It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) has become a recent favorite of mine, as I only saw it for the first time two years ago. But now it doesn’t feel quite like Christmas until I sit down and enjoy the holiday adventures of the film’s motley crew of misfits.
Aloysius T. McKeever, or “Mac” (Victor Moore), is an itinerant bum who lives the high life by occupying millionaires’ houses while they are out of town. His frequent target is Michael O’Connor (Charlie Ruggles), the second-richest man in the world. Every year, O’Connor spends his winters in Virginia, at which point Mac moves into his New York townhouse for the season. But in the midst of the post-World War II housing shortage in the city, Mac reluctantly begins to amass a series of “houseguests” over the Christmas holidays. He first meets Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), a veteran who has been thrown out of his apartment after the owner, O’Connor, decides to tear it down to build a skyscraper. After inviting Jim to stay, the two discover O’Connor’s daughter, Trudy (Gale Storm), who has returned home and is mistaken for a thief by the squatters. Rather than turn them in, she hides her identity after falling in love with Jim and bunks with them. Jim later invites two army buddies and their wives and children to come stay in the house, much to Mac’s growing dismay. Eventually, when O’Connor shows up, Trudy convinces him to play along in order to get to know Jim, and even invites her mother–and O’Connor’s ex-wife–Mary (Ann Harding) to join in the ruse. Needless to say, things begin to unravel rather quickly, and it’s up to Mac to play peacekeeper, confidant, and sage in order to keep their new little “family” together.
The film is anchored by a talented cast, headed by the delightful Moore and the endearingly grumpy Ruggles. Moore’s treatment of “Mike” is particularly enjoyable, as he unknowingly–and sometimes obnoxiously–plays “lord of the manor” in front of the self-same “lord.” Ruggles’ reactions to this are utterly priceless, and some of my favorite moments in the film come from the interaction between the two men. That’s not to discount the contributions of the supporting players: Storm and Harding are lovely and effective as the mother and daughter who are trying to melt the heart of their gruff family patriarch, and DeFore brings welcome moments of levity that help offset any overwhelming sense of schmaltz. And I can’t let this post go by without a mention of Mac’s adorable dog, Sam, who just about steals every scene he’s in.
At times, as you might imagine considering the subject matter, Fifth Avenue virtually reeks of sentimentality. Thankfully, however, the movie doesn’t delve entirely into maudlin territory. And if the story feels Capra-esque in its composition and characterization, it’s not entirely a coincidence. Frank Capra was originally set to direct this film before deciding to direct another perennial holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), instead. Directing duties were turned over to Roy Del Ruth, best known for directing crime dramas (the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon) and musicals (the Broadway Melodies of 1936 and 1938, 1943’s DuBarry Was a Lady). The film was the first to be produced by Allied Artists, a division of low-rent “Poverty Row” B-studio Monogram, as part of an effort to legitimize Monogram and move into A-movie territory. Accordingly, the budget for Fifth Avenue far exceeded that of other Monogram pictures, topping out around $1.2 million by the time filming was completed. But the expense was worth it, for in the end, the move toward big-budget legitimization paid off for the studio, as Fifth Avenue was a success at the box office and went on to earn a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Screenplay (it ultimately lost to fellow Christmas staple Miracle on 34th Street).
Unavailable for many years, Fifth Avenue has become a staple on Turner Classic Movies’ December schedule in the past couple of years, and is now widely available on DVD. And if you have the chance to catch it this afternoon (12:30PM) on TCM, by all means, take advantage of it! It’ll definitely sprinkle some holiday spirit on your Christmas Eve celebrations.