This is the first time we have watched this film, and if it had not had a Christmas connection we probably wouldn’t have. Of course, we loved Dick van Dyke with his iconic 1960s sitcom, and who didn’t adore Barbara Feldon as Agent 99 in Get Smart? And Van Dyke did fine jobs in Mary Poppins and Bye, Bye Birdie, but how would they do as leads for a film? We couldn’t find any character actor connections to the other films on our watch list, but we decided to go with Fitzwilly anyway. We found the film enjoyable but not completely engaging. The plot ticked along a bit too cleverly, but also dragged a bit in the middle. We may keep it in future holiday film rotations but probably not as a must-see. The final 15 minutes with the scene in Gimbel’s is lots of fun and makes a nice complement to other Christmas films with major department store connections, such as Bachelor Mother, Holiday Affair and, of course, Miracle on 34th Street.
Miss Victoria (Edith Evans) is wealthy philanthropist living on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Her large household staff is carefully managed by a dutiful Butler, Fitwilly (Dick van Dyke). But it is all a façade. Unbeknownst to herself and the outside world, Miss Vicky is penniless. Fitzwilly and the rest of the staff have contrived to keep up pretenses by carrying out carefully planned criminal enterprises (essentially elaborate shoplifting schemes). Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon) is hired by Miss Vicky to help edit a book she is writing, and Juliet soon is attracted romantically to Fitzwilly. Juliet stumbles upon the truth about the household and encourages Fitzwilly to stop the thievery, which he agrees to do after one last big caper that will provide Miss Vicky enough money for the rest of her life.
The last big heist is robbing Gimbel’s on Christmas Eve. There are delightful scenes of retail chaos, and the film finishes with a surprising happy ending on Christmas Day.
Cecil Kellaway (Buckmaster) is one of my favorite character actors with a wonderful range. He appears in such classics as I Married a Witch (1942) with Frederic Marsh and Veronica Lake, Harvey (1950) with Jimmy Stewart, Wuthering Heights (1939) with Laurence Olivier and Kitty (1945) with Paulette Goddard, where he plays painter Thomas Gainsborough.
John McGiver (Albert) is also an actor with a wonderful range. He has a light comic touch but is better know for his dramatic appearances in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Edith Evans (Miss Victoria) was better known as a stage actress. Her film roles include Tom Jones (1963) and Scrooge (1970) with Albert Finney, where she played the Ghost of Christmas Past.
John Fiedler (Mr. Morton Dunne) is best known for his role as Mr. Peterson on TV’s The Bob Newhart Show. His films include 12 Angry Men (1957), True Grit (1969) and The Odd Couple (1969).
We really had to strain to find any connection to Mr. Astaire, but we found one: James Gonzalez (a Gimbel’s clerk) appeared as a ship passenger in Royal Wedding (1951).
LOVE LIKE THIS MOVIE
It was nice to see a film set in 1960s Manhattan, and the closing sequence in Gimbel’s is a wonderfully choreographed heist with loads of funny bits.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
Turner Classic Movies will show the film on December 25 at 1:30 p.m.