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Choices to Make 'Millionaire' Fans Happy

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July 29, 1999|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Want to watch the extravagant 1967 Disney musical comedy "The Happiest Millionaire"? OK, that's the easy part. Now, which version? Anchor Bay Entertainment is releasing three different video and two DVD editions of the movie, which was the last film supervised by Walt Disney himself.

For the first time ever on video, Anchor Bay is presenting the recently restored wide-screen roadshow edition ($30), which features 20 additional minutes, including the overture and intermission music for a total running time of 164 minutes. Also available are the more widely seen, edited wide-screen version ($15), which clocks in at 144 minutes, and the full-frame edited edition ($15).

For DVD fans, there's the collector's wide-screen roadshow edition ($30) and the full-frame collector's edition of the edited version ($25).

Jay Douglas, vice president of acquisitions for Anchor Bay, says that it was decided to put out both versions of the movie for commercial reasons. "Most people are familiar with, by default, the shorter version," he says. "Ultimately, it will find the most retailers, so that is purely for commercial reasons."

The roadshow edition, he says, is for the true collector. "It hasn't been available [on video] since the trade [papers] screenings. It was worth the extra cost [to release it] to let people see it as it was intended to be seen," Douglas says.

"The Happiest Millionaire," Douglas points out, was released at a not particularly happy time for the musical genre. "If the generation gap was bad when the Beatles hit in 1964, by 1967 it had manifested itself tenfold," Douglas says. "It came out at the age when I didn't think musicals were very cool anymore."

Now seeing the movie as a 45-year-old, Douglas says, "I have a unique opportunity to rediscover that everything in 1967 wasn't necessarily out of San Francisco. While this was in production, the musical suddenly as a film genre was thrown out the window. I think 'The Happiest Millionaire' picked the worst time in the world to come out."

Expectations were incredibly high for "The Happiest Millionaire," which had been a straight play on Broadway in 1956. Disney hired the Oscar-winning "Mary Poppins" composers, Robert and Richard Sherman, to write the score and hired "Poppins" choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood to do the dances.

The film also featured a mixture of veteran performers and newcomers. Disney regular Fred MacMurray stars as eccentric Philadelphia millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, who leads Bible-physical fitness classes, keeps alligators and hasn't a clue how to handle his beautiful young daughter Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren).

Greer Garson, in her last feature film, plays Biddle's even-tempered, sophisticated wife. British song and dance man Tommy Steele is on hand as the new butler, Irishman John Lawless, and John Davidson plays Cordy's automobile-obsessed fiance.

All 11 principal characters sing and dance to at least one song, with Steele's opening number, "Fortuosity," the most memorable one in the movie. More than 80 minutes of musical sequences and underscore were prepared for the film, and costume designer Bill Thomas, who was nominated for an Oscar, created 250 lavish costumes for the principals and 3,000 complete outfits for the entire cast.

The reviews were mixed at best when it was released during the Christmas season in 1967. Time said that MacMurray's character was "in fact, a boor." The New York Times stated that it was a "laboriously low-brow, high-hat film." Another critic proclaimed it was a "sickly-sweet super-deluxe marshmallow of a musical."

Douglas believes "The Happiest Millionaire" is much better than what the critics declared 32 years ago.

"The critics kind of went after Disney from 1967 through 1972. It is quite possible it just became fashionable to bash Disney, particularly the film they were expecting a lot from. If you look at it now, the music is great and it's a lot of fun."

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