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What with "Saving Mr. Banks" being out in theaters
right now, there's been a lot of talk lately about "Mary Poppins
How this Academy Award-winning film was perhaps Walt Disney's crowning
But me? I can't help but look at the two Disney-produced
movie musicals on either side of "Mary Poppins." To be specific,
1961's "Babes in Toyland
" and 1967's "The Happiest Millionaire
Which are ... um ...
Here. I'll let acclaimed film critic and historian Leonard
Maltin weigh in on "Babes." In his "Disney Films
Leonard reminded his readers that ...
... "Babes in Toyland" was filmed before, by Hal
Roach in 1934, with Laurel and Hardy as the stars
, and Charlotte Henry and
Felix Knight as the romantic leads. It hasn't the color or special effects of
the new version, but it is everything the Disney film should have been:
charming, funny, frightening and truly memorable.
(Walt Disney's 1961 version of "Babes in Toyland")
is just a case of Disney trying to outdo himself, and channeling his energy in
the wrong direction. This was his first live-action musical, and he profited by
the experience. A few years later he turned out a little something called
"Mary Poppins." Remember?
So according to Maltin (And I have to admit that -- me
personally -- I do buy into Leonard's theory), Walt learned from all the mistakes
that he & his studio made on "Babes in Toyland" and then put
together "Mary Poppins." Which -- to borrow a phrase from this film
-- is practically perfect in every way.
Copyright 2014 Oxford
University Press. All rights reserved
But if this is what Walt Disney does (i.e., learns from his
previously cinematic mistakes), then how does one explain what happened with
"The Happiest Millionaire" ? Which -- as Matthew Kennedy recounts in
"Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s" (Oxford University
Press, January 2014) -- wound up being this 181 minute-long snooze fest?
Wait. Did I say 181 minutes? I meant 159 minutes. No ...
Hang on. I meant 114 minutes.
So why did "The Happiest Millionaire" wind up
being such an unhappy experience for so many movie-goers? It's hard to put a
finger on what exactly went wrong. To hear Matthew tell this tale, Walt seemed
to have put his usual amount of care & thought into the casting of this
Copyright 1967 Walt Disney Productions.
All rights reserved
Burt Lancaster, Brian Keith, and Rex Harrison were all (considered for the role
of Colonel Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, the "Happiest Millionaire"
mentioned in this film's title), but studio favorite Fred MacMurray won the
part. This was his sixth outing for Disney, and the star of The Absent-Minded
and Son of Flubber
actually had musical credentials. In addition to
singing and playing the saxophone, (Fred) had done a Bavarian slap dance at RKO
back in the 1930s. Director Norman Tokar, who had worked at Disney with
MacMurray, was signed (to helm this production).
Tall, freckled Lesley Ann Warren, star of a beloved TV production of Cinderella
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Lesley actually starred in the second televised version of
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Which was broadcast in CBS in full color
on February 22, 1965. And
who was the star of the original version of this made-for-television musical
Julie Andrews. Who actually rehearsed for this show -- which aired live on CBS
on March 31, 1957 -- during
the day while performing in the original Broadway production of "My Fair
Lady" at night) was making her film debut as Cordelia. In his first
American film was pop singer turned musical comedy star Tommy Steele ... Disney
saw Steele (in the stage musical "Half a Sixpence") on Broadway, and,
much as Julie Andrews was courted during Camelot, he made an offer to Steele
for The Happiest Millionaire. He would play John Lawless, the Biddle's
fun-loving singing and dancing butler, who would also function as the movie's
Tommy Steele and his scaly
co-star: George, an 8-foot long, 200 pound alligator. Copyright 1967 Walt
Disney Productions. All rights reserved
As rehearsals were underway, Disney's 28,340 square-foot Stage
Two was converted into the Biddle's 1916 Philadelphia mansion with a budget of
$450,000 for crystal chandeliers, walnut paneling, and antique furniture
(EDITOR'S NOTE: To give you some sense of how huge a space that we're talking
about here, on "Mary Poppins," Stage Two was home to that film's
massive Cherry Tree Lane set. So just imagine how big the Biddle
Mansion set would have to be in
order to fill that same space).
Given that 250 custom costumes were made for this film's
principal players (not to mention an additional 3000 outfits for
"Millionaire" 's extras), Walt clearly spared no expense when it came
to this production. And while Disney ...
... was not present on the set every day as he had been with
Poppins ... he remained congenial with cast and crew, making an effort to learn
everyone's names. With the production going smoothly, he had little reason to
worry. "(Disney) usually held court in the hallway afterward for the
people involved with ["The Happiest Millionaire"], " said Robert
Sherman. "(Walt would start) talking to them, telling them what he liked
and what they should change, and then, when they were through, he turned to us
and with a big smile, he said 'Keep up the good work, boys.' And he walked to
his office. It was the last we ever saw of him."
Walt Disney and the cast of
"The Happiest Millionaire" on Stage 2 on the Burbank Lot. Copyright
1966 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved
Yeah. That may be the real key to "The Happiest
Millionaire" wound up being such a bore.
Very near the end of his life, (Walt) watched a rough cut of
The Happiest Millionaire, and conferred with staff on how to edit into
something below three hours (in length).
But when Walt passed away on December 15, 1966, the film was in still very much in flux. And
even key members of "Millionaire" 's creative team had to eventually admit that
... With more than 80 minutes of song and dance,
co-choreographer Marc Breaux's first memory of Millionaire was that it was too
The Pantages Theater as it looked
back in the 1960s.
And studio management & "Millionaire" 's
creative team continued to argue about what this film's proper running time
should be right up until its world premiere at Hollywood's Pantages Theater on
June 23, 1967. Where -- in much the style of the elaborate extravaganza that
Walt Disney Productions mounted for "Mary Poppins" 's world premiere
back in August of 1964 -- ...
... spectators in bleachers on Hollywood Boulevard enjoyed a
parade of Disney characters while guests and stars arrived in antique cars ...
Following the premiere screening, guests ambled two and a half blocks to the
Hollywood Palladium on the longest canopied red carpet promenade in Hollywood
history. The Palladium was done up for a 1,500 guest benefit for the California
Institute of Arts, with a replica of the Biddle Mansion on prominent display
(where attendees were then serenaded by) the 36-piece Disneyland Marching Band
Well, while lots of folks may have enjoyed "Millionaire"
's post-premiere party, as for the film itself, there was lots of grumbling
about this production's plodding pace. Which is why -- in the months prior to
this Walt Disney Productions' debut at Radio City Musical Hall in November of
Tweaking this film's
advertising -- making "Millionaire" look more like a contemporary
musical rather than a period piece -- didn't bring in the crowds either.
Copyright 1967 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved
... ("Millionaire" 's) overture,
entr'acte, and songs came and went, while its exhibited length was variously
reported as 181, 172, 170, 164, 159, 155, 144, 141, or 114 minutes.
(And in the end) After all (of the ticket sales for
"The Happiest Millionaire" 's higher priced / reserved seating
roadshow engagements as well as its wide release to theaters) were tallied, the
approximate domestic rentals for Millionaire came to $5 million, barely 15
percent of Mary Poppins.
So again, what exactly happened here? Why didn't "The
Happiest Millionaire" work? Was it that Walt really didn't learn from the
mistakes that he made on "Babes in Toyland" ? Or was this more a case
of the distracted Disney? With Walt being spread far too thin, what with all
the development work that was being done on Project Florida & Mineral King
at the exact time that this Norman Tokar movie was being shot?
Fred Astaire and Tommy
Steele, who followed up his appearance in Disney's "The Happiest
Millionaire" by playing Og the Leprechaun in "Finian's Rainbow."
Copyright 1968 Warner Bros. - 7 Artists. All rights reserved
You know what's kind of ironic about all this? Even as Walt Disney Productions
was putting together its "Mary Poppins" follow-up, many of the
studios in Hollywood were trying to
mount reunion vehicles for Julie Andrews & Dick Van Dyke. Take -- for
example -- the story that Kennedy shares about "Finian's Rainbow
On June 2, 1966, production
chief Walter MacEwen wrote to Jack Warner about casting. Dick Van Dyke would
cost $300,000 and Julie Andrews would cost twice that much.
Sixty-seven-year-old Fred Astaire was less expensive, as was British pop tune
hit maker Petula Clark. Astaire, whose last musical was Silk Stockings
years earlier, signed for $150,000 and 5 percent of the profits.
And then there's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
aspired to ...
Dick Van Dyke and the car who was the real star of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Copyright 1968
United Artists. All rights reserved
... reunite the Poppins team of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke with the
Sherman Brothers composing. When Andrews passed, UA found a facsimile in
contralo Sally Ann Howes. Like Andrews, she had a starchy, chipper demeanor, a
comfortably pretty face, and a lovely singing voice. To burnish her credentials
as another Julie Andrews, she even played My Fair Lady's Eliza Doolittle on
stage. Van Dyke was none too interested until his guarantee topped $1 million.
He won assurances that he would not supply an English accent, thus avoiding the
embarrassment suffered for his bastard Cockney in Mary Poppins.
It's these sort of behind-the-scenes stories that make
"Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s" such a fun read. So
if you'd like to learn more about this fascinating era in Hollywood
history, then I urge you to pick up a copy of Matthew Kennedy's well
researched, highly entertaining book.
I look forward to purchasing/reading it. Thanks for the peek inside, so to speak. Now to find the money. ha
I must be in the minority but I enjoyed "The Happiest Millionaire." I interviewed Tommy Steele in London about his work on the film and he was full of compliments about the Sherman brothers, the rest of the cast, and Walt. He allowed that the film suffered from too many Indians and a mostly absent chief, feeling that Walt's illness was getting the best of him.
A number of years ago we hosted a party at my house to celebrate one of the anniversary's of the film - I can't remember the exact year right now. We were thrilled that the Shermans came, along with AJ Carrothers, the writer. It still amazes me to recall we had a Sherman Brothers Singalong in my living room with Dick playing my daughter's keyboard. It was a great night.
My friend Stacia Martin, who had arranged the party, also was instrumental in discovering lost footage from the film and getting it restored to the original length. That was the version I had seen at Radio City and it was great to finally see it again.
The film didn't do well, but it remains a favorite of mine
I'm in an even smaller minority: I found "The Happiest Millionaire" delightful and "Mary Poppins" insufferable.