Recently I came across a list of lesser known holiday movies. Among the entries was a movie that I had seen bits and pieces of over the years, but one that I had never sat down to watch in its entirety. I didn’t even know the name of this film until I sat down to watch it for this blog post. IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE is a film from 1947, directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring Don DeFore, Ann Harding, Charles Ruggles, Victor Moore, and Gale Storm.
Walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City is one, Charles T. McKeever (Victor Moore) and his dog Sam. As he walks, tour buses drive by showing passengers onboard the mansions of the great and powerful families of the city. One house in particular is of interest, that of Michael J. O’Connor (the second richest man in the world). The boarded up mansion sits on the corner of Fifth Avenue and it is to this house that Mr. McKeever is going. He and Sam head along the back wall of the garden and find their way inside through a loose board. Once inside the great house, Mr. McKeever sets about setting up shop. He winds a few clocks, takes a bath, gets some new clothes, and rigs up a system whereby whenever the front door is opened all the lights in the house go out. His preparations complete, Mr. McKeever (now dressed in Michael O’Connor’s Sunday best) sets out for a walk with Sam.
Meanwhile, across town a landlord is attempting to evict his last tenant. The apartment building has been scheduled for demolition to make way for more O’Connor construction and all the tenants have left, all but one. Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), an out of work veteran, is making a stand for his rights and his apartment. Unfortunately for Jim, his stand involves handcuffing himself to his bed which is then promptly picked up and carried out by the movers. And so it is that Jim is living on a bench in the park when Mr. McKeever and Sam come walking by. After hearing how Jim has lost his home and now has no place to live, Mr. McKeever invites Jim to come live with him. The two return to the O’Connor home and Jim is in awe, believing Mr. McKeever to be Micheal O’Connor. Mr. McKeever admits that he is not the owner of the house, merely a “visitor”. Michael O’Connor is spending the winter in Virginia as he does every year and will not return until spring. The two men have free reign over the great house for the whole season!
Michael O’Connor (Charles Ruggles) is indeed in Virginia where he is currently trying to buy Camp Kilson, a deserted army camp, in an effort to create a huge air cargo network. Word reaches him that his daughter Trudy (Gale Storm) has run away from her finishing school and she is now nowhere to be found. Worried, O’Connor hurries back to New York to look for her. Trudy has made her way back to the family home on Fifth Avenue, and is going through the clothes in her room when she is discovered by Jim and Mr. McKeever. Jim believes that Trudy is a thief and wants to call the police, which Trudy is only to happy to let him do. But Mr. McKeever stops him, and takes Jim outside to explain the situation to him. He wasn’t completely honest with Jim, he isn’t so much a visiting friend of Mr. O’Connor as he is a drifter who has settled into an abandoned home. Jim, who is no great fan of Michael O’Connor, thinks that this is all very amusing. Neither man sees Trudy listening in to their conversation, and she decides to play along with the idea that she is a thief and not reveal her true identity. Jim and Mr. McKeever return and Trudy pleads with them to not call the police or kick her out. She is homeless and hungry, she claims, and she was only trying to get some nice clothes for a job interview that she has the next day. The two men agree to let her stay, but just then all the lights go out. The night watchmen are coming through for their nightly check of the house. The three guests hurry off to the icebox to hide, with Jim lending Trudy his bathroom and his arms to help keep her warm. Trudy is already starting to fall for Jim, and resolves to maintain her fake identity in order to prevent Jim from falling in love with her just for her money.
The next day Trudy gets a job at a local music shop, playing the piano and singing for the customers. On her way home she runs into Jim and the two walk back together. Along the way Jim runs into the wives and children of Hank and Whitey, two of his old army buddies. Hank (Edward Ryan) and Whitey (Alan Hale Jr.) are trying to find an apartment to live in but are having troubles in the post war housing crisis. The current landlord they are trying to get an apartment from refuses to allow children in the building and it seems that the two men and their families will be stuck living in their cars. Jim invites them back to the house to live with him, Trudy, and Mr. McKeever. Speaking of Mr. McKeever, he is not at all pleased with the sudden increase in population in the house. He doesn’t think that they can support so many people and still keep their stay a secret. But once he sees how cute the babies are, and they really are quite cute, Mr. McKeever welcomes them all with open arms. The group settles in to a contented routine, and Jim and Trudy set about falling in love.
One morning as Trudy leaves the house for work, a man calls to her from a nearby car. It is her father, who has come back to New York looking for her. He tries to convince her to return to school but Trudy won’t hear of it. She is happy now and in love with Jim, after having spent her whole life feeling lonely she finally feels content. O’Connor wants to meet the man who his daughter speaks so highly of, and reluctantly agrees to pose as another drifter. Trudy and her father act out a meeting in the park and Trudy invites Mike the tramp to come home with them. Once there, O’Connor is shocked to see the state of his home and just how many people are living there. He is also less than pleased by Mr. McKeever wearing his clothes and smoking his cigars. Mike is put to work washing the dishes and doing other chores about the house which annoys him to no end. At the same time he must still maintain his business ventures, including the purchase of the army camp. Little does O’Connor realize that Jim and his friends are also interested in buying the property. Jim wants to use the army barracks as model homes for the displaced and homeless families of other veterans so he, Hank, and Whitey decide to bid on the property as well.
It doesn’t take long before O’Connor is fed up with the abundance of guests in his home and with having to pretend to be a tramp. He threatens to call the police, but Trudy calls her mother instead. Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor divorced several years prior, when it became clear to Mrs. O’Connor that her husbands first priority was his money. Upon hearing her daughter’s distress, Mrs. O’Connor offers to come to the house as yet another vagrant. And so the house gains Mary as a cook, much to Mike’s distress. Mike only becomes more upset as the price for the army camp keeps increasing thanks to a bidding war which has broken out. He also is frustrated because of Trudy and Jim. His attempt to woo Jim away with a well-paying job to Bolivia failed, and now it seems more likely than ever that Trudy and Jim will marry. Then one evening, as the group gathers to decorate the Christmas tree, Mike discovers that the group he has been bidding against is not a huge corporation but the three men who now sit around him making popcorn garlands. And how will he be able to explain to Trudy and to Mary, that his company has finally outbid them and Jim will now be unable to complete his plans for the barracks?
IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE is a Christmas movie that really should be better known than it is. Charles Ruggles is fantastic in every scene he is in, really giving Michael O’Connor depth as well as humor and wit. His frustration at the complete chaos his house and life have become is really well done, and a character that could have easily been one-dimensional is much for fleshed out and sympathetic. Ann Harding is terrific as his ex-wife, showing the frustration of a woman who still loves the man that she left. Don DeFore and Gale Storm are charming as the young couple in love, as are all the supporting characters. Victor Moore is Mr. McKeever, there is no question of that. He so wholeheartedly inhabits the character that you no longer see an actor playing a part, you simply see Mr. McKeever complete and in the flesh.
This movie is really a joy to watch! Yes, there are a few moments of clunkier dialogue but they go by quickly and don’t distract from the overall quality of the story. It is the story that makes this movie so unique. This is just a genuinely nice movie, with a good-hearted intention and message. It might sound strange to say it, but this is a sweet story and a truly kind movie. And what better qualities could you have for the holiday season?