We first saw this movie about five years ago and became enthralled by its earnest silliness blended with a warm-hearted Christmas message of hope and transformation. The story involves a dancing squirrel (The Great Rupert), but what wins you are the lovely performances by a host of favorite character actors. There are touches of “A Christmas Carol” in the redemption of a stingy character, and the lead family has a bit of the Cratchits. Suspend your disbelief for a bit and enter into the spirit of the season.
A colorized version of the film has been released under the title A Christmas Wish: stay away from any such travesty.
Animal trainer Joe Mahoney is down on his luck and has to give up his trained squirrel, Rupert, taking him to live with his fellow squirrels. Bullied by the New York squirrels (shades of Rudolph!) and a dog, Rupert returns to the poor apartment that he had shared with Joe and goes back to his comfortable nest in the rafters. Meanwhile the Amendola family, down-on-their-luck vaudevillians, are looking for a cheap place to stay on Christmas Eve and rent the same basement apartment from the stingy Mr. Dingle, who owns the house and lives upstairs . Dingle learns that a stock he thought was worthless will pay a lucrative weekly dividend, but not trusting banks, he stores the cash in the woodwork — intruding on Rupert’s nest. Down to their last dollar, Mrs. Amendola prays for help, just as Rupert throws the cash out of his nest to rain down on her, and she concludes that it is an answered prayer. As the weeks proceed, Dingle stashes the cash, Rupert disposes of it, and the Amendolas collect it, never realizing where the funds’ true source. After a few silly luxuries, Mr. Amendola begins using the money to assist neighboring merchants, who begin succeeding and then repay Amendola’s kindnesses by making him a partner in their businesses. The city, state and federal authorities begin to wonder where Amendola is getting the money and accuse him of theft or tax evasion. There is a subplot about the rocky romantic relationship between the young Amendola daughter and the Dingle son. The elder Dingle is faced with double disasters: the stock stops paying dividends and the house catches fire, destroying the cash stashed in the woodwork. Amendola’s investments in kindness pay off, and he rebuilds the Dingle’s house and all ends well. Rupert is rescued from the fire, and Joe Mahoney returns to take Rupert on tour where he wins fame as “The Great Rupert!”
The story begins on Christmas Eve and features a meager Christmas celebration that turns joyous with the timely intervention of Rupert.
Jimmy Conlin, who plays Joe Mahoney, is the link to yesterday’s film, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943). Conlin was one of the most reliable character actors for director Preston Sturges, appearing in all but two of his films. My favorite of Conlin’s roles is in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (aka Mad Wednesday) (1947).
Frank Orth, who plays Mr. Dingle, is the link to tomorrow’s film Double Dynamite (1951), so we will provide more detail about him in that commentary.
Jimmy Durante, who plays Mr. Amendola, will be seen later on the holiday watch list in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). He appeared in dozens of films, including Little Miss Broadway (1938) with Shirley Temple. A native New Yorker, his career took off in the 1920s in vaudeville, radio, night clubs and Broadway. You will get a sense of his wild comic patter mixed with piano playing and broken singing that had been his trademark style for 30 years when this film was made.
Terry Moore, who plays Rosalinda Amendola, had the lead in Mighty Joe Young (1949) and had earlier played the young Paula in Gaslight (1944). She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Come Back Little Sheba (1952). Later in life, she claimed that she had been secretly married to billionaire Howard Hughes in 1949.
Tom Drake, who plays Pete Dingle, will be seen later on our holiday film list as John Truett in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
Sara Haden, who plays Mrs. Dingle, will be seen in The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). She appeared in two Shirley Temple movies: Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Captain January (1936).
Frank Cady, who plays the IRS investigator, gained his greatest fame on TV as Sam Drucker in Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. Among his many movie roles was a part in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).
Torben Meyer, who plays Mr. Petrushka, the baker, was another reliable member of the Preston Sturges stock company, appearing in such films as Unfaithfully Yours (1948), The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). He played the doctor at the end of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943) and the purser in The Lady Eve (1941). He also had a role as the head waiter in a charming film The Good Fairy (1935).
Don Beddoe, who plays the pharmacy owner, Mr. Haggerty, appeared in dozens of character roles in TV during the 1950s and 1960s. His movie roles include The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
Jimmy Conlin appeared with Fred Astaire in the film Blue Skies (1946). Astaire intended to retire after that film, but he returned to do Easter Parade (1948) and continued to do wonderful films for another decade.
Jimmy Durante appeared on stage with Astaire for five different benefit concerts in the 1930s: the New York American Christmas and Relief Fund (12/21/1930), the Stage Relief Fund (3/26/1933), a tribute to Florenz Ziegfeld (4/21/1933) at the Ziegfeld Theatre before it was converted to a movie house, the Press Club Frolic (4/23/1933) and the Newspaper Women’s Club (6/2/1933). The last took place just a month before Astaire left New York for Hollywood.
Torben Meyer appeared in two Astaire films: Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Shall We Dance (1937).
Don Beddoe appeared with Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953).
Queenie Smith, who plays Mrs. Amendola, appeared with Astaire in the Actors Dinner Club benefit 10/9/1932.
Terry Moore plays Astaire’s niece in Daddy Long Legs (1955).
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
We love the glimpse it gives into Durante’s comic talents, the marvelous character actors with obscure connections to so many other favorite films, and the glimpses of Manhattan across the East River from the Brooklyn park where Rupert is abandoned and then reunited with Jimmy Conlin.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
Turner Classic Movies will show The Great Rupert on December 24 at 9:30 a.m. (ET).