New on Disney+ this week is the last live-action musical produced by Walt Disney himself, The Happiest Millionaire. Starring Fred MacMurray (Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor), this flick has largely lingered in obscurity. That’s despite featuring music by the Sherman Brothers and Academy Award-nominated costume design.
Curious what The Happiest Millionaire is all about? Here’s a backgrounder.
Based on a true story
The movie’s lead character — Anthony J. Drexel Biddle — was a real person. The grandson of a banker, Biddle was an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He trained Marines in close-quarters fighting for both World Wars, as well as FBI special agents. As an amateur boxer, his opponents included the legendary Jack Johnson. His Athletic Christianity movement at one point had an astounding 300,000 members worldwide.
His daughter, Cordelia Biddle, worked with author Kyle Crichton to adapt his story as My Philadelphia Father, a book published in 1955.
It was on Broadway, but not as a musical
Most people — myself included — think of show-stopping songs, when we think of Broadway. But the New York theatre district is also home to dramatic and comedic roles without tunes. When My Philadelphia Father played on stage from November 1956 to July 1957, it fell squarely in this category.
The play’s lead was Walter Pidgeon, a two-time Academy Award nominee. He starred in Big Red, a 1962 Disney film. (Production on a television series based on Big Red began way back in December 2019, in Atlanta. No word on what actually happened to the series.)
The movie features songs by The Sherman Brothers.
It was filmed on the legendary Stage 2
Walt Disney didn’t originally intend to produce The Happiest Millionaire as a musical, but it was the burgeoning success of the genre that swayed him. One of the successes of the era? Mary Poppins, which like Millionaire, was filmed on Stage 2 of the Disney lot.
Besides the original The Mickey Mouse Club, and endless films, the structure was used to construct many Disneyland attractions, like the Mark Twain Riverboat.
It was a negative spot in a lead actress’ life
In 1972, Lesley Warren told The Globe and Mail newspaper that filming Millionaire was the worst time in her career. Shortly after collapsing on set, “it was the whole Judy Garland thing… sleeping pills at night, diet pills and not eating.”
The incredible shrinking film
After cutting out an entire musical number, the film was ready for its British debut at 164 minutes. But by the time it came to New York City, Radio City Music Hall requested that it be chopped to 144 minutes. Once it was released to theatres across the US, it was down to 118 minutes. The full film didn’t see the light of day again until 1984, when it aired on The Disney Channel, and screened at a film festival.
Will you be checking out “The Happiest Millionaire” on Disney+?