Best Christmas Movie Ever

Thursday, December 23, 2010 11:12 AM

Taki’s Magazine

Did anyone catch that movie last Sunday morning at ten on the Turner Classic Movies channel? If you did, you know what movie I'm talking about. Like me, you are probably still thinking about it. If you missed it, you have a second chance this Friday, Christmas Eve, at high noon.

I'm referring to It Happened on 5th Avenue, a little neglected masterpiece from 1947 staring Gale Storm, Charlie Ruggles, Victor Moore, Don DeFore and Ann Harding. This may be the best Christmas movie you never heard of. It captures the Christmas spirit like nothing I've ever encountered. If you want to get into a holiday mood, this movie is just the ticket. I'm all in favor of retail therapy, especially at Christmastime, but retail therapy has its shortcomings. For the true spirit of Christmas, call a timeout, and catch this movie.

Please be forewarned, however, that it demands a high degree of suspension of disbelief, almost on the order of, say, The Wizard of Oz. Well, not quite. It Happened on 5th Avenue is not a fantasy. It is not about Santa Claus and his reindeers. The story is possible, I mean at least conceivable, in the real world. It is just wildly improbable. But you want it to be true. You are rooting for a magical world where everything good could happen, and does in the end. 

The plot involves a happy-go-lucky hobo-philosopher named Aloyisius McKeever, played by Victor Moore, who takes up residence in a sprawling mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue in November. The place is boarded up because the owner, hard-charging industrialist Michael J. O'Conner, "the second richest man in the world", has gone to his Virginia estate for the winter. He's Charlie Ruggles, who certainly looks the part. Aloyisius has made a habit of taking up residence at the lavish O'Connor townhouse every winter, gaining access through an opening in the side gate and a hop down a manhole in the back yard. Just that simple.  

During one of their peregrinations, Aloyisius and his dog Samy become acquainted with a handsome and homeless World War II veteran who is sleeping on a bench in Central Park, across the street from the O'Conner mansion. His name is Jim Bulluck, played convincingly by Don DeFore. As luck would have it, Jim has just been evicted from one of O'Connor's apartment houses, which is going to be demolished to make way for another O'Conner skyscraper. Jim needs a place to live, so Aloyisius graciously invites him to the O'Connor digs. Aloyisius does an excellent job of pretending he's the actual owner of the place, at least for a while.

Next, O'Connor's beautiful young daughter, played by Gail Storm before she cut her hair short, is thrown into the mix. She shows up unexpectedly at the mansion one night to grab some clothes and her fur coat. She has run away from boarding school, because she's unhappy for some unexplained reason. She calls herself Trudy Smith. She falls for Jim in a big way, and the feeling is mutual. She doesn't let on that she's the heiress to a fortune and the daughter of the second richest man in the world. The threesome are joined presently by two of Jim's army buddies and their wives and young children. These two ex-servicemen are likewise down on their luck, looking for jobs and shelter. Jim and his army sidekicks turn to Aloyisius for sage advice at the dinner table about how to get ahead in the world, now that the war is over. They come up with a business plan. Everything is going swimmingly. 

Then businessman and industrialist Michael J. O'Connor enters the stage, looking for his daughter. Trudy persuades him to keep quiet and under cover and join the household of hobos, while she works on Jim. At some point, Trudy calls her mom (Ann Harding) in Palm Beach, and gets her to fly north for a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria. Trudy talks her mom into joining the group, posing as a cook. Mr. O'Connor, much protesting, but at Trudy's insistence, finds himself working as a dishwasher and factotum for Aloyisius.

Can you believe it? You can. It all seems perfectly reasonable, just a bit outlandish. The O'Conners are divorced but still love each other. Big Business got in the way. You know where this is headed. Watch the movie to see how it all turns out. 

In the interim, here's a clip of Gail Storm singing "That's what Christmas means to me" with Victor Moore playing Aloyisius playing Santa--before the cops burst in. The movie was praised by Orson Welles, Frank Capra and others, and was nominated in 1948 for an Academy Award for Best Original Story. It lost to Miracle on 34th Street. It seems back then that everyone was looking for a miracle. We still are.

--Copyright 2010 Patrick Foy--