It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)
Starring Victor Moore, Gale Storm, Don DeFore, Charles Ruggles, Ann Harding, Alan Hale, Jr., Edward Brophy, Grant Mitchell and Charles Lane. Directed by Roy Del Ruth. From Allied Artists Pictures.
Hobo Aloysius T. McKeever (Moore) doesn’t work; his only vocation is “interloper”. During the winter, he stays in an empty mansion while the owner, billionaire Michael J. O’Connor (Ruggles), is spending the season at his home in Virginia. McKeever befriends Jim Bullock (DeFore) who has been kicked out of his apartment because O’Connor’s construction company is tearing the building down. McKeever takes Jim in; into “his” home and into his confidence, explaining how it is he lives in this mansion and the two keep it to themselves. When O’Connor’s daughter, Trudy (Storm), sneaks into her family home to retrieve some clothes before running away from school, she is caught by McKeever and Jim. She overhears the two commiserating and finds out the score; but she doesn’t let the two men know who she is and they allow her to stay.
On the street, Jim runs into two old Army buddies, their wives and children. They also are looking for a place to live but it’s no soap. Jim takes them “home”, putting McKeever on the spot; kick the two young families to the curb or let them stay in the O’Connor mansion. One person sneaking in and out of the supposedly abandoned mansion all winter is one thing. Of course, he lets them stay.
Michael O’Connor, up in New York from Virginia, tracks down his daughter. She tells him she’s not going back to school and guess what else, Dad? There’s a crowd of people living in your home. She explains the whole scenario to her father – the gang (save Jim) thinks the place belongs to McKeever and no one in the house knows that Trudy is Miss O’Connor and this is her home. “Squatters!”, exclaims Mike and wants to call a cop. Instead, Trudy tearfully explains to her father that she ran away because she is unhappy, lonely. She was happy as a child but then her father and her mother (Harding) separated and she was sent off to school. Ramrod Mike softens. “What do you want me to do?”, he kindly asks. Trudy says she’s fallen for Jim and wants to take her dad home to meet him – of course not as wealthy Michael O’Connor but instead as some bum she found on the street. If Jim knew Trudy was an heiress, she would always wonder. Mike, to his credit, agrees.
Trudy’s mother, Mary, joins the gang, reuniting the O’Connor clan who continue to live incognito in their own home. Mike and Mary begin to reassess their relationship and to re-establish contact with each other. Jim and his two buddies try to go into business, putting themselves in direct competition with a company of Mike’s. Subterfuge on top of subterfuge all begin to teeter as things build to a conclusion.
Here is a redemption story. Not the film – my relationship with it. This is one of those times when you watch a film and the first viewing is just flat. Worse, I really didn’t like this movie. Well, it’s grown on me. I bought it on DVD as part of TCM’s “Holiday Collection”. Judging by this title, I thought I’d get movies about Easter, St. Valentine’s Day and Arbor Day – you know? Holidays. Turns out they meant “Christmas” as they are all considered Christmas movies; Christmas in Connecticut, 1938’s A Christmas Carol and The Shop Around the Corner. Among all these great movies, It Happened on Fifth Avenue seemed a poor country cousin. It is just that, in a way, but I’m happy to report that I have found the charm in it.
Part of my problem with the film at first was the cast which seemed to me to be comprised of a B team of sorts. Again, I was right, in a way. Monogram Pictures – known as a low-budget factory churning out serials featuring Mr. Wong, Charlie Chan and others – wanted to up their game and so they formed the Allied Artists division which would attempt making films more in an A movie fashion, elevating budgets and attracting bigger stars. It Happened on Fifth Avenue was their first attempt at aiming for the heights.
The property had been in the possession of Frank Capra who eventually took a pass – and made something called It’s a Wonderful Life instead. Not sure how that worked out for Frank. Roy Del Ruth then picked up the reins. Roy came to the project with a sturdy resumé, having worked on several pre-code films including the first iteration of The Maltese Falcon (1931) starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, notable films like Blonde Crazy (1931) and Employees’ Entrance (1933) and he had worked with the biggest names in the business, the likes of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and my main man, Warren William. He was near the end of his career at this point and would wind up at my beloved American-International Pictures where he made his final film, the crime drama Why Must I Die? (1960), starring gorgeous Debra Paget and Terry Moore. Dishes both and both still alive as of Christmas, 2021.
Interesting to note the two men who provided the story for our film. Herbert Clyde Lewis was a novelist who worked on only a handful of films and suffered a nervous breakdown after the release of this movie. He died of a heart attack shortly after in 1950. He was 41. Frederick Stephani was a writer and director who had helmed Universal’s Flash Gordon serial. Like Lewis, his credits total next to nothing. This unlikely, unheralded team were nominated for an Oscar for Best Story for It Happened on Fifth Avenue but lost to Valentine Davies for the delightful Miracle on 34th Street, another Christmas-themed movie with an address in the title.
Victor Moore was a stage and screen comedian of long-standing, having began his career in the 19th-century. He can be seen in Swing Time (1936) and I know him from his final screen role as the luckiest plumber in Manhattan in The Seven Year Itch (1955). I’ll tell ya what, Gale Storm is a peach. A Monogram contract player, Storm appeared in many programmers for the studio before appearing in our film. Later, she made a trio of films noir before making her name on television with My Little Margie (1952-1955) and The Gale Storm Show (1956-1960) and on records. Singing for Dot Records, her first five singles reached the Top Ten in ’55 and ’56, adding one more later in ’57 (“Dark Moon”, #4). She battled alcoholism in her 50’s and though she was married twice, she was never divorced; both husbands passed away. She seems to have aged nicely, living alone in Monarch Beach, California near her two sons and their families. She died in 2009, aged 87. She is incredibly poised in our film, engaging and comfortable in front of the camera.
Don DeFore is pleasant but cannot shed what seems to me to be his image as a poor man’s Jack Carson. Speaking of which, DeFore’s next film after this one was Doris Day’s debut, Romance on the High Seas, co-starring Carson. DeFore – like Storm – later featured in films noir, most notably Too Late for Tears (1949). He would make his name – again, like Storm – on television playing the Nelson’s neighbour, Thorny, on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and later as the employer of Shirley Booth’s Hazel. Interestingly, I was able to UnEarth the fact that, in 1967, DeFore starred on the stage with his daughter, Penny, in the play Generation, a property that I reviewed in its filmed form starring David Janssen and Kim Darby.
Character actor Charles Ruggles I know from the lame The Invisible Woman, starring Virginia Bruce but he has many more substantial credits in his long career. I first saw him in one of his last films, 1964’s interesting and impossible-to-find I’d Rather Be Rich, with the intriguing cast comprised of Sandra Dee, Andy Williams and Robert Goulet. In this film, Ruggles plays exasperated really well. Beautiful Ann Harding began on the stage before successfully transitioning to talking pictures. In her second year of work, she garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for Holiday (1930). I discovered her in one of her beautiful socialite roles one afternoon on a midday matinee on TCM called When Ladies Meet (1933) starring the queen, Myrna Loy. In 1937, her fortunes were on the wane and she quit making films and wed conductor Werner Janssen. She later returned to the screen to make the interesting Eyes in the Night (1942) with Edward Arnold, Christmas Eve the same year as our film and in her last year of making movies she featured in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) as Fredric March’s wife; March had paired with Ann in her very first film, 1931’s Paris Bound.
Rounding out the cast of notable – if second-string – faces are Alan Hale, Jr., skipper of the SS Minnow, the Falcon’s best sidekick, Edward Brophy, also of The Thin Man (1934), Grant Mitchell, who played a hilariously frustrated homeowner in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), another Christmas-themed film and Charles Lane, he of the 72-year career, who worked last when he was 101 and who played the bright young man who was going to be asking George Bailey for a job in yet another Yuletide favourite, It’s a Wonderful Life (1947).
So, the cast is engaging but didn’t suit my eye. There was no one performer I could latch to, no face I was familiar with which was part of the reason I was slow to come around to this one. But what really killed it for me upon first viewing was the character of McKeever. Some readers may take umbrage but allow me to explain that, in my youth, I worked multiple part time jobs to keep me alive and living in less-than-stellar apartments. I’ve worked since I was 12 and I inherited my family’s work ethic; I never miss a day. So here’s McKeever, gleefully living in luxury on the back of someone else’s hard work. O’Connor’s work may be depicted as somewhat ruthless but still. Mike has worked hard to earn this huge home; McKeever, who has never worked, sneaks in and enjoys the accommodations.
As he chats with the lads, he comes up with this gem; “I believe that people who require money should work for it. As for myself, I gave up working years ago. I never could make enough to satisfy my lavish tastes. So, I let other people work for it and I enjoy it.“ Like, who’s got the balls to say that?
Later, when faced with a crowd of people joining him in the O’Connor mansion, it’s played for comedy when he says “Not in my twenty years as living as a guest in other people’s homes have I ever been faced with a situation like this”. Poor guy. Sorry to hear you’re stressed.
Frustrates me that he is so bossy about the house and the O’Connor belongings; sure, mostly because he doesn’t want to leave any sign that he’s been there and he doesn’t want to do damage, I get that. But I can’t shake the idea that he is strutting a bit. This is not his home and these are not his things because he does not work, does not earn and therefore has nothing. “Maybe I’ll let you smoke one – sometime”, McKeever says when Mike admires the aroma of one of his own cigars. And the ending! Half-a-spoiler here but everyone decides to spare McKeever embarrassment by not revealing Mike’s true identity. As McKeever walks away to sponge on some other hard worker, O’Connor makes what is supposed to be a grand pronouncement that, next winter when McKeever shows up – unless he gets a job before then – he will come in through the front door. I just can’t raise the touching sympathy for McKeever that is expected of me. I know what you’re thinking and you’re right; I’m going a bit overboard but this part of the story bothers me. However….
The real money in It Happened on Fifth Avenue is found in the relationship between Michael and Mary O’Connor. Both Ruggles and Harding are well cast and both pull off the light comedy bits well. Both are equally adept at displaying the sadness that their separation has caused and – particularly Ruggles – with the struggle one goes through when trying to make changes in one’s life. O’Connor shows he is willing to make an attempt early on. Despite the craziness described to him by his daughter, he simply asks her what she wants from him, indicating he is ready to do anything. See, he doesn’t know any better. He thinks the luxury he always provided for his daughter should have been enough to make her happy. He readily accepts that this is not the case and proves prepared to make things right. So, he humbles himself, sees his home turned into a hostel and lets McKeever lord it over him; for his daughter. Good start.
Interesting that it’s the smell of slumgullion that starts things in motion. This old time, hearty and warm dish – symbolic of making due, simplicity, hearth and home – starts Mike to recalling his early days with Mary. And there she is, joining the gang in the O’Connor mansion as the cook. However, Mike goes from wonder to insult and argument in no time and the parents are back in their old rut, fighting over Trudy’s future and their own past.
At the dinner table, the O’Connors are discussed by members of the household, not knowing that the couple is among them. They hear how people perceive them, which happens to be the truth and this hits home. Later, Mary watches Mike working at manual labour, something he hasn’t done in years, and she likes the effect it has on him. “Oh, Mike, it did you good! You have colour in your cheeks. You look positively healthy“, says Mary. But the work has hurt Mike’s back and she attends to him. We see them as they were. And they discuss the old days and the old joys. McKeever talks about the sorrows of the rich and says it’s a joy instead to watch people fall in love, people like Mike and Mary. McKeever sees them as what they are no longer, simple people discovering each other and this gets the estranged O’Connors pondering their relationship anew and getting ready for a rebooting. “Oh, Mary, what’s the matter with both of us?” Watching their tenderness is touching. “Why do you think I’ve been hanging around here, submitting to all this? Because you’re here”. Lovely. They reconcile because Michael has changed. But they’re not over the finish line yet.
Christmas Eve is ruined when the paper reveals that Jim’s business venture has been killed by one Michael J. O’Connor. Mary, taking Mike aside, expresses her disappointment in that Mike seems to still be the cutthroat businessman and the reconciliation is off. Jim has no other choice but to take the job Mike has offered him through his secretary, a job in Bolivia; as in, out of Trudy’s life. When Trudy tearfully tells her parents that her engagement is off, it comes out what Mike has done. Faced with his deficiencies of character and with a future without his wife and daughter, Mike has the eventual change of heart and makes things right. I won’t spoil it but the film has a wonderfully pleasing resolution.
Well-written characters, yes but Ruggles and Harding are delightful in this film, striking the right notes in tone and appearance. You laugh at them, with them and you feel sorry for them. And you will celebrate with them when they find their way back to each other.
So, I can confirm; It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a delightful film. And let this be a lesson to you – it pays, sometimes, to give a film a second chance. Alright. Let it be a lesson to me, not you.