We added this little film to our Christmas cinema catalog almost 10 years ago and fell in love with it right away. It has several weak spots, and certainly doesn’t rank among the top-notch classics, but the characters and the situations are engaging, and the transformation of a mid-20th Century American Scrooge into a warm-hearted father and husband fits well with the season.
Aloysius T. McKeever and his dog sneak into a Fifth Avenue mansion, while its rich owner, Michael O’Connor, spends the winter in Bubbling Springs, VA. McKeever invites a down-on-his-luck veteran, Jim Bullock, who has been evicted by the O’Connor interests, to stay in the mansion, and as the days progress more sweet-hearted young needy folks move in as well, including O’Connor’s daughter, Trudy, who has run away from an unhappy boarding school where she has been living since her father and mother divorced four years earlier. Hiding her identity from McKeever, Bullock and the others, Trudy is tracked down by her father, but she convinces him to move into the mansion, disguising himself as an old bum. Trudy also convinces her mother, Mary, to come to the mansion in disguise as well. We learn that Trudy’s parents still love each other but that Michael’s focus on controlling other people’s lives and making money has turned his attention away from love. Learning lessons in humility from McKeever, O’Connor finally consents to his daughter’s marriage and assists Jim and his friends, so all ends happily, with McKeever walking down Fifth Avenue on his way to spend the spring at O’Connor’s mansion in Virginia.
The story begins in November and extends through Christmas and the New Year. There is a tree decorating episode, and a warm-hearted Christmas Eve celebration. The season’s spirit of transformation suffuses the story.
NEW YORK CONNECTION
It’s not just the title with its reference to New York’s most famous avenue that connects this film to New York. It has several interesting exterior shots, especially in Central Park. I noticed this year in the background of one scene, a statue of a man and a dog. A little searching on the web and I found some interesting information about this statue. The final scene of Victor Moore walking south on Fifth Avenue next to Central Park just south of the MMA is one of our favorite walks in NYC.
Edward Brophy, who plays one of the security guards who interrupts the Christmas Eve party, is the link to yesterday’s film, The Thin Man (1934), where he played the gangster Morelli. He appears in three other classic Christmas films: A Christmas Carol (1938), Larceny Inc. (1942) and Bundle of Joy (1956).
Ann Harding, who plays Mary O’Connor, also appears in Christmas Eve (1947).
Charlie Ruggles, who plays Michael O’Connor, was one of the funniest character actors in Hollywood, specializing in slightly pompous but endearing characters. He played the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland (1933) and Egbert Floud in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). He had a short-lived, eponymous TV series, The Ruggles, in 1949-50. His best role was as big-game hunter Major Applegate in Bringing Up Baby (1938).
Gale Storm, who plays Trudy O’Connor, had a variety of film roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but her greatest fame came in early TV comedies: My Little Margie (1952-55) and The Gale Storm Show (1956-60), the later co-starring Zasu Pitts.
Victor Moore, who plays Aloysius T. McKeever, had a long show business career as a headliner in vaudeville, a star on Broadway and a wonderful character actor in Hollywood. (Look for more on him in the “Astaire Connections” section below.)
Alan Hale Jr., who plays buddy Whitey Temple, is best known as the Skipper in TV’s Gilligan’s Island.
Grant Mitchell, who plays O’Connor’s assistant Farrow, will appear twice more in our holiday film list: Larceny Inc. (1944) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). He had a long career as a character actor, appearing in such classics as Dinner at Eight (1933), The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).
Chester Clute, who appears briefly as one of O’Connor’s aides is in four other films on our Christmas cinema list: Bachelor Mother (1938), Larceny Inc. (1944), Lady on a Train (1942) and Remember the Night (1940).
Charles Lane, who has a brief role as the landlord refusing to rent to the veteran families, had a long list of credits in movies and on TV, including some of the best Hollywood classics: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Twentieth Century (1934) and Ball of Fire (1941). We will see him again in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
This movie may have more substantial Astaire connections than any we have seen so far. Victor Moore had one of his first headlining roles in vaudeville in 1905 at Proctor’s 23rd Street theatre, just a few blocks from the boarding house where the Astaires were living and two blocks from the Grand Opera House at Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, where they were taking their first dance lessons. Twenty years later, Moore would be the featured comedian in one of the Astaires’ biggest Broadway hits, George Gershwin’s Funny Face. A fellow member of the Lambs Club, Moore would appear with Astaire in the 1930 Lambs Gambol at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 27 and two years later at the Actors Dinner Club Ball on December 31, 1932. Moore also appeared as Fred’s buddy in what many consider the finest Astaire-Rogers film, Swing Time (1936).
Charlie Ruggles appeared with the Astaires in their second Broadway revue, The Passing Show of 1918, and on a Shubert Sunday Concert bill at the Winter Garden theatre on October 16, 1918.
Grant Mitchell, appeared on three benefit bills with the Astaires: the Actors Equity Association on May 9, 1920, and May 1, 1921, and a Junior League Benefit on January 19, 1928. Mitchell also had a small role in Fred’s first movie, Dancing Lady (1933).
Abe Reynolds, who does a turn in It Happened on Fifth Avenue as Finkelstein the second-hand clothing merchant, is actually reprising his bit as the Jewish tailor in Swing Time (1936) in an extended scene with Victor Moore.
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
The scenes in New York, especially as Moore walks down Fifth Avenue near Central Park at the end of the film, pull at our heartstrings. While the movie can be a bit sappy, it also creates a warm little world that you are sad to leave, which for me is the mark of any successful story.