The film focuses on the family life of Anthony J. Drexel Biddle ( Fred MacMurray ), one of Philadelphia's most prominent citizens, albeit a bit eccentric... you see, he likes to keep alligators in the house ( the eldest, George, has a habit of escaping ) and he teaches boxing to students through his Biddle Bible Class. Within the walls of his ornate mansion resides a household of non-conformists; a beautiful family united in their belief that one should be true to oneself and not change to satisfy Society's expectations.
After a brief appearence from the two sons ( Paul Peterson and Eddie Hodges ) performing the 'Watch Your Footwork' number, they are sent off the school and we see them no more. But this is where our heroine Cordy comes in ( the lovely Lesley Ann Warren ). The Biddle's only daughter, she is at the age of doubting whether being independently-minded is worth the price of being labeled a social outcast, for she's beginning to realize that boys do not like girls who can throw a left-hook. So naturally Cordy is enthralled at the idea of attending the finishing school her strait-laced Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper ) suggests she attend. While there she receives instruction in the art of 'bye-yum pum-pum', that oh-so mysterioso quality of making yourself alluring to men. But it seems that her first suitor Angie (John Davidson ) finds her attempt at this laughable. In fact, he likes her just the way she is - different! Now isn't that how it always works out?
Besides, she shows an interest in automobiles, his true passion in life. It is the year 1916, and with automobiles in their formulative stage, there is a world of innovation in the future. Angie wants to go to Detroit and be apart of this age of mechanical wonder, and Cordy stands by him in this belief... now if only his mother would consent. Angier Buchanen Duke just happens to be the heir to a great tobacco fortune and his mother, the socially prominent Mrs.Duke ( Geraldine Page ) expects him to follow in his father's footsteps.
And this is where we come to the basis of the film - to do or not to do. Hold on to your beliefs or follow what others tell you. Stick to your guns or bear the white flag. Yes, this is the underlying theme of the picture. If you are a Disney fan then the outcome is easy to guess.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The Happiest Millionaire opened at the Lyceum Theatre in New York on November 20th, 1956 starring Walter Pidgeon and Martin Ashe. Kyle Crichton and Cordelia Drexel Biddle's play was based on her novel, 'My Philadelphia Father' published in 1955.
Shortly after the premiere of Mary Poppins work began on The Happiest Millionaire and many of the Poppins production team were brought together again to work on this movie, including choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, cinematographer Edward Colman, songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, art director Carrol Clark and special effects maestro Peter Ellenshaw. Keep an eye out for the beautiful title card backdrops in the opening credits. These were painted by Alan Maley, who later became a famous artist of Victorian scenes.
Having a tremendous budget with which to work with, the team freely used it : over 3,000 complete outfits were made for the production, valued at $250,000, and an entire replica of Biddle's Philadelphia mansion was built, filled with more than $450,000 worth of furnishings and antiques.
When the The Happiest Millionaire was released in theatres, close to 30 minutes of footage was cut; much of which was the overture, entracte, and closing credits. But one notable scene that ended up on the cutting room floor was the ending - Mr. and Mrs. Biddle ( Greer Garson ) are feeling down in spirit, now that their children are either married or away at school, and they sing the beautiful song, "It Won't Be Long 'Til Christmas". This was a lovely scene so fortunately it ( and various other segments ) were reinstated in the DVD roadshow version released by Disney Studios.
The Happiest Millionaire did not fare well at the box-office upon its release and it is not really a surprise, for the script lacks a focus. Unlike Mary Poppins, The Happiest Millionaire features a story that would not appeal in the least to children and yet its production and the advertisements for the film have a bright look that seem to be geared towards youngsters. It's also much long for one sitting, so we'd recommend spreading it out over two nights, but overall it is a charming movie...colorful sets and costumes, lively tunes, bravado performances by talented actors, and an air of "fortuosity" hovers throughout it all. The movie also holds the significance of being the last live-action film Walt Disney saw completed before his death.
If you have the opportunity to see The Happiest Millionaire then by all means do so. Regardless of what some critics say about it, we thoroughly enjoy watching this film... over... and over... and over again... and "What's wrong with that?"
This post is our contribution to the highly entertaining 1967 in Film Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and The Rosebud Cinema. Be sure to check out all the other great posts on your favorite films of that pivotal year in Hollywood, 1967.