Christmas Watch: It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)
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A: Every year from November until March, industrialist Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles) leaves his cavernous mansion on New York’s 5th Avenue for his country estate in Virginia. Just like clockwork, Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore), a man with no possessions or permanent address, surreptitiously makes the mansion his winter home. This particular year, Aloysius smuggles some guests through the back gate. He is first joined by down-on-his-luck war veteran Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), then by a hard pressed young lady who is actually the heir to the O’Connor estate (Gale Storm), and a couple of Jim’s army buddies, including one with wife and infant. Lastly, Michael J. O’Connor and his estranged wife (Ann Harding) go undercover as penniless tramps to win back their daughter. Love blooms in this now boisterous hearth and home.
S: McKeever may have gotten away with this con for three years, but there is no way one of those kids didn’t break something expensive. If O’Conner hadn’t found him out via his daughter, that would have tipped him off.
A: This movie is an unhurried pleasure. Victor Moore’s line delivery has a comforting rocking chair-pace. The script and direction take the long route, narrowly avoiding a few overblown crescendos on the way, but arrive at a satisfyingly poignant ending.
S: I think this is my big complaint about this movie. It is pleasant enough, yes, but there are many characters to keep track of, and we aren’t given enough time with any of them to really become invested. What we have instead are a series of stereotypes which are sufficient but not great. I often get the plot of this movie confused with The Great Rupert starring Jimmy Durante and Terry Moore from 1950. They’re both about down and out families banding together at Christmas time and they’re both bursting with fun character actors. (Funny Victor Moore was a regular on the Jimmy Durante Show for years and they made similar films.) However, Rupert might have the edge because it features an adorable squirrel.
A: That movie was on our list of suggestions for Christmas. I must admit, the squirrel aspect made me a little queasy. Maybe next year.
This was the first movie that Monogram released under their rebranded name Allied Artists. Although the budget was extravagant and it got the requisite red-carpet treatment at Grauman’s Chinese, there is a lingering Poverty Row banality to the story. On the comedic scale, the needle hovers right in between “deafening silence” and “uproarious,” right in the middle section known as “amiable.”
S: I liked and noted several lines. Ann Harding tells Ruggles, “You’re no Van Johnson yourself! I can remember when you only had one chin.”
Later, a kid asks Ruggles, “Have you ever seen Santa Claus?” He responds, “Sonny, there are some people who think I’m Santa Claus.”
A: I thought you might mention that Van Johnson line—it’s a good one.
I’m confident someone has made the case that this movie represents some political ideology. The script delineates the line between the haves and the have-nots: the landlords and businessmen are rigid and heartless; the tramps and war veterans are warm and funny. However, the increasingly absurd premise and lack of any real severity keep the movie aloft in a fantasy world. It is more moral fable than polemic despite its real-world locale and post-War setting.
S: It is like It’s a Wonderful Life in that way. Only in this film it is clear that everything will work out okay in the end. It never seriously addresses the fact that these people are impoverished, and not by choice; Jim and his friends served the country in the war and now they’re homeless. Capra favorite Charles Lane plays an apartment manager who doesn’t allow children. No children? I’ve heard of no dogs in certain apartments but no kids is ridiculous.
A: The movie might be overlong, and the scene at Leon and Edelstein’s Latin Delicatessen late in the movie is probably gratuitous--but I thoroughly enjoyed the diversion! It involves a wobbly table and a stubborn sugar dispenser and the strange waiter’s attempt to correct the problems.
S: I liked that scene too. The table is a metaphor for the shaky relationship of the diners…
A: …and the clumped-up sugar represents emotional repression. Of course!
I made a note to look up who played that odd, diminutive waiter. I assumed from his exaggerated mannerisms that he was an old vaudevillian. His name is Pat Goldin and there is not much information about him. I found him listed on a couple of ads for burlesque houses and his filmography is quite long if not that distinguished. I was delighted to learn that he played the title character in The Man from Planet X. Another name and face to file in my mental rolodex.
Other standouts in the supporting cast include 26-year-old Alan Hale Jr. and Columbus-native Grant Mitchell as Charles Ruggles’ stuffy subordinate.
S: Don’t forget Johnny Arthur, who will forever and always be Mr. Hood in my mind. This was his last movie.
A: I enjoyed this one. It was comforting like a bowl of slumgullion on a winter’s evening. I know I’m being overly generous, but I’m giving it 4 stars (sables).
S: 3 stars for me, like chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I like it but I would never name it among my favorite holiday movies, and I don’t revisit it each year.