cordy chooses to leave home and go off to a boarding school for girls.
While away at school, Cordy's roommate, Rosemary (Joyce Bullifant) teaches her how to "vamp it up" and land herself a man. Through a song called "Bye-Yum Pum Pum," she tells her that it's necessary for her to "slink across the floor as if it's a dreadful bore!" She also adds that she must be "oh-so mysterioso," because "the men in college always acknowledge, a woman who dances in a trance." This song might just be my favorite in the category of "little-known Sherman Brothers songs."
Cordy and Rosemary attend a society party, where Cordy figures she will be able to use her newly acquired man-luring techniques. Rosemary is the blond doing the tango on the far right.
Cordy is off in another room practicing her vamping, when Angier "Angie" Duke (John Davidson) sees her and tells her that she isn't like the other girls and that he likes that.
They end up waltzing while singing, "Are We Dancing?" Personally, I think this scene is a little reminiscent of the one from Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1965 TV Special, "Cinderella," in which Lesley Ann Warren dances with Stuart Damon while singing "Ten Minutes Ago." But that's not a bad thing!
Cordy and Angie fall in love during a montage of scenes showing them going on dates, which mostly seem to involve driving all around the countryside in his car.
Angie's passion turns out to be automobiles, and his dream is to move to Detroit and "invent new motors and design new rotors," as he declares in the song, "Detroit."
Meanwhile back in the Biddle household....did I mention that Mr. Biddle raises alligators? That's just one of the things that makes him an eccentric millionaire. Well, a window is left open in the conservatory where the alligators are kept, and being wintertime in Philadelphia, the alligators freeze! John Lawless helps Mr. Biddle thaw out his "babies" by the fireplace, and then has to wrangle them back into their holding pools in the conservatory.
Okay, here is where the movie (and probably this post) starts to feel a little long. And since I'm short on images for this last part of the film anyway, I'll speed it up a little.
Cordy comes back home with Angie and they announce their engagement to the family. Mr. Biddle isn't too happy about it at first, but Angie eventually wins him over. Cordy meets Angie's snooty-patootie mother, Mrs. Duke (Geraldine Page). There ends up being some conflicts and misunderstandings among the families and Cordy ends up calling off the wedding. The primary problem being, that Angie gives up on his own personal dream of going to Detroit and decides to enter into the family's tobacco business, because that's what his mother expects him to do.
Angie goes to a bar to drink and decides that he is going to (among other things) just run off and join the Foreign Legion. John Lawless, who was sent to follow him and look after him, starts a fight at the bar to keep Angie from running out and doing anything rash.
Angie ends up getting arrested. The families come to bail him out and that is when he stands up to his mother and tells her that he is going to follow his own dreams after all. He picks up Cordy and throws her over his shoulder and they run off to elope.
And they all lived happily ever after!
The movie was originally 164 minutes in length, for it's initial premiere in New York City. For it's Los Angeles premiere, the film was edited down to 144 minutes. The studio ended up shortening it even further (by another 26 minutes) for it's general release. The movie was not a financial success and unlike many of Disney's earlier films, it was never re-released in movie theaters. I saw The Happiest Millionaire for the very first time, after it was released on Walt Disney Home Video in 1983 (the 144 minute version).
I always say that it's an odd little movie (okay, not so little) but I completely fell in love with it and it's soundtrack (with the exception of the two songs Fred MacMurray sings by himself). After watching it that first time, it didn't take me very long to find a used copy of the soundtrack on vinyl.
I recently did a search on ebay, to see what other merchandise might have been available at the time the film was released. I found a small selection of items, including this comic book.
A book of paper dolls also turned up in my search.
Joyce Bulifant's character (Rosemary) was represented on the back cover.
And here's a strange movie tie-in, a book of The Happiest Millionaire "play money."
A coloring book and children's records were also available back in 1967. I wonder if any of these items were sold at Disneyland?
A songbook was published, containing all of the Sherman Brothers music from the film.
Individual sheet music was also available.
In 2002, the soundtrack was remastered and re-released on CD, and included two bonus tracks. One of these is, "It Won't Be Long 'til Christmas," which is a song that was cut for the shorter versions of the film. The other is a demo track (sung by Richard Sherman), for a song that never made it past the pre-production stages.
And in 2004, Disney released the original "Roadshow Edition" (the long version) of the film on DVD.
We will wrap up this post with a few "sort-of-related" tidbits here:
The same year that The Happiest Millionaire premiered, Club 33 opened at Disneyland. Located in New Orleans Square, the private club is decorated with many historic and antique pieces. A phone booth was specially built for the club, using the leaded glass panels from the phone booth featured in the film. The original prop can be seen on the far right of the photo below.
Here's a picture showing the Club 33 phone booth, back in 2010.
Lesley Ann Warren visited Disneyland in 2012 and was photographed with Mickey in front of the film-inspired piece. (Photo from the Disney Parks Blog.)
Also on display in Club 33 are Bill Thomas' costume sketches for The Happiest Millionaire. Mr. Thomas was nominated for an Academy Award for his costume design (the film's only nomination), but lost to John Truscott for his costume designs for the film, Camelot.
Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson were paired up once again, in the 1968 Walt Disney film, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. (That film will have to be the subject of a future post......maybe.)
In 1974, The Happiest Millionaire song, "Fortuosity" was sung by Ruth Buzzi and Sandy Duncan during the TV special, Sandy In Disneyland. The interesting thing here is, that they sing the song while traipsing through a Doombuggy-less Haunted Mansion. I remember seeing this as a kid and thinking, I want to do that!
That same 1974 TV special also happens to include John Davidson, singing with Sandy Duncan while strolling down Main Street. Right after that, he sings The Carpenters song, "Top Of The World" while riding on the Main Street Fire Engine. I've included the link to the special in it's entirety, just in case anyone is interested. (John Davidson's appearance begins at the 24:23 mark.)
Fast-forwarding six years to 1980....John Davidson was on hand at Walt Disney World, to unveil the Magic Kingdom's newest attraction, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
This year, Disney actually came out with a 50th anniversary pin for The Happiest Millionaire. The pin was available exclusively to Disney cast members.
The pin's design was taken from the cover of this 1967 long-playing children's record.
A very happy 50th anniversary to Walt Disney's The Happiest Millionaire!