No one is inside that boarded-up mansion on Manhattan’s ritzy 5th Avenue, right? Wrong. Its secret inhabitants include a philosophizing hobo and some GI families who are unable to find apartments during the post-World War II housing crunch. They set up residence in the posh brownstone while the owner, the second richest man in the world, winters in Virginia. Except the owner isn’t in Virginia. He’s there in disguise… and discovering a lot about how the average Joe and Jane think and live.
It Happened on 5th Avenue. And it happens with a talented cast and an Oscar-nominated tale set during the holidays. Make yourself at home and discover why this is a yuletide delight to discover.
eyelights: Gale Storm. its quirky tale.
eyesores: its many contrivances. its half-baked humour.
“Remind me to nail up the board in the back fence. He’s coming through the front door next winter.”
There are Christmas movies and there are Christmas movies. On the one hand, one finds sentimental motion pictures that are genuine enough to be affecting. On the other, we find schmaltzy ones that struggle to deliver the intended Christmas cheer; these movies tend to cater to their perceived audiences and, in so doing, feel artificial if not dishonest.
‘It Happened on 5th Avenue’ is one of the latter.
The 1947 motion picture was to be Frank Capra’s follow-up to ‘Arsenic and Old Lace‘ until he decided to pass on it to make ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘ instead. And thank goodness: the award-winning ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is now considered an all-time classic (though it lost money then). But one can only wonder what would have become of ‘5th Avenue’ in his hands.
The picture follows Jim, a war veteran who gets evicted from his apartment when land developer M.J. O’Connor tears down the unit to build an office complex. With New York City in the middle of a housing crisis, he winds up holed up with McKeever, an older homeless man whose racket is staying in a wealthy man’s home while it’s boarded up for the winter.
And this wealthy man? Well, it’s none other than M.J. O’Connor, of course!
If that coincidence doesn’t trip you up, well wait until O’Connor’s daughter, Trudy, runs away from school and takes refuge in the mansion – only to find the two men there. She joins them, pretending to be homeless too. And when she falls in love with Jim, she contrives for her father to meet him – dressed as a homeless person. Soon her mother joins them, too.
Eventually McKeever, Jim, a few of his friends (and their families) and the disguised O’Connors are living under the same roof, all under the pretense of staying there until the spring, when the notorious Mike J. O’Connor returns from his country home. The experience cements Jim and Trudy’s blossoming love and heals the rifts in the deeply-divided O’Connor family.
Cough. Cough. Cough.
The whole picture feels fake, right from its first few moments when a tour bus passes by O’Connor’s mansion to set the stage. The medium shots found the bus shaking side-to-side, backed by a pretty crap rear projection. Ouch. And it got worse: then we watched McKeever “walking” on the sidewalk, raising his thighs lightly, backed by more crap rear projection.
‘Twas a bad omen.
But its quirky tale is amusing – though it could have done with a significant rewrite to make it even remotely credible. And the picture benefits from the presence of Gale Storm (hint: it’s not her birth name), who’s delightfully fresh, radiant here – a real heartbreaker. But she’s essentially a poor man’s Judy Garland to Don De Fore’s makeshift James Stewart.
Interestingly, critics were mostly enamoured with Victor Moore in the part of McKeever. Granted, he makes the old hobo likeable, if not endearing, but I found his performance a bit broad, and he affected a stilted delivery that was peculiar. Plus which the character is actually kind of bossy, and sometimes condescending, so I had mixed feelings about it.
Of course, the same can be said about the whole picture: though I like ‘It Happened on 5th Avenue’s offbeat quality, and there are certainly some likeable aspects to it, it comes off as insincere and like a B-grade version of the kind of heartwarming classics the ’40s produced. Perhaps, in the hands of more capable filmmakers, it could have been great.
…instead of feeling like a cheap knock-off.
Ironically, not only did ‘It Happened on 5th Avenue’ miss out on its chance for Christmas greatness at the hands of the masterful Capra, but it would be upended by yet another Christmas movie when ‘Miracle on 34th Street‘ won the Academy Award for Best Original Story in 1948. Seriously, it simply didn’t stand a chance with this caliber of competition.
It’s truly not in the same league.
Date of viewing: December 20, 2016