The Happiest Millionaire

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Adapted from My Philadelphia Father by Cordelia Biddle, The Happiest Millionaire (1967) follows the misadventures of Fred MacMurray and Greer Garson as they navigate their daughter Cordelia’s (played by Lesley Ann Warren) engagement to fellow millionaire Angie (John Davidson). To help them along the way they can always depend upon their whimsical Irish butler John Lawless (Tommy Steele). The Happiest Millionaire revels in the drama, the pomp, and pageantry of high society life just before the United States enters WWI.

I have never seen a film that encapsulated everything that the Disney Corporation values so well. The Happiest Millionaire celebrates the privileges of the white and wealthy. MacMurray is the warm hearted patriarch of the Biddle clan, residing over a family that has enjoyed wealth and station since before the Revolutionary War. His character believes in two things, the first is God and the second is the United States. MacMurray plays a man who instead of inventing flubber throws all of his energy into promoting the Marine Corps. The Happiest Millionaire pokes fun at the “new rich”, looks down on the working class, and permits immigrants only in roles of servitude. Now this all may go with the world of Cordelia Biddle’s memoir, but the fact that the film is so uncritical of these ideas and chooses to celebrate them is why The Happiest Millionaire is a little disturbing.

I much prefer the “small town” and “quiet life” sentimentality of MacMurray’s previous film for Disney Follow Me Boys (1966). Neither film is outstanding, but at least the earlier film isn’t as outwardly classist and doesn’t suffer from a three hour running time. MacMurray is a perfect fit for Disney in the sixties, filling a paternal role for children in American culture that no one seemed able to occupy during the earlier years of the Vietnam War.

The rest of the majority of the talent working on The Happiest Millionaire was imported from Mary Poppins (1965), most notably the songwriting team of The Sherman Brothers. Their work here is nowhere near as good as in their masterful Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang (1968). The songs in The Happiest Millionaire all out stay their welcome, feeling clumsy and overly long. Tommy Steele, the one time English pop idol, gets the best numbers, but even those feel like rough drafts when compared to Feed The Birds or Hushabye Mountain.

The Disney films of the mid too late sixties all have that bright, stylelessness about them. There’s a genuine lack of concern or even relationship to the world events of the sixties. Watching films like The Happiest Millionaire or Bon Voyage! (1962) one feels that Disney is locked into some Republican fantasy world. The Happiest Millionaire, like every Disney production, has its superficial charms, they just don’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny.