by Cameron Howard
The red Netflix envelope arrived in my mailbox on Duke’s East Campus, and I opened it back in my dorm room, which still bore the signs of recent, frenzied moving-in. The DVD was The Happiest Millionaire, a 1967 Disney musical starring Fred MacMurray as Anthony Drexel Biddle, the Philadelphia scion of a banking fortune. He’s an eccentric but very “happy millionaire” who runs a Bible and boxing school out of the stable, keeps alligators in the conservatory, and adores his eldest daughter Cordelia, played by Lesley Ann Warren.
It’s a fun film marked by that peculiarly joyful but slightly sideways quality of Disney’s family films from that era, and it’s interesting to watch legends like MacMurray and Greer Garson, who plays Biddle’s wife, still dominating the screen decades after their careers began.
As I sat there in my clunky wooden chair and matching desk in my tiny room, the experience took a surreal turn when Cordelia’s suitor, a young man by the name of Angier Buchanan Duke, and his mother, Sarah, entered the picture. Yes, those Dukes! Angier Duke was Benjamin Duke’s son and Washington Duke’s grandson, and he really did marry Cordelia Drexel Biddle. (In an odd turn of events, one of Cordelia’s brothers married Angier’s sister Mary, who was Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans’ mother, hence the various arrangements of Biddle/Duke names scattered around campus.)
I thus had the strange experience of watching a (highly) fictionalized film based on the Duke family on Duke University’s campus in a dorm room three minutes away from the Biddle Music Building. To make it even weirder, I had visited the Sarah P. Duke Gardens just that afternoon. I hadn’t intended to start my college career with a classic movie about the Duke family, but it could not have been a more perfect choice.
After all, I’d been a Duke fan years before I became a student. I was one of those toddlers decked out in Duke gear babbling cheers and flinging pom-poms at what I felt was “my” stadium long before I understood why. My love for old Hollywood goes back just as far; I grew up watching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Bringing Up Baby instead of Full House and Saved by the Bell, and have adored classic movies for as long as I can remember.
And I’m still utterly enthralled. It’s the glamour, the cleverness, the glorious style, and the subtlety (often due to a production code that kept things “clean”). It’s the virtuosic dancing, the rapid-fire dialogue, the amazing almost-but-not-quite British accents, the gorgeous costumes intended to astound, and that red lipstick that somehow never smudges. And it’s the stars, those idols of a nostalgic glamour preserved on glossy strips of celluloid. I love it all: the dreamlike musicals, timeless dramas, unsettling noirs, topsy-turvy screwballs, and tear-jerking melodramas – and how each one, whether it’s included in the canon or not, holds its own secrets and its own seedy and marvelous history.
Sometimes films from the Golden Age can seem like slower, tamer, even painfully old-fashioned versions of today’s movies. But classic film is an art form with its own conventions, techniques, and aesthetics. The films are deceptively dense; each frame is packed with layer upon layer of choices, innovations, deliberate decisions, and miraculous mistakes that contribute to the fantastic shadows flashing by at 24 frames per second.
But if the art of the films doesn’t grab you, the history might. Just like any artifact of a past age, these films are veritable time capsules inadvertently exposed to light. Old movies reproduce a certain moment in time, often without meaning to, though of course the “reality” they present is usually more beautiful, simpler, and far less chaotic than the real world has ever been.
It’s a cliché to bemoan “they don’t make ’em the way they used to!” but it’s entirely true. Hollywood functioned very differently then: The studios owned most of the theaters, almost everything was filmed on enormous backlots, and everyone, from the biggest stars to the carpenters and electricians, were under contract to a particular studio. The “dream factories” churned out movies from the teens to the fifties, and only began to crumble after the Supreme Court declared the massive studios in violation of anti-trust laws in 1948. It was this unbridled power that made classic Hollywood so extraordinary.
Take Esther Williams. She was a national champion swimmer who was a favorite for the Olympics, but her life took an improbable turn when the 1940 Games were cancelled. MGM scouts were looking for an answer to Fox’s ice-skating sensation Sonja Henie, and decided a shapely swimmer would be just the thing. Williams was offered a contract (most actors had seven-year contracts with the studios) and MGM poured money into creating the “swimming musical,” building a massive pool complex inside a 32,000-square-foot soundstage, and turning a pretty nineteen-year-old into a glamorous movie star who captivated millions of moviegoers. For almost ten years, Williams topped the box office with her bright, sparkling movies featuring massive water extravaganzas that inspired the modern sport of synchronized swimming. The story of MGM’s mermaid verges on the absurd, but it could only have happened in the studio era during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Fortunately, these movies are undergoing something of a renaissance today. The DVD market, Turner Classic Movies, and companies like Netflix and ClassicFlix have made classic films available again. And theaters like Raleigh’s The Colony and The Cinema, Inc. and Durham’s Carolina Theatre turn screenings into events and recapture the magic of seeing these movies in their rightful place.
As for me, I will always remember watching The Happiest Millionaire in my dorm room at Duke. I think of it every time I encounter the names Angier Duke or Biddle, and I smile at that weird, magical moment when Duke and classic Hollywood collided.