The Happiest Millionaire (1967)
This movie is mostly famous as the last live-action film that Walt Disney worked on before he passed away in December 1966. But I’m interested in it for another reason: the film is based on a true story that involves the Duke family for whom Duke University is named. And I went to Duke!
I remember watching this movie in my freshman dorm room across the quad from the Biddle Music Building and the statue of Angier B. Duke’s grandfather Washington. (All of that will mean something once we get into the movie.) The Happiest Millionaire has a special place in my heart, and you can read my essay on that aspect of the film in Walter Magazine.
But it’s also a fun film because it stars two legends of the Golden Age, Fred MacMurray and Greer Garson, along with Gladys Cooper and Geraldine Page. So you don’t have to be a Blue Devil to enjoy it!
This movie-musical is (loosely) based on a true story and real people, namely, the life of Philadelphia millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle and his daughter, Cordelia Drexel Biddle. The story had first been told in a Broadway play of the same name that premiered in 1956 starring Walter Pidgeon as Anthony Drexel Biddle.
That play was based on a 1955 book called My Philadelphia Father written by Cordelia Drexel Biddle and Kyle Crichton. Disney bought the rights to the play but didn’t do anything with them for several years. Meanwhile, musicals such as Mary Poppins (1964), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965) were killing it at the box office. It seemed like the right time to turn The Happiest Millionaire into a musical.
If you’ve seen those films and others from that era, you will recognize the “look.” This movie feels very of its time: the visual style is especially dated with the colorful yet muted (no sharp tones or heavy saturation) palette, and the way that 1960s style sneaks into the hair, makeup, clothes, and sets despite the 1916-17 setting.
Anyway, once the studio decided to make The Happiest Millionaire into a musical, they hired Richard and Robert Sherman to write the score. The Sherman brothers had composed the songs for The Parent Trap (1961) and Mary Poppins, and they would go on to write the music for The Jungle Book (1967), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), the Winnie the Pooh films, and The Aristocats (1970), among many others. In fact, the Shermans wrote more musical film scores than any other writing team in history!
The Shermans originally wanted Rex Harrison to star as Anthony Biddle, but Walt Disney preferred Fred MacMurray, and Mr. Disney won (obviously!). MacMurray had been making movies since the 1930s and enjoyed an incredibly steady career in a wide variety of films. He played screwball comedies, dramas, film noirs, musicals, and westerns, and in the twilight of his career he became incredibly popular as the “father.”
He found success in The Shaggy Dog (1959), the classic television series My Three Sons (1960-1972), and Disney films such as The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). No wonder Walt Disney wanted him in The Happiest Millionaire!
Tommy Steele, who is considered to be the UK’s first rock star/teen idol, took second billing as the Irish butler in the film. His first number one hit on the UK charts came in 1957, and a few years later he ventured into stage and screen work in the West End and Hollywood. You may recognize him from Finian’s Rainbow (1968) opposite Fred Astaire and Petula Clark.
I imagine the part of the butler was beefed up quite a bit to take advantage of Steele’s celebrity. Indeed, the movie starts with his character, and he acts as a sort of narrator throughout the film. He even breaks the fourth wall constantly to speak directly to the audience!
Greer Garson, the grande dame of the screen, plays MacMurray’s wife, Cordelia. Garson was a British actress who made her first Hollywood film in 1939. She would win an Oscar for her titular role in the wartime drama Mrs. Miniver (1942), and she became forever linked with her depiction of courageous British womanhood. She acted fairly steadily through the 1950s and occasionally in the ’60s, with her last film, Little Women, coming in 1978. Garson is beautiful and elegant in this film, though she doesn’t get too much to do.
Newcomer Lesley Ann Warren plays MacMurray and Garson’s daughter, Cordelia. Warren had made a splash in the TV broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1965), and Walt Disney thought she’d be good in this movie. It was her first film appearance.
Another newcomer, John Davidson, plays Angier Duke who courts Miss Biddle. Davidson had been on Broadway and appeared on TV in variety shows, but this was his first film. He would later become a frequent guest on Hollywood Squares and The Tonight Show, and he hosted The $100,000 Pyramid and Time Machine.
The movie begins with John Lawless (Tommy Steele) strolling towards the Biddle mansion in Philadelphia. It’s 1916, and John has just arrived from Ireland. His employment agency has set up a butler interview with the Biddles, and John is full of confidence. He sings a song called “Fortuosity” about luck, fortune, serendipity, and lucky chances all combining for him. He speaks and sings directly to the camera.
You can listen to the song here. Fun fact: “Fortuosity” was written for Steele and replaced the Shermans’ original song for the opening, “Off Rittenhouse Square.” It’s a fun number, and Steele is certainly charismatic, but he overacts in every moment in this film. He’s always dialed up to 11 with huge facial expressions, enormous dance moves, and an excess of energy. He’s playing to the balcony, but the camera is only a few feet away, so sometimes it’s too much.
In an echo of My Man Godfrey (1936), John arrives at the huge Biddle mansion to find chaos. Mrs. Biddle is out, the kids are who-knows-where, and the cook (Hermione Baddeley) warns John that they can never keep butlers very long. But she won’t explain why…
Then Mr. Biddle (Fred MacMurray) rolls in, yelling and then “singing” about being bitten by George. MacMurray uses the “talking-on-pitch” singing that Harrison perfected in My Fair Lady.
We also learn in this scene that Mr. Biddle is on a chocolate cake diet, so you know right away that this is not a “normal” family. Mr. Biddle’s daughter, Cordelia (Lesley Ann Warren) finally calms her father down.
John has no idea what is going on, but he melts right into the Biddle crazy! It’s fortuosity, I guess.
After Cordelia mollifies her father, she runs upstairs to change for a date. When her dapper suitor, Charlie, arrives, Cordelia’s brothers terrorize the poor guy with a song about how he needs to learn to box if he wants to date Cordy.
Then they accidentally knock him out!
When Cordy arrives, she finds her father crouching over an unconscious Charlie. She thinks that her dad punched him, and exclaims, “No wonder I don’t have any callers!”
When Charlie wakes up, he runs from the house in fear. Cordelia is distraught and goes to her room to sing the typical adolescent tomboy song about growing up.
“Are you Valentine candy or boxing gloves?” she sings, and wonders if she should let boys kiss her or punch them in the nose.
It reminds me of Ann Margret’s song “How Lovely to be a Woman” in Bye, Bye Birdy (1963) with the juxtaposition of girl/woman, tomboy/glamour queen.
Meanwhile, Mr. Biddle is showing John around his Biddle Bible Class, which is a combination boxing gym and Bible study.
As strange as it may seem, most of Mr. Biddle’s eccentricities depicted in this film are accurate. For instance, he did indeed run a Drexel Biddle Bible Class that taught boxing and Christianity. He named his movement “Athletic Christianity” and eventually counted 300,000 members! I recommend reading more about him–fascinating man!
Anyway, Aunt Mary Drexel (Gladys Cooper), arrives at the house with some stern words for the Biddles. She is worried that Cordelia isn’t getting the right kind of education, and she’s especially concerned by her lack of socialization and suitors. She suggests sending Cordy to a finishing school called the Wingfield School for Girls.
Mr. Biddle protests that his daughter is just a young girl and what could be healthier for her than Biddle Bible classes? He doesn’t want her to be an empty-headed socialite. But Cordelia breaks in and tells her father that she wants to go to the finishing school. Apparently she would like to be Valentine candy, not boxing gloves.
Fun fact: You might recognize Cooper from her role as Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964), or from one of her many other performances, including appearances in Rebecca (1940) and Now, Voyager (1939). She acted for seventy years, so you’ve probably seen her in something. The Happiest Millionaire was her penultimate film.
Mr. Biddle is shocked by Cordy’s decision, and she is rather upset, too. She’s afraid she has disappointed him by wanting to leave home. But they work it out over a little boxing practice. It’s the first of many lovely father-daughter moments in the film. I wished they’d kept the core of the plot about Cordelia and her father instead of branching out into other directions. One of the film’s weaknesses is its meandering focus. It tries to cover too much ground and too many characters. My favorite moments come between Cordelia and her father, but unfortunately the movie packs in a lot more than that.
Back in the house, John finally discovers who George is: he’s one of the twelve alligators that Mr. Biddle keeps in the conservatory! (This is another truth; the real Mr. Biddle did have pet alligators!)
John is understandably shocked, but he recovers quickly enough and soon he’s singing a song with Mr. Biddle and Cordy. He’s a resilient chap. And his song is infectious. Even the cook joins in for a jig!
In a particularly lovely moment, John’s employment agency calls during the song and Mrs. Biddle (Greer Garson) answers. She tells them that John will “suit our needs very well” as she watches him dance with her cook, husband, and daughter. Mrs. Biddle is the most “normal” of the bunch, but she seems to enjoy the eccentricities of her household.
Cut to the Wingfield School for Girls. Cordy has received an invitation to a very exclusive party thrown by her aunt and uncle. Her roommate, Rosemary, (Joyce Bulifant) is jealous of the invite, and also confused by Cordy’s lackluster reaction to it.
It’s the party of the season, but Cordy isn’t excited because she still doesn’t know how to behave around boys.
So Cordy asks Rosemary to teach her how to flirt, and Rosemary agrees once Cordy has promised to get her invited to the party, too! Clever girl.
And so begins one of the most enjoyable musical numbers of the film. It’s a song called “Bye-Yum Pum Pum” and details how to entrance the opposite sex. In 1916, that meant acting bored and mysterious, mostly because of the popularity of movie star Theda Bara and her exotic, aloof persona.
It’s amusing to see these two young women in their pastel nightgowns prancing around their room in imitation of Bara. Lyrics like “The key to being wanted is just to glide as if you’re haunted” add to the fun.
The scene cuts straight to the party where Rosemary is doing her best tango while shy Cordy watches from a side room. She doesn’t realize that a handsome young man notices her…
Later, this same fellow comes to her rescue when she gets into an awkward conversation with another boy. She usually struggles to talk to men, but for some reason it’s easy with this blonde guy. She can even dance with him!
The young man is Angier Buchanan Duke (John Davidson), and Rosemary is amazed to see Cordy dancing with him. After all, he is one of the most eligible young men around! (Of course Rosemary knows everyone and their net worth!)
Angier and Cordy take their dancing outside to the deserted terrace. They sing a romantic duet as they sway and twirl. It’s super cute. You can listen to it here.
We learn that Angier’s family is in tobacco, but he is passionate about cars. He’d love to get into the auto industry, and Detroit is his promised land. No, really. There is even a song about it.
But who was Angier Buchanan Duke in real life? He was Washington Duke’s grandson and Benjamin and Sarah Duke’s son. Washington Duke started the tobacco business that his sons James and Benjamin turned into an empire. Around the turn of the century, the family branched out into textiles and energy, and in 1905, they started what is now Duke Energy, which only magnified their unimaginable wealth. It was James Duke, Angier’s uncle and the father of Doris Duke, who endowed Trinity College in 1924 which prompted the name change to Duke University. This movie takes an astonishing number of creative liberties with the character of Angier so that the only real accuracy is his name, lineage, and relationship with Cordelia Biddle.
I’ll get into more of the truth vs. the movie later, but I don’t want to spoil the neat romance the film has begun to build. Davidson and Warren have great chemistry, and it doesn’t surprise me that they were teamed again the next year in The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968) which also features a score by the Sherman brothers. (Arrested Development, anyone?)
Meanwhile, WWI is raging and Mr. Biddle is deeply concerned. We see this drama play out through newspaper headlines:
Mr. Biddle begins training a volunteer corps in Philadelphia because he is certain that the US will enter the war. Eventually, the Marines absorb Biddle’s soldiers and the Biddles throw a dinner to celebrate. But Mr. Biddle gets annoyed when the Marines treat him like an old man. So he challenges an officer to a boxing match and wins, naturally. After that, they show him more respect!
In reality, Biddle was a well-known, extremely talented boxer and an officer in the Marine Corps. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1934. He was also an authority on close combat and wrote a book called Do or Die: A Supplementary Training Manual on Individual Combat. He helped train soldiers and FBI agents for decades, so he was the real deal. I suppose the idea of Biddle as an underdog fighting to be taken seriously makes a better storyline, but this is the odd case where the movie version actually understates the eccentricities and talents of a character!
Anyway, while her father is immersed in war preparations, Cordy and Angier are falling in love. They sing a song about Detroit as Angier gushes about his plans to revolutionize the auto industry.
The seasons change through the song so we know they have been dating for a while now.
Back in Philadelphia, the Biddles return to their house to find that the new maid left the conservatory windows open, and the alligators have frozen in their tubs. Oh, dear!
They try to thaw them out but it appears that the alligators have perished. The night just gets worse when Cordy shows up and tells her parents that she is engaged to Angier! And they haven’t even met him! Mr. Biddle is less than thrilled.
The next morning, the new maid gets a nasty shock when the alligators awake from their accidental hibernation! It’s terrifying but it’s supposed to be funny.
It gives John another chance to perform “Fortuosity:”
After the Biddles and John return the alligators to the conservatory, Mr. Biddle notices John breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience. So he leans in and asks John “Who are you talking to?” It’s a fun meta moment.
Despite Mr. Biddle’s displeasure about his little girl’s engagement, he invites Angier to dinner so he can get to know him. It goes poorly. Angier has trouble asserting himself against Mr. Biddle’s strong personality. But then Angier shows him some jujitsu moves and they become friends. As one does.
Sidetone: Mrs. Biddle just hangs out and acts classy, but I wish Greer Garson had more to do!
Now that the Biddles have okayed the engagement, Angier takes Cordy to New York to meet his mother, Sarah. (The woman for whom the Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke are named.)
It doesn’t go well. Sarah Duke (Geraldine Page) is depicted as a snobby, controlling, jealous woman. When Angier is around her he reverts to a silly momma’s boy, and Cordy feels out of place immediately.
Page’s performance is over-the-top with a soft Southern drawl and steely bitchiness. She was an accomplished Method actor who excelled on stage and in film. She received her first of eight Oscar nominations for Hondo (1953), but she wouldn’t win for another thirty years for The Trip to Bountiful (1985).
Besides Sarah’s obsession with Angier (which she pronounces “Ahn-jay” in an annoying French accent), we also learn quickly that Sarah is obsessed with her standing in society. The Duke family is “new money” compared to the blue-blooded, Philadelphia Drexel Biddles. The Biddle ancestors first arrived in America in 1681, and they became wealthy right off the bat mostly from land and banking. So Cordy’s family is very old money and aristocratic. But Washington Duke was a penniless farmer when he started growing tobacco in a Civil War-ravaged South, so Angier is only a generation removed from poverty. The contrast between the eccentric Biddles who do whatever they want regardless of society (they don’t have to worry about it) and the socially conscious Dukes is quite pronounced.
In New York, Cordy is thrown into a fancy whirl of parties and dinners, but she misses her time with Angier and her more relaxed Biddle life. (She’s also not sure why she is dressed in 1960s styles and hairdos when it’s supposed to be 1917.)
One evening, Mr. Biddle stops by New York and Cordy is thrilled to see him. They have another sweet father-daughter moment in a cab to the train station.
You can watch it here:
Cordy finally gets to come home to Philadelphia. But it’s still party after party in the run-up to the wedding, and she barely gets to see Angier.
To add stress, Sarah struts around making snide comments about the Biddles, their oddities, and Philadelphia. Nothing is good enough for her son, and definitely not Cordelia Biddle. One of my favorite scenes comes when Sarah runs up against Aunt Mary, a blue-blooded scion of old money and breeding. They sing “There are Those” about the nouveau riche and society.
It’s fantastic! Aunt Mary is the only one who can subdue Sarah Duke.
Fun fact: Bill Thomas designed the costumes for this film and went full-on lavish both in terms of the look and the quantity. He created 250 costumes for the main actors, and 3,000 outfits total. The costumes cost $250,000 in 1966 money, which is just shy of $1.9 million in 2016 dollars. His efforts were rewarded with a nomination for Best Costume Design, though he lost to Camelot.
Anyway, the conflict between the families eventually comes to a head when Sarah reveals that she has arranged Cordy and Angier’s honeymoon, a house for them in New York, and Angier’s job with the family company. So Cordy calls off the wedding. She doesn’t want to marry the man that Angier has become; he’s not the ambitious dreamer with whom she fell in love.
Mr. Biddle is quite happy at this turn-of-events, Sarah is mortified at the scandal, and Mrs. Biddle is sure that everything will work out. She’s also furious at her husband for letting his lukewarm feelings about the wedding be so obvious.
But don’t worry! John is on the job. Also, isn’t this movie supposed to be over by now? We are just hitting the two hour and fifteen minute mark, and there’s still a lot to resolve.
This movie is so long…the final cut came in at 164 minutes! But there were also versions clocking in at 141, 154, and 159 minutes, and the copyright version is 160 minutes. That may not seem so long in today’s movie world where blockbusters routinely break the two-hour mark, but it’s still quite a marathon when you consider the quaint 90-minute films of the studio era. Plus, there was even a roadshow version that lasted 172 minutes! According to IMDB, that cut makes The Happiest Millionaire the “longest film ever to carry the Disney name,” not including those under the Touchstone, Hollywood, and Miramar labels.
The length isn’t always a problem, but this film does start to drag. It feels as though it should end after the alligators thaw out and Cordy announces her engagement, but the darn thing keeps going!
Anyway, John follows Angier to a bar. The butler’s purpose isn’t quite clear, but it seems as though he is trying to keep Angier in Philadelphia. They sing a catchy drinking song that turns into a bar-wide dance and then a brawl. As per usual.
After all, the first thing a bunch of rough and tumble guys want to do when they get to a bar is perform a synchronized jig. And the second thing is to fight!
Fun fact: the song from this scene, “Let’s Have a Drink on It,” and “Fortuosity” can be heard on the Main Street USA attractions at Disneyland. And some of the items from this set became part of the Café Orleans restaurant in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square.
After the brawl, Angier is arrested, thanks to some clever machinations by John. The next morning, a frantic Mrs. Duke arrives at the Biddle mansion searching for her son. The whole gang heads to the jail where they find a despondent Angier.
Mr. Biddle talks to Angier alone and works wonders with some clever reverse psychology. Angier springs out of the jail cell with renewed ambition and announces that he is going to marry Cordy right now and then head to Detroit!
Cordy is delighted to be carted off, and even Mrs. Duke seems excited. She tells the Biddles, “You know, there for a minute, he reminded me of his grandfather. Started the whole Duke thing!” Mr. Biddle replies, “Well, if he’s half the man I think he is, this won’t be the end of the whole Duke thing, either!”
You might think this would be the end; you might hope this is the end! (And in the clip above, it is the end! It must have been taken from one of the shorter versions.) But the movie actually keeps going…
We follow the Biddles home to their empty house. Cordy’s brothers are off at school (they disappear after the song with her suitor early in the film), and Mr. and Mrs. Biddle are rather lonely. Mr. Biddle in particular is having a “father of the bride” moment. He is going to miss his daughter terribly.
So Mrs. Biddle sings a song about letting their children go with the usual bird and wings metaphor, but she softens that message with a chorus of “It won’t be long ’til Christmas.” Then their children will come home and the house will be full and busy again.
It’s a tender scene, but it goes on a little long. Still, I enjoy it because it caps off the poignant father-daughter moments that form the core of the story.
The melancholy sweetness is broken when Mr. Biddle gets a message alerting him to his new captaincy in the Marines! Soon the house is full of Marines and the Biddle Bible Class guys. Everyone celebrates and makes grand plans for the future. Mr. Biddle is not going to fade into the night!
The credits roll as Cordy and Angier drive to Detroit. “The End” appears on an image of that city, but it looks like an apocalyptic hellscape, not a dreamy paradise! It’s unintentionally humorous. Ahh, hindsight.
Shooting was completed on The Happiest Millionaire when Walt Disney died in December 1966, but the editing dragged on (as you can imagine from all the different versions.) The film was finally released in June, 1967, though it hit some major cities in December for Christmas. It generally received mixed reviews.
Bosley Crowther at The New York Times was not a fan. He disliked MacMurray’s performance, writing that
[MacMurray] charges into his eccentricities, which were funny when they were described by Kyle Crichton and Cordelia Drexel Biddle in a book about Miss Biddle’s father, with the lunge of that folksy, sentimental scout leader [from MacMurray’s earlier film Follow Me, Boys] whose charm was about as crisp as a bloopered joke. And he dampens the spirit of his surroundings with a piety that is wholly humorless.
Indeed, it would be pretty awful if one had to watch him for all the more than two hours it takes this second-handed “Life With Father” to traffic on the screen. The burden of staying with this fellow would be enough to crush the burgeoning Christmas spirit in any heart. Fortunately, the Disney people saw this and had the good sense to try, at least, to liven the picture with some sugary romance, sportive songs and Irish jokes.
He had nicer things to say about the other actors, but overall he concludes that
…the whole picture is vulgar. It is an over-decorated, over-fluffed, over-sentimentalized endeavor to pretend the lace-curtain millionaires are—or were—every bit as folksy as the old prize-fighters and the Irish brawlers in the saloon. The biggest howls in it (and there aren’t many) are when the alligators start to roam the house and frighten a new and uninstructed Irish maid out of her skin.
Ouch. A little harsh, but he has a point. This isn’t the greatest film ever, but if you enjoy the live-action Disney films of the 1960s, you’ll probably like this one. Plus, I get a kick out of watching Fred MacMurray and Greer Garson.
Now to a brief overview of the truth vs the film, plus some Duke family trivia. It may hurt your heart to know that the romance between Angier and Cordy was not quite like the movie version. In fact, Angier B. Duke was born in 1884, making him just ten years younger than Cordelia’s father, and fourteen years older than Cordelia herself. (Also, Angier lost a hand and part of his arm in an accident in 1905, which the movie does not depict.) And I don’t think they sang their feelings quite as often as they do in the movie.
Angier and Cordelia were married in 1915 when Cordelia was 17, and they had a son, Angier Biddle Duke, later that year. (Remember that the film takes place in 1916-1917, so the timeline is already skewed.) The couple had another son, Anthony Drexel Duke, in 1918, but they divorced in 1921. I can’t find any mention of Angier Duke being obsessed with automobiles or ever living in Detroit, so I’m not sure where that came from. Tragically, Angier drowned in a boating accident in 1923.
A year after Angier died, his uncle, James B. Duke (who was the father of the notorious philanthropist Doris Duke), created The Duke Endowment which gave an enormous gift to what was then Trinity College, a school that dated back to 1838. The college changed its name to Duke University in honor of the family. James’ father, Washington, had been a generous benefactor of Trinity College for decades. Sarah and Benjamin Duke established the Angier B. Duke scholarship in 1925 in honor of their son. It still exists as one of the major merit scholarships at Duke.
Oddly enough, one of Cordelia’s brothers, Anthony Biddle, Jr., married Angier’s sister, Mary Duke. The philanthropist Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, who passed away in 2012, was Angier’s niece, the daughter of Anthony and Mary. The marriage of Mary to Anthony explains why there are Biddle Dukes and Duke Biddles!
If you’ve spent any time around Duke University, you might have heard of the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building, named for Angier’s sister, or any number of family foundations, not to mention the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, statues, and other buildings around campus. And if you don’t care about any of that, hopefully the Duke family stuff has given you context about the characters depicted in this film.
The Happiest Millionaire is delightfully wacky, but it becomes more interesting if you are at all into the Biddle or Duke families or Duke University. Here’s the trailer–enjoy!