This was the Christmas I finally caught up with IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE, and I enjoyed it very much. Like REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940) and BEYOND TOMORROW (1940), it's a Christmas film being rediscovered in recent years thanks to Turner Classic Movies.
The Oscar-nominated original story for IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE started out as a property bought by Frank Capra. Capra passed the story on to producer-director Roy Del Ruth and Allied Artists when he became busy with a project that turned into IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE was the first film released by Allied Artists, a new "high end" division of the Poverty Row studio Monogram.
Aloysius "Mac" McKeever is a hobo who slips into the O'Connor mansion on Fifth Avenue each year when the owner heads to Virginia for the winter months. Mac lives there quite comfortably during the coldest part of the year, then moves out each spring just before the owner returns home.
Mac meets Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), a veteran who's just lost his apartment in a condemned building, and invites him to spend the night. Jim accepts, not realizing at first that McKeever isn't exactly an "invited" guest. Mac and Jim are soon joined in the mansion by Trudy O'Connor (Gale Storm); Trudy is actually the daughter of the mansion's owner, but Mac and Jim assume she's homeless too. Trudy is attracted to Jim and plays along; she wants to find out if Jim can like her for herself and not her family's fortune.
Before you know it, a couple more veterans (Alan Hale Jr. and Edward Ryan) have moved in with their families, followed by Trudy's father Mike (Charlie Ruggles), who poses as yet another homeless person so he can size up Jim. Then Mike's former wife (Ann Harding), Trudy's mother, moves in and cooks for everyone...well, it all gets very crazy and complicated, but it's a lot of fun, too. (And some of the storyline, focusing on Evil Big Business, seemed to have been ripped from modern headlines!) Watching Mac boss around Mike in Mike's own home is rather amusing, and at the same time Mac seems to have a knack for helping the mansion's residents solve their problems. The film builds to a moving climax with a tear-inducing, absolutely perfect closing line.
It's a well-written film with everyone in the large cast having a moment to shine in the 116-minute running time. There's just one thing I wondered -- the film completely skips over Jim learning that Trudy (Storm) is the daughter of the fabulously wealthy Michael O'Connor. It's just inferred at the end that now he knows! I wonder if the scene was left on the cutting-room floor?
I recently saw Gale Storm in BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (1950), which I think was the first sizeable role I'd seen her in. I enjoyed her in that and liked her even better in this; she's both spunky and sweetly charming. And she really looks like she could be Ann Harding's daughter! I naturally assumed Storm did her own singing and was surprised to read that she was completely frustrated by director Roy Del Ruth, who refused to let her sing.
The film has a pleasant score by Harry Revel, with the Christmas Eve song "That's What Christmas Means to Me" particularly noteworthy. TCM has the song available in a video clip. I've played that song a couple of times while writing this post; I really enjoy it!
Don DeFore is someone I've been reevaluating in light of seeing more of his '40s work. Like Fred MacMurray, I thought of him for years as a '50s/'60s "TV dad," and was thus rather startled by his charismatic performance in the Western noir RAMROD (1947), which came out the same year as IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE. DeFore a very credible leading man in IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE; I'm gaining new appreciation for his talent and look forward to seeing him in more movies. One of his sons has a Don DeFore Fan Club.
In all honesty, Victor Moore is someone I generally don't enjoy. He's the one thing that keeps Astaire and Rogers' SWING TIME (1936) from being a perfect film in my eyes. But I must say I thought he was quite good in this, in a low-key performance which is more appealing than I generally find him. One of my daughters likened his character to Mary Poppins, someone who's a bit mysterious swooping in to work his magic on those around him before he leaves again.
When a patrolman played by Edward Brophy enters the mansion on Christmas Eve, that same daughter said, "He sounds like Timothy Mouse!" And she was absolutely correct, Brophy provided that voice in Disney's classic DUMBO (1941). Brophy had over 140 credits in his four-decade career.
Another policeman in the film was played by Edward Gargan, who had over 300 screen credits, and an apartment building landlord is played by Charles Lane, who had over 350 credits. Eddie Marr, the tour bus spieler, also had a long career which included many appearances on Lux Radio Theater.
IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE has been released on DVD in several different editions, including a TCM collection of Christmas movies and a different Christmas collection. (Unfortunately the DVD has gone into the no man's land of the "saved" section at Netflix, which means they no longer carry it.) It also had a release on VHS.
The movie can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.
Finally, for the past few years IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE has been a December staple on Turner Classic Movies.
IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE is recommended as a quite enjoyable change of pace from the usual Christmas classics.