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25 December 2017

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

Directed by: Roy Del Ruth
Music: Edward Ward
Starring: Victor Moore, Charles Ruggles, 
Ann Harding, Gale Storm, Don DeFore
I try to watch a classic Christmas film every December. Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is usually on some channel or the other during this period, as is ‘Miracle on 34th Street’. I’ve watched both multiple times. Strangely enough, this film is one I’d never watched before. Originally slated to be directed by Frank Capra, who chose instead to film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, this film went through a few hiccups before seeing the light of day. 

The film opens with a shabbily dressed man (and his equally non-descript dog) walking along New York’s Fifth Avenue. 
His next step is rather unusual – nipping quickly along to the back of one of the wealthy mansions there, he soon dislodges a plank in the fence, opens a manhole cover in the garden and disappears into the void. (The house belongs to Michael O’Connor, the second-richest man in the world.) When they resurface, the man and his canine companion are inside the mansion.

If his way of entering the palatial residence isn’t strange enough, the drifter, whose name is Aloysious T. McKeever (Victor Moore) proceeds to do something even stranger – he tampers with the wiring so that all the lights turn off when the front door opens. That fixed, he and his dog make themselves at home.
Meanwhile, not too far away, in a less-palatial neighbourhood, an apartment building is going to be torn down to make way for a skyscraper zoned for commercial purposes. However, one tenant refuses to leave. 
This is Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), a recently discharged-veteran who, having struggled to find an apartment he can afford, is damned if he’s going to give it up. (Post-war, discharged men and women who worked in the military and allied industries, returned to face an acute housing shortage.) However, when an individual fights against a corporation, the result is a foregone conclusion.
Michael McConnor (Charles Ruggles), whose company wants to build the skyscraper, is furious at Jim’s intransigence (and the resultant bad press) but is too busy thinking of his next project – negotiating with the US government to turn an unused army camp into an industrial cargo hub.

Meanwhile, Jim, forced to sleep on a bench in the park, runs into McKeever (now dolled up in McConnor’s clothes). Hearing Jim’s sorry tale (and feeling responsible for drenching Jim), McKeever invites him to stay at ‘his’ house. 
Of course, he presents himself to Jim as McConnor’s guest.

As Jim settles in for the night, the front door opens, and since the wiring has been tripped, the lights in the house go off. Jim, sure that the intruder is a thief, is about to call the police when McKeever is forced to tell him the truth.
Jim is horrified, but not having a place to go, thinks it’s a kind of poetic judgement that he’s squatting in the house of the man who evicted him. McKeever’s confession has been overheard by the intruder – Trudy McConnor (Gail Storm), who has run away from her exclusive finishing school and returned home to pick up some of her clothes. Charmed by the old rogue, she decides to play along, and introduces herself as Trudy Smith, homeless like McKeever and Jim. Which leads to McKeever inviting her to stay.

The next day, Trudy gets herself a job at a sheet music and musical instrument store. Jim, who’s already charmed by Trudy, is walking her home from her job when he runs into the wife of an old army pal. She and her son, as well as the family of another veteran are living in a station wagon because their husbands haven’t been able to rent an apartment. Kind-hearted Jim invites his pals, Whitey (Alan Hale Jr.) and Hank (Edward Ryan) and their families to come live at the McConnor mansion until they can find housing.
The McConnor mansion is filled to bursting, and while McKeever is used to hiding in the icebox to avoid the night patrol, one wonders how they are going to hide 11 people, some of them children, from the authorities.

Trudy, meanwhile, has fallen hard for Jim, and is focusing her attentions on getting his attention, using her own glamourous clothes to seduce him. Jim, of course, doesn’t need much seduction (even if they have only known each other for 24 hours at this point).
However, Jim also has ideas other than romance – one of them being how to tackle the housing shortage. McKeever gives them an idea –use unused army barracks into housing for army veterans. The military barracks already have water and electricity, and the veterans could be given construction jobs that would turn these rudimentary residences into housing fit for families! McKeever, who is a shrewd businessman though he loathes working, expands on the plan, and soon he and Jim have enrolled a group of GIs as investors in their ‘company’ so they can bid on the land that the government is planning to sell – and on which McConnor is bidding.

Meanwhile, McConnor, already informed by the school that his daughter has run away, had hired a private detective to find her. He tracks her down to the music store where she’s working, and McConnor arrives to take her back. However, Trudy refuses to return. She’s in love with Jim, and she tells her father that she wants him to meet Jim without betraying her identity (or his). 
McConnor, alternately furious and baffled at the idea of a whole lot of homeless people squatting in his mansion, agrees to pretend he’s homeless as well. Loving his daughter, he reluctantly agrees, and having changed his fancy togs for second-hand castoffs, he reaches the mansion to present himself as ‘Mike’. The sight of laundry drying in the lobby of his home nearly unsettles his already-ruffled equanimity, and it worsens when he mistakes Whitey’s baby to be Trudy’s and Jim’s. That misunderstanding is soon cleared up when the real parents arrive.

However, McConnor is soon to find that pretending to be homeless in his own home is not as easy as Trudy had imagined. In fact, a lot of things are not as he had imagined – he’d definitely not counted on having to live in his servants’ quarters, wash the dishes, or hide in his own icebox so he can call his office in relative privacy!
Trudy, in the meantime, has sent a telegram her mother for back-up support – she needs Mary to convince her father that Jim is the right person for her. Mary (Ann Harding), not quite comprehending Trudy’s complicated tale, volunteers to come to the house in disguise to see if she can change Michael’s mind. Her initial meeting with her ex-husband is not very conducive to that effort.
It gets even more awkward when, at dinner that evening, McKeever opines that the McConnors can’t have been too happy because even if they had everything, money doesn’t buy happiness. While everyone else laughs, the McConnors are embarrassed. They are also nostalgic – Mary and Mike had met when they were poor; it is Mike’s quest to make money that drove them apart. Now, as they spend more time together, pretending to be poor, they reconnect, remembering what had brought them together in the first place.
Their new-found affection for each other doesn’t go unnoticed. McKeever good-naturedly suggests they get married.

All this bonhomie is going to end soon. McConnor’s company has won the bidding war, and Mary is furious that Michael is the same person who puts money before relationships. Trudy is furious with Jim because he’s giving up his dream and taking a job in Bolivia for a year.
Both Mary and Trudy are furious with Michael when it turns out that he’s the one who’s arranged for Jim to go to Bolivia so he will stay away from Trudy. If that is not enough, the night patrol has just cottoned onto the fact that the McConnor mansion has several illegal residents. Will these homeless people be evicted just in time for Christmas? 

It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a fluffy film that weaves several disparate strands into an endearing whole. It underlined the Christmas spirit of good will towards all, but as is usual with many of these movies that underline the ‘money isn’t all’ philosophy, caricatured the rich as heartless beasts. What saves the film is the droll humour that Victor Moore brought to McKeever. Charles Ruggles similarly humanised Michael McConnor, and made us believe that his redemption at the end of the movie was not only possible, but also plausible.

Like Capra’s films, It Happened on Fifth Avenue also offers social commentary concerning the class wars, the plight of discharged veterans who are unable to find jobs upon their return, as well as on the acute housing shortage of the post-war years. It's hard to feel for their plight when the pathos is undermined by the mild humour that runs through the film, and the film’s comforting warmth diffuses serious issues with the season's sentimentality. Sandwiched as it was between the two holiday classics that I mentioned before, it is not a great movie, but okay for a pleasant watch during the season.

Wishing my readers Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays - whatever you celebrate, we are all bound by a common humanity. Here's wishing all of you a great year ahead.

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