In October 1966, Walt Disney filmed an introduction for a special invitational screening of Follow Me, Boys! (1966)—a live-action film notable for being the acting debut of future Disney Legend Kurt Russell—that he was too busy at the Studios to attend. To express his regrets, he turned to one of the best way he knew how—by getting on camera.
After filming completed on the film, he took time to promote another upcoming film in production: “...Now, we've completed quite a few pictures since finishing Follow Me, Boys! but there's one special one that I just have to mention—it's titled The Happiest Millionaire. Now, this is one we call ‘a happy family musical.’”
This footage of Walt Disney is known now to be one of his last filmed appearances before his passing on December 15, 1966.
Plot and Cast of The Happiest Millionaire
The Happiest Millionaire follows the turn-of-the-century family of Philadelphian millionaire Anthony Drexel Biddle—the patriarch of the Biddle family, proprietor of the Biddle Boxing and Bible School, and an enthusiastic alligator owner who takes an immediate shine to new butler John Lawless, fresh from Ireland. Anthony’s daughter Cordelia, or “Cordy,” is coming of age and having a difficult time relating to men of her age due to her homeschooling and tomboyishness, epitomized by her proficiency in a typically masculine recreational activity (boxing). She convinces her father to send her to a boarding school for young women, so she can learn more about feminine activities of the era. At a party held by her Aunt Gladys for young women and men of their same social strata, she meets Angie Duke, a young man who is heir to his family’s business but would rather design automobiles. The two families clash, the Biddles representing Philadelphia’s traditional upper class, while the Dukes are “nouveau riche.”
During Walt’s special introduction to Follow Me Boys!, Walt proudly rattled off the film’s cast: “Now, the stars are Fred MacMurray […] as Mr. Biddle, the lovely Greer Garson as Mrs. Biddle; two newcomers, Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson playing Cordelia Biddle and Angie Duke […]. And introducing the fabulous Tommy Steele, star of the Broadway hit Half a Sixpence. Tommy plays the part of John Lawless, the butler.” This would be Tommy Steele’s only Disney role—he was considered for the titular role of Robin Hood in the 1973 animated film, before it ultimately went to Brian Bedford. Lesley Ann Warren, making her debut in The Happiest Millionaire, returned for two more feature roles with the company, including Disney’s next live-action musical, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968). Identified as “a real Disney favorite” by Walt himself, Fred MacMurray would star in seven Disney features in total and earn the very first Disney Legends distinction—the sole recipient in the program’s inaugural class. Hermione Baddeley, who played Ellen, a maid in Mary Poppins (1964), returns to play a similar role in The Happiest Millionaire. Baddeley also played Irene Chesney in The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1966), released three months prior to The Happiest Millionaire; and she later voiced Madame Bonfamille in The Aristocats (1970).
Walt’s Connection to The Happiest Millionaire
It doesn’t take too long to see what Walt may have related to about this film. The film opens with an eminently optimistic, fish-out-of-water Irish immigrant in John Lawless hitching a ride on an ice truck to interview as a butler—not unlike Walt’s threshold-crossing train ride from Kansas City to Hollywood to restart his film career in 1923.
While he may have later been known as “Uncle Walt,” Walt was also a doting, sentimental father, and it comes through in the film and television scripts he oversaw. In The Happiest Millionaire, Fred MacMurray plays yet another charming father in a Walt film, this time grappling (or sparring, to borrow a boxing term) with the prospect of his daughter leaving the house and becoming her own woman—a reality Walt faced when his daughters, Diane and Sharon, married in 1954 and 1959, respectively. In “When a Man Has a Daughter,” sung by father Biddle, he croons: “When a man has a daughter, she's always in his heart. Her happiness is part of all his prayers. When a man has a daughter, he wants her life to be as smooth as satin ribbons that she wears.” Recounting her own wedding, Diane shared how overcome with emotion her father was: “Daddy naturally led me down the aisle and stood with me. At an Episcopal ceremony, he stands with you until the minister says, ‘Who gives this woman to be married?’ and says, ‘Your mother and I do.’ And I heard this sob behind me, before it came Daddy’s turn to say his part, I heard this sob and I turned around and Daddy was standing back there, tears running down his cheeks. I squeezed his hand and he gave me soulful look.”
MacMurray’s Biddle struggles as he is told that he is too old to rejoin the military, a frustration that Walt dealt with being too young to serve along with his brother Roy during WWI but being two days past his 40th birthday when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Walt scratched his patriotic itch by volunteering to drive ambulances for the American Red Cross during World War I, but by the time he arrived in France, the armistice had already been signed, leading to some bittersweet feelings: “Everybody else was celebrating the end of the war, but all we knew was that we’d missed out on something big.” When Disney Legend Card Walker, unit manager on short subjects in the Production Department and future President and CEO of Walt Disney Productions, enlisted in the Navy during World War II, Walt reportedly told him, “You’re a lucky guy. I’d like to go myself.”
Walt’s philosophies were ever present in The Happiest Millionaire. The lyrics Lawless proclaims in the opening song “Fortuosity,” penned by Disney Legends Richard and Robert Sherman (the Sherman brothers), reads like a textbook Walt ethos: “I keep smilin' 'cause my philosophy is do your best and leave the rest to fortuosity.” In a conversation between Anthony Biddle and Angier Duke about perseverance in the face of falling off one’s skis, Biddle says: “And do you know what I learned at that early age, Mr. Duke? That life is a precious and wonderful thing. But you just can’t sit there and let it lap around you. You have to dive into it. You have to taste it. You have to feel it. You have to use it. And the more you use, the more you have. That’s the wonder of it.” To say that Walt dealt with failure during his career would be putting it mildly, but Walt’s determination, perseverance, and belief in his ability to get back on his proverbial skis is a sentiment he lived his whole life.
The Happiest Millionaire in Context
Near the end of a lifetime spent beating the odds, Walt was facing a future where he had so much work to do but so little time to complete it. Chronic pain in his shoulder from a polo injury suffered in the 1930s prompted an X-ray that revealed a grave diagnosis.
Meanwhile, steady progress was being made on Walt’s planned ski resort in California’s Mineral King Valley with the support of California Governor Pat Brown. Walt’s Florida Project, announced as “Disney World,” was less than a year from breaking ground. He checked in on WED Enterprises—known today as Walt Disney Imagineering—daily as Disneyland was readying a refreshed Tomorrowland that would introduce guests to three new attractions beginning in 1967. On the studio front, the future direction of Disney animation was being delegated to the capable hands of Disney Legend Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman, while Walt requested “a complete review of the studio’s story selection process” to determine “what the elements essential to a successful Disney film might be”—a nod to his understanding that he wouldn’t be around to advise on films forever.
The Happiest Millionaire was not the smashing box office or critical success that its artistic predecessor Mary Poppins was, but it included many threads that may have spoken to Walt’s life and career in his waning days, which greatly moved him. While he didn’t live to see the finished film, the titan of American animation and themed entertainment spent an afternoon watching a rough cut of the film and reportedly “wept throughout.”
–Chris Mullen, Senior Marketing and Communications Coordinator
Image sources (in order of appearance):
The Happiest Millionaire (1967) poster; courtesy of the Walt Disney Archives Photo Library; © Disney
Lobby card, final scene of The Happiest Millionaire (1967); collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, gift of Dean Barickman; © Disney