Originally published December 6th, 2014
A series of comic miscommunications and mistaken identity lead to a fun holiday story perfect for the post-WWII family. It Happened on Fifth Avenue focuses on a problem common to several films made after 1945 – the housing crisis – but combines it with screwball antics to show wealthy people the benefits of being charitable. A bit long in the tooth by story’s end, It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a delightful Christmas treat.
A homeless man named McKeever (Victor Moore) has a yearly ritual of taking over the boarded-up home of local millionaire Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles). However, he takes pity on a man recently cast out on his ear and opens the home to others who have lost their way. When O’Connor’s daughter, Trudy (Gale Storm) discovers the set-up she fakes a life of poverty to stay in the house, eventually coercing O’Connor himself to masquerade and see what’s going on in his home.
I’ve already reviewed several movies dealing with the post-WWII housing shortage (Love Nest and Apartment for Peggy) and the basic formula of It Happened on Fifth Avenue deals is present. Not only do you have a homeless old man, but there’s a recently displaced veteran named Jim (Don DeFore) looking for a place to stay, and Jim’s friends who can’t find a place for their families. Certain moments of the movie connect to audiences today, particularly the fear of being unable to provide a roof for one’s kids. The sense of community is what ends up being important for the inhabitants of the O’Connor residence. It isn’t enough just to have a place to rest their heads; it’s the love of others, the feeling of protection they get from knowing someone else is looking out for them and caring for them.
A screwball comedy, by definition, tends to emphasize the wacky “ordinariness” of wealthy people but It Happened on Fifth Avenue does the opposite. The O’Connors all decide to give up their worldly possessions to figure out what’s going on the in house (Mr. O’Connor), escape the expectations of wealthy society (Trudy), or just be a general pain (the ex-Mrs. O’Connor). In the end, all the O’Connors realize they’ve given up the golden things in life for material possessions. Essentially, the best things in life are free and it’s only through the poor that the wealthy can realize this. It’s a trite, cynical interpretation of the plot, I know, but thankfully the acting and script never force the audience into hating the O’Connors; they’re a misguided family who have had things far too easy.
This is a character actors’ piece, packed with actors who will leave you saying “Where do I know them?” Charles Ruggles is the cumbersome Michael O’Connor and his scenes opposite Moore and Storm are the highlights, emphasizing two elements of comedy: the mistaken identity and the miscommunication, the latter coming from O’Connor’s fear his daughter is in “trouble.” Moore is the guardian angel as McKeever. He understands the joys coming from community and acts as the surrogate father everyone is searching for. DeFore and Storm are cute, but they are the requisite young couple of the piece so their only issue is whether they’ll end up together or not.
The almost two-hour runtime is a bit excessive for such a frivolous plot. It mainly stems from Jim’s plans to buy army barracks to create low-income housing. It’s a unique plot device, but it comes at extending out the characters not knowing O’Connor’s true identity for far longer than necessary. By the halfway mark the mystery has played out and the movie feels padded.
In the end, It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a diverting comedy about appreciating the finer things in light. The lack of big names and an uncommon foray into the screwball genre helps differentiate it from the countless other comedies focusing on the same issue around this time. TCM will air it again Christmas Eve, so if you’re sitting at home, give it a shot.
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