A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Happiest Millionaire is a 1967 Disney musical in which Fred MacMurray plays an eccentric wealthy man who teaches boxing and keeps alligators as pets. There's one extended scene in a tavern where two of the lead characters trade off singing duties while chugging several mugs of beer. This drinking culminates in a bar brawl -- synchronized to the music, of course -- that leads to one of the characters getting arrested and waking up with a hangover. Also, there's some wine and champagne drinking at dinner parties and fancy soirees, and cigar smoking throughout. Overall, this is standard, mostly wholesome Disney musical fare from the 1960s; it's the last movie Walt Disney himself was personally involved with before he died. The length of the movie (two hours and 21 minutes), coupled with some dated corniness, will make this difficult to sit through for younger and more restless kids. It's best for those who are already fans of movie musicals.
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What's the story?
It's 1916 in THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE, and John Lawless (Tommy Steele) is an Irish immigrant who has arrived in Philadelphia. Through an employment agency, he lands a job as butler for the wealthy eccentric Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (Fred MacMurray) and his family. In the stables in back of his mansion, Biddle runs the Biddle Boxing and Bible School, and his most prized pupil is his daughter Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren). Lawless, unlike many of the staff who come and go, fits right in, and observes as the tomboy Cordy, at the behest of her snobby Aunt Mary, is sent to boarding school to learn refinement and ways to attract a worthy suitor. At boarding school, Cordy meets Angie (John Davidson) at a dance social, and the two quickly fall in love. Angie dreams of moving to Detroit in order to develop innovations to the recently invented automobile instead of inheriting his family's tobacco business. When they meet their respective parents, Angie must get accustomed to Cordy's father's love of the pet alligators he keeps and his competitive spirit on display in his love of boxing. Cordy must contend with Angie's mother's condescension and old-money snobbery. Nonetheless, the two families plan a grand wedding that begins to look to Cordy and Angie like it's more about their family's social standing than their love. Furthermore, Cordy learns that Angie is giving up on his Detroit dreams and settling down into the tobacco business after all. Cordy and Angie must find a way to rectify the conflicts raging between their families, and in their own hopes for the future.
Is it any good?
The unfocused, overlong, and beyond-corny storyline sabotages everything else in this story. Characters, like the lead character's two sons, sing a song early on, then are never heard from again. The more elaborate musical and choreography numbers share space with less-inspired songs that make The Happiest Millionaire at least half an hour longer than it needs to be. This is the last movie Walt Disney was involved with before he died, and the movie's overt themes of American exceptionalism and flag-waving patriotism, matched with its undercurrents of clearly defined class and gender roles, leave little doubt as to what side the filmmakers were on.
The talent of the performers is undeniable, and the movie isn't without some period charm, but it's easy to imagine many viewers finding more entertainment value in the corniness and irony of it than anything else. For instance, spirited odes to the boundless economic opportunity to be had in Detroit, Michigan -- released at a time when the city was starting its decades-long decline -- are up there with The Music Man's effusive praise of Gary, Indiana, for humor gleaned out of Rust Belt post-capitalist irony. Songs about how to woo a man, especially when you're a young woman who enjoys boxing and is capable of stepping into the ring and knocking out young male suitors, has aged about as well as the average 1950s sitcom. The result is a movie that superfans of musicals will probably enjoy, but hardly anybody else.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about musicals. How does The Happiest Millionaire compare to other musicals you've seen?
Why do you think that musicals have remained so popular over the years?
How did the movie reflect cultural attitudes of both the time the movie is set, in 1916, and when the movie was released, in 1967?
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