Reportedly the last feature to be personally shepherded by Walt Disney himself, The Happiest Millionaire
is a stubbornly old-fashioned musical intended to build on the success of Mary Poppins
, relying on songs and score from Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, the studio's resident songwriting team responsible for the hits of Poppins
. Despite that pedigree, and a cast headlined by Fred MacMurray, Greer Garson, Tommy Steele, Geraldine Page, and, in their screen debuts, Lesley Anne Warren and John Davidson, the would-be successor wound up a white elephant.
Released in 1967, a watershed year for youth culture and social upheaval, The Happiest Millionaire romanticizes Philadelphia's upper crust circa 1916. Its title character, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (MacMurray), is a militant industrialist urging America's mobilization against Germany, and noteworthy for an eccentric lifestyle that includes his own bible study classes, martial arts training, and (in a lone nod toward any remotely modern social values) a readiness to empower his lovely, headstrong daughter, Cordelia (Warren).
Under Norman Tokar's busy but routine direction, the project does muster moments of charm, and packs its story line with enough twists to partly explain its excessive 144-minute length. But the unintended irony of paeans to capitalism and conservative politics in an era of Sgt. Pepper isn't masked by the Shermans' music, which is eminently forgettable, despite the game mugging of Tommy Steele as an immigrant Irish butler. Equally game is MacMurray, but as a singer, he's no Rex Harrison. --Sam Sutherland