Starring Fred MacMurray, Leslie Ann Warren, John Davidson, and Tommy Steele
Directed by Norman Tokar
Music and Lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman
This started life as a non-musical play in 1956, based after the autobiography My Philadelphia Father by the real Cordelia Biddle. Disney bought it in the early 60's, but had no intention of adding songs until the success of his own Mary Poppins in 1964 and The Sound of Music a year later made epic family musicals all the rage. How does this more domestic tale fare? Let's start in Philadelphia as Irish immigrant John Lawless (Steele) searches for employment in 1916 and find out...
The Story: Lawless takes the job as butler to the wealthy but eccentric Biddles. Patriarch Anthony Drexel Biddle (MacMurray) runs his own boxing and bible class in the stable, keeps pet alligators in the conservatory, and is a major advocate for the US entering World War I. His daughter Cordelia Biddle (Warren) was educated and raised at home, but is tired of being a tomboy and knowing about nothing but boxing, bibles, and alligators. She and her stuffy Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper) convinces Biddle that she'd be better off at a girl's boarding school.
While at a school dance, she falls for handsome Angier Buchanon Duke (Davidson). Angie wants nothing more than to get involved in designing cars in Detroit, but their parents would rather turn their wedding into the social event of the season. When Angie gets fed up and walks out, John takes it on himself to make sure the couple comes together, and their parents understand how important it is for the younger generation to follow their own dreams.
The Song and Dance: Definitely one of the stranger Disney live-action musicals. It's more like a long sitcom set in the early 20th century than a typical musical. Warren and Davidsonmake a charming couple, especially while riding in his shiny new automobile mid-way through. Steele's a lot easier to take as a robust Irish servant than he was as a leprechaun in Finian's Rainbow a year later. He has some nice bits in the beginning and end of the film, especially his dealing with the alligators and his speeches directly to the camera. (Look for the sequence where Biddle catches his fourth-wall-breaking and has no idea what's going on.)
Favorite Number: We kick off with John Lawless explaining why "Fortuosity" brought him to Philadelphia and the Biddles, in a jaunty number he reprises several times. Cordy admits her confusion about whether she prefers "Valentine Candy" or boxing and bibles. John tells the Biddles and cook Mrs. Worth (Hermoine Badderly) why "I'll Always Be Irish" and still appreciate his new home country as he teaches the trio a delightful jig. Cordy's roommate at school (Joyce Bulifant) claims that the dashing Vamp number "Bye Yum Pum Pum" is all the rage.
"Are We Dancing?" is Cordy and Ange's big duet at the dance, as they waltz on the patio and fall in love. "There are Those" claims Aunt Mary and Angie's snobbish southern belle mother (Geraldine Page) as they priggishly compare Philadelphia and New York society. "Let's Take a Drink on It" John tells Angie as his attempts to keep him drinking at a local bar turns into a huge barroom dance number, and then into a brawl.
Trivia: Leslie Ann Warren's film debut.
The last live-action film Walt Disney personally oversaw. He died shortly after the first cut was completed.
What I Don't Like: This little father-daughter story was never meant to be a big epic musical. Cordy has two brothers who sing to her beau early-on about how she's punched other boys who took her out to scare him off. They do their number and are never heard from again. Likewise, Cordy's pal Rosemary teaches her "Bye Yum Pum Pum" and vanishes after the school dance. They should have focused on Biddle and his odd ideas or Cordy and her romance, not both. There's no real conflict or challenges until mid-way through, and most of them, like Cordy going to school, are settled much too quickly.
The Big Finale: Too long and unfocused to be for anyone but the most ardent Disney, Steele, or Sherman Brothers enthusiasts. Look up some of the better songs and skip the rest.
Home Media: Easily available on DVD and streaming; it debuted on Disney Plus last month.