Saturday, December 20, 2014

Stubs – It Happened on 5th Avenue

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) Starring: Don DeFore, Ann Harding, Charles Ruggles, Victor Moore, Gail Storm Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Screenplay by Everett Freeman, Vick Knight, Ben Markson. Story by Herbert Clyde Lewis, Frederick Stephani. Produced by Roy Del Ruth. Run Time: 118 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Christmas, Comedy

Post World War II was a very ripe time for Christmas-themed movies in Hollywood. Perhaps fueled by the euphoria of the end to that worldwide conflict, the studios decided to turn from making war films to ones about a holiday dedicated to peace. Beginning with Christmas in Connecticut (1945) followed by such Christmas classics as It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and ending with Holiday Affair (1949), Christmas films seemed to be everywhere. In 1947 alone, there were three perennial classics released: Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop’s Wife and our film, It Happened on 5th Avenue.

The story by Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani was originally optioned in 1945 by Frank Capra, who wanted it for his new company, Liberty Films. But Capra decided to make another Christmas film instead, It’s A Wonderful Life. Later that year, producer/director Roy Del Ruth then optioned the story for Allied Artists Pictures, a new division of Monogram Pictures. Known as a low-budget film studio, Monogram wanted to get into making A-Pictures and started Allied Artists Pictures. It Happened on 5th Avenue would be the higher-budget division’s debut outing.

Production began with the casting of Ann Harding and Victor Moore in June, following by the casting of Don DeFore and Gale Storm in July. Shooting took place from August 5th to mid-October 1946. The film wasn’t released until Easter 1947.

The film opens with a tour bus going down New York City's Fifth Avenue. The tour guide announces that they are on the "richest avenue in the world," and points out that the boarded-up mansion they’re driving by belongs to "industrial wizard" Michael O'Connor, the world's second richest man.

On the tour, the mansion of the "Second richest man in the world."

After the bus passes, a middle-aged drifter, Aloysious T. McKeever (Victor Moore) and his dog Sam enter the O'Connor house through a loose board in the fence and down a manhole. Once inside, Mac, as he’s known, rigs it so that the lights and electricity go off anytime the front door is opened. He continues to make himself at home. Mac, we learn later, has been occupying the O’Connor mansion all winter (November 3rd to March 13th), while its owner is staying at his other mansion in Virginia.

Mac (Victor Moore) and Sam wait for the tour bus to pass before moving in.

The next day, so that O'Connor can build an eighty-story building, the residents of the apartment house currently on the land are being evicted. One tenant, Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), is not eager to be thrown out on the street. An out-of-work World War II veteran, Bullock handcuffs himself to his bed but that does not deter the workers from evicting him.

Forced to sleep on a park bench, Jim is awakened when a sprinkler attached to a hose Sam is pulling ends up under Jim. Feeling responsible, Mac, who is wearing O’Connor’s clothes, invites Jim to stay the night with him. Jim, who already has a dislike for O’Connor, is at first weary of the stranger’s invitation, but convinced he is only a friend of his evictor, accepts.

Homeless, Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) is forced to sleep in the park.

Down in Virginia, O’Connor (Charles Ruggles) has called together his board of directors to announce plans for converting an old Army post outside Manhattan, Camp Kilson, into the hub of a massive air cargo network he envisions building. He sends his assistant Farrow (Grant Mitchell) to Washington D.C. to close the deal. His meeting is interrupted by a phone call he receives from the headmistress of his daughter Trudy’s finishing school. Trudy, he’s informed, is missing, having left the school. Alarmed, O’Connor puts a network of private investigators to work looking for her.

Meanwhile, Trudy (Gail Storm) returns home, her father’s mansion, to grab a few items, including her mink coat. But Mac and Jim, thinking she’s stealing, stop her. She says she was looking for a warm coat for a job interview she has the next morning. She doesn’t let on that she’s the daughter of the owner, though she does threaten to call the police on them. Jim all but double dares her to, but Mac takes away the phone. They decide to let Trudy stay the night in her own bedroom.

Mac and Jim stop Trudy (Gail Storm) from "stealing" her own clothes.

But soon afterwards, the night patrol, Brady (Arthur Hohl) and Felton (Edward Brophy), arrive to check on the house as part of their normal route. Mac takes Jim and Trudy into the walk-in refrigerator to hide. There he confesses to the two of them that he is indeed an interloper. It is also in the fridge that Jim gives Trudy his coat to keep warm. He sits with his arms around her and the first sparks of love are ignited.

Mac tries to run a tight ship. He doesn’t go in or out of the front door, makes his bed every day and keeps the house clean, even dusting the place every so often. In return, he wears O’Connor’s clothes, smokes his cigars and eats his larder of food.

Trudy nails her audition, even though it is obviously not Gail Storm singing. Outside the store, Jim is waiting to walk her back to the mansion. On the way back, they run into two families of old army buddies of Jim’s, Hank (Edward Ryan Jr.) and Whitey (Alan Hale, Jr.), who are trying to rent an apartment. Jim goes upstairs where his friends are negotiating with the apartment manager (Charles Lane). By mentioning the men’s families, which include small children, he ruins the deal. With no place to stay, Jim brings Hank and Alice (Cathy Carter) and Whitey and Margie (Dorothea Kent) and their children back to the mansion.

Mac takes on a supervisory role, trying to keep everyone from over running the place. He also becomes a sage for advice. When the men are trying to figure out what to do to make money, Mac inspires them to find something people need. Hitting on the post-war housing shortage, the men get the idea to renovate vacant army barracks and decide to make a bid on Camp Kilson. Hank and Alice are dispatched to Washington to see what they can find out about buying the camp.

Having located Trudy, O’Connor arrives in New York to order her back to school. But she doesn’t want to go back and tells him that she’s in love. She wants him to meet Jim and O’Connor reluctantly agrees to pose as a drifter to do so. They go and buy him some old clothes at a second hand shop. When O’Connor tries to use his custom-tailored wool suit as a trade-in, the proprietor, Finkelhoff (Abe Reynolds), concocts a wild story about how accepting the wool suit would lead to moths and eventually the breakup of his happy marriage and lead to his ruin and jail time. It is filler, but still a really funny piece of business.

Later that day, Jim, Trudy and Mac come through the park singing “It’s a Wonderful Wonderful Feeling” when they come across O’Connor sitting on a bench in the snow. Trudy points him out, imagining that the poor man is cold and hungry. While Mac is reluctant to bring every Tramp in New York back to the house, Trudy insists that they do to spare him from arrest.

Jim doesn't realize Mike (Charles Ruggles) is really Michael O'Connor.

When O’Connor, calling himself Mike to everyone, arrives at his house, it is laundry day and there are clotheslines everywhere in the grand hall. Mike first meets Jim when he and Whitey bring up their model for transforming the barracks up from the cellar. He suggests that they also build a model poor house for when their plans fail.

Mac decides that Mike needs to spend the night in the maid’s room, away from the small children. Mike is not pleased. Once he finally makes the bed, it falls apart under him. When Trudy comes down to check on him, he threatens to call the cops if everyone hasn’t cleared out in 24 hours.

Trudy then sends her mother, Mary (Ann Harding), a telegram to come up to New York. Mom isn’t sure what she can do, but agrees to go undercover at the mansion. There she becomes the cook, making slumgullion, an Irish stew, which Mike recognizes the smell of upon returning the next day. It was the stew that made him fall in love with Mary and he is surprised to see her there as well.

Mac tells Mike that he needs to work and bring home some money to help replace some of the food in the now depleted larder. For $1 an hour, Mac puts Mike to work shoveling snow from the sidewalks. It is while he’s doing this manual labor that Farrow comes upon him. But Mike makes him swear to secrecy.

Back at the mansion, Mike is sore and Mary comforts him, putting a hot iron on his back and massaging his neck. The two, alone for the first time, reminisce about their life when they started out. Mac, seeing them on a bed together, breaks them up.

Mike finds out from Jim, Whitey and Hank that they are bidding against him for Camp Kilson. They’ve managed to find likeminded vets and have raised $100,000. The bidding is up way past that number though. Mac had advised them not to worry about raising the additional funds until they absolutely need to. Still, Jim goes to a construction company to see if they will partner on the project.

Owning the construction company, Mike has them turn down the offer, but instead counter with an offer of a job for Jim in Bolivia, with the caveat that he’s single when he takes it. But Jim initially turns down the job.

On Christmas Eve, Mac encourages the two of them to marry, once again proving to be a well of good advice. That night, with a decorated tree, all the residents are celebrating the holiday when the night patrol arrives. But instead of turning them in, Brady and Felton want to join in and eventually leave them alone. However, they tell them to be out of the house after New Year’s Day.

The Christmas party is disrupted by the arrival of the Night Patrol. From left to right
the supporting cast: Hank (Edward Ryan Jr,), Alice (Cathy Carter), Margie
(Dorothea Kent) and Whitey (Alan Hale, Jr.)

Outbid for the Camp, Jim, Whitey and Hank go to tell their backers that they’ve lost. Mike is dragged along. When Farrow arrives, he is mistaken for the reclusive O’Connor and beaten back by thrown vegetables and fruit. Even Mike joins in and enjoys the fact he hits Farrow square in the puss with a tomato.

Seeing he has no other choice, Jim accepts the offer to work in Bolivia and takes Trudy out to dinner to tell her. Again, there is a really funny bit of business when they discover that the table is a little wobbly. The waiter (Pat Goldin) does everything imaginable to make it level, but only makes it worse. Switching out the tables doesn’t work either, when all Jim has to do is touch a corner to get it off kilter. Upset, Trudy leaves, with Jim trapped by the restaurant’s musicians who think he wants them to play at his table.

Trudy leaves Jim at the table in the Latin Delicatessen.

Knowing what it means to Trudy and her future with Jim and to his own future relationship with Mary, Mike arranges for Jim to meet O’Connor. When they get there, Jim, Whitey and Hank are surprised they are expected and sent in directly to see the head man. When they see it’s Mike behind the desk, they think he’s gone crazy and try to hide him in a coat closet. When Farrow comes in, they assume he’s O’Connor and don’t realize their mistake until Farrow saves O’Connor from the closet. Mike transfers the deed to the Camp to them on the one condition that they don’t tell Mac who he really is.

That New Year’s Eve, everyone celebrates the contract and prepare to leave the mansion. Mac insists that they clean the place thoroughly, anticipating O’Connor’s sooner than normal return.

New Year's Eve and the last night in the mansion for most.

In the final scene, they are all preparing to leave. The other families have already left when the main five are standing in the backyard preparing to exit through the loose plank in the fence. Both Mike and Mary and Trudy and Jim offer Mac a place to stay with them, but he declines. He’s planning on heading down to O’Connor’s house in Virginia assuming O’Connor is returning early to New York. It is never made clear that Jim knows Trudy is Mike’s daughter, but this couldn’t be revealed in front of Mac since he’s not supposed to know of Mike’s real identity.

Mac is a man with a plan. Next stop: Virginia.

After Mac leaves, Mike asks Mary to remind him to fix the fence. Next year, Mac will be coming in through the front door.

To promote the picture, Monogram sponsored a parade in Manhattan with New York's Fifth Avenue Merchants Association, as well as a six-week cross-country bus tour, which ended in Los Angeles. The film, budgeted at $1,700,000, received a mild critical response. I can’t find any box-office information about it, but it did not make the top twenty for films from 1947, though two other Christmas-themed films did: The Bishop’s Wife and Miracle on 34th Street. It Happened on 5th Avenue would continue to lose out to Miracle on 34th, losing the Academy Award for Best Original Story to that written by Valentine Davies.

Likewise, the film would fade from view, though a recent release by Warner Brothers Home Entertainment and showings on Turner Classic Movies have brought it back. It is a shame that it went away in the first place. An interesting story, the film has many genuinely laugh out loud moments not to mention some very witty dialogue and one-liners.

The cast is very good as well, led by Don DeFore. DeFore is best remembered not for his work on film, but rather television. He appeared in 96 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-57) as their neighbor, Thorny. DeFore was also the boss of Hazel (1961-1965) which starred Shirley Booth as the main character. Here he plays a brash and optimistic vet. I hate to say I’m not used to the youthful DeFore, but I like what I see and wonder why he didn’t make a bigger splash in films.

Don DeFore

Ann Harding gets second billing as Mary O’Connor. Even though she was nominated for Best Actress for Holiday (1930), I can’t say I’m familiar with her work. She is a good actress, but the role of Mary seems rather small for the billing she received.

Ann Harding

Charles Ruggles is one of the actors that I’ve liked in most things I’ve seen or heard him do (He was the voice of Aesop in the Aesop and Son segments from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show). Here he plays a conflicted man, who puts aside his business acumen for family. He has a really good sense of character and screen presence.

Charles Ruggles

Gail Storm, like Don DeFore, is best known for her work on television, playing the lead in 126 episodes of My Little Margie (1952-55) and 143 episodes of The Gail Storm Show (1956-60). In addition, she had a singing career despite the fact director Roy Del Ruth wouldn’t let her do her own singing in this film. She plays an appealing young woman, but she not the lynch pin that holds this film together. That belongs to Victor Moore, who plays Mac.

Gail Storm

A likable tramp, Mac is not only the ringleader of the squatters, but he dispenses fortune cookie-worthy advice, inspiring Jim and crew to build housing, Mike and Mary to consider remarrying and generally brings out the best in those around him. Mac holds the picture together and a lot of that is because of Moore’s acting. He brings a sense of morals and purpose to what could have all too easily been an advantageous bum. His performance is restrained, but exactly what the part calls for.

Victor Moore.

Moore began his acting career on stage, going back to Rosemary (1896) and including starring in the original production of George M. Cohan’s Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906). [Note: Mary Is a Grand Old Name, the song that plays in a music box and when Ann Harding as Mary O’Connor is on screen, dates from this musical.] Moore would also star in Cohan’s sequel, The Talk of New York (1907), George and Ira Gershwin’s Oh, Kay! (1926), Of Thee I Sing (1931), Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933) and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934). He began a film career in 1915 and would appear in over 50 films, including Swing Time (1936) and The Seven Year Itch (1955).

The supporting cast of Alan Hale, Jr., Dorothea Kent, Edward Ryan, Jr. and Cathy Carter are really more filler than anything else. They and their children balloon the number of residents in the house, but they are clearly not the focus of the film. In fact, they make their leave off screen. It’s almost like they weren’t there at all. Hale, the son of Alan Hale, Sr., perhaps best known as Little John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), would, like DeFore and Storm, make his biggest splash on TV as The Skipper in Gilligan’s Island.

While the supporting cast might have been mostly ignored, the film is helped along by the comedic talents of Edward Brophy, but even more so by Paul Goldin and Abe Reynolds, who make the most of their brief time on screen. Reynolds would only appear in six films, including Swing Time (1936). Here he appears as the proprietor of Finkelhoff’s second hand clothing store and weaves a very funny tale enhanced by his Yiddish accent.

Abe Reynolds as Finkelhoff (left) makes the most of his screentime.

Goldin’s contribution is mostly silent as he plays a waiter trying to level the table in what otherwise might have been a heavy scene. He goes in one side of the table, emerges on the other and tries placing paper under the legs, but try as he might, nothing seems to work, not even getting another table. Goldin would have a longer career, appearing in twenty-nine films, including five Jiggs and Maggie comedy films in the late 40’s and 50’s and in a couple of Ma and Pa Kettle films. He would also appear in another Del Ruth directorial effort, The Babe Ruth Story (1948).

I’ve heard there was some friction on the set, as Del Ruth, for whatever reason, wouldn’t allow Storm to do her own singing, but what ends up on the screen is pretty well done. The film overly relies on backdrops and rear projection instead of shooting outside, though it does go on location to Virginia for exteriors of O’Connor’s mansion there. It comes across a little too much like it was shot on a sound stage, when a touch of the real world might have been better for it.

And I’m not a big fan of the songs or their placement in the movie, especially when Jim, Trudy and Mac are singing their way through the park. If this were a musical comedy, then it might seem appropriate, but instead it seems sort of awkward here and out of place with the rest of the movie. Maybe there was the hope of producing a Christmas standard from the film, but that didn’t really happen.

The songs aside, I’m glad to have finally seen It Happened on 5th Avenue and would recommend it to anyone looking for something different to watch during the Christmas season. It is funny and sweet and there’s not much more you could want in a holiday film. Watch it if only for Victor Moore’s performance and you should not be disappointed.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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