Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fred MacMurray and Alligators Can't Save "The Happiest Millionaire"

Fred MacMurray as the title character.
The most baffling thing about The Happiest Millionaire is its intended audience. It's hard to imagine many youngsters sitting through a 172-minute musical (though there were multiple versions, including a "shorter" 116-minute edition). The leading characters are a middle-aged millionaire and his 20-year-old daughter. And the plot is basically a love story with some eccentric characters added for flavor. Ultimately, The Happiest Millionaire is too childish for grown-ups and too grown up for children.

Steele dancing in the streets.
Despite such challenges, the film gets off to a perky start with Tommy Steele singing and dancing to "Fortuosity"  along the streets of 1916 Philadelphia. Steele plays John Lawless, an Irish immigrant fresh off the ship, who hopes to work as a butler for the wealthy Biddle family. What John doesn't know is that the Biddles, especially father Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (Fred MacMurray), are a bit eccentric. Mr. Biddle keeps pet alligators in the conservatory and teaches bible classes that incorporate boxing. Indeed, all the Biddle children--to include the only daughter, Cordy--are well versed in the pugilistic arts.

Warren and Davidson duet.
Cordy's aunt suggests that the young woman attend the Wingfield School for Girls to learn the finer social graces. Surprisingly, Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren) agrees, much to her doting father's dismay. While attending a dance, Cordy meets Angier "Angie" Buchanan Duke (John Davidson) and it's love at first sight. However, it quickly becomes apparent that neither set of parents approve of a possible marriage between their children.

On paper, The Happiest Millionaire must have resembled a boxoffice winner. MacMurray, who was still popular thanks to My Three Sons, had appeared in some of Disney's most successful live-action films (e.g., The Absent-Minded Professor, The Shaggy Dog). Newcomer Warren had charmed television viewers in the lead role in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Greer Garson and Geraldine Page headed an impressive supporting cast. And composers Richard and Robert Sherman were just three years removed from their monster hit Mary Poppins.

Steele dancing with alligator.
Alas, a strong pedigree doesn't result in a good movie. Yes, there are a handful of inspired musical numbers: the previously-mentioned "Fortuosity"; Warren and Davidson's pretty duet "Are We Dancing?"; and Davidson and Steele in a barroom production number called "Let's Have a Drink on It." However, for most of its lumbering length, The Happiest Millionaire vainly tries to turn on the charm. Steele, who can be too energetic (e.g., Finian's Rainbow), tries to inject life into the proceedings, often talking to the audience or offering a sly wink. Unfortunately, his butler character fades to the background for most of the film.

A colorful look is one of the film's virtues.
From a production standpoint, The Happiest Millionaire offers a feast for the eyes. It earned an Oscar nomination for its costumes, but equally impressive are the elaborate sets, the recreated period look, and the bright autumn colors.

Interestingly, there really was an Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, who was indeed an eccentric Philadelphia millionaire interested in boxing and alligators. And, as portrayed in The Happiest Millionaire, his daughter Cordelia married Angier Buchanan Duke (whose family established an endowment to Duke University). In 1955, Cordelia co-wrote a biography about her father, which was adapted as a play starring Walter Pidgeon. Apparently, no live alligators were in it!

8 comments:

  1. It should have worked, but it's all just too much. Maybe if it was split up like the epics of today. Maybe.

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  2. Yep, there were good things in it, but it was not good. Rick, I had forgotten all about John Davidson--he was so cute! I remember that now! Fortuosity was a good number. It's too bad that Tommy Steele really didn't fit well into movies, or perhaps it was just that musicals were gone with the wind. He was so popular on stage, and very talented.

    I enjoyed this look-back at a movie I haven't seen for more years than I will admit to!

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  3. Well,
    As and adult I can't sit through musicals either but that's my own problem. ha ha

    While I always enjoy your honest and informative reviews I won't be seeing this one as I'm truly flawed and off of musicals for a very long time after watching "Hello Dolly"! : (

    Happy New Year, Rick and to all of you here at Classic Film & TV Cafe.
    Page

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  4. Page, I had to jump in -- don't judge any musical by "Hello Dolly." I think it stinks! And I love musicals. Try "Carousel" or "West Side Story"!

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  5. I thought "The Happiest Millionaire" got off on the wrong foot beginning with its name. There was too much singing in this musical. But I did think John and Lesley Ann had a sweet duet at the dance, which reminded me a lot of "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful" sung by the Prince (Stuart Damon) to "Cinderella" (Lesley Ann again). And the look was indeed quite lovely. Also, I found it interesting that the real life Cordelia's adapted biographical play starred Walter Pidgeon, who of course played opposite "The Happiest Millionaire"'s Greer Garson in at least eight films. Good post, Rick!

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  6. Pre-teens girls like the clothes [or at least, my sister and I liked them at that age]. Plus, we liked any musical and our parents would allow us to watch almost anything by Disney, so...

    Also, John Davidson and Steele are gorgeous. :)

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  7. Java, the costumes and photography are both impressive in THM. Toto, I agree about the title--Fred looks positively unhappy through a large portion of the film. CW, Becky and Page: I think it might have worked better if much shorter (say, 90 minutes), there were better songs, and John & Lesley got another duet.

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  8. Rick,

    Interesting footnote on the Duke family. Angier Buchanan Duke's son, Angier Biddle Duke (also known as "Angie") went on to become JFK's Chief of Protocol. It was he who had to deal with so many of the diplomatic headaches surrounding the Kennedy funeral.

    And I write this not that far away from the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, site of the former headquarters of the American Tobacco Company, of which Angier Buchanan Duke was an heir.

    Small world, isn't it?

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