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"Roadblock!" reveals how Disney's "The Happiest Millionaire" wound up being such a cinematic misfire

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"Roadblock!" reveals how Disney's "The Happiest Millionaire" wound up being such a cinematic misfire

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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 cinematic achievement.

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 " book, 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 project:

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 Professor 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 narrator.

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 long.

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 1967 --

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 nine years earlier, signed for $150,000 and 5 percent of the profits.

And then there's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ," which 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.

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  • 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.

  • I absolutely love The Happiest Millionaire!  The actors, the songs, the gorgeous John Davidson!  Great cast and story I thought.  I am actually watching it again right now on Demand and I bought it on VHS at the time and later DVD.  Very entertaining I say!

  • What's wrong with the 'Happiest Millionaire?'  Where to start...

    Let's see: boring story. boring characters, boring songs & dance routines that go on way too long.

    A movie that has its romantic couple driving off into a smoggy Detroit hellscape pretty much says it all.

    The only thing memorable about this movie is that it made me hate Tommy Steele on sight.

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