Monday, December 18, 2017

70 Years of It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

1947 was a bit of a banner year for Christmas movies. In fact, two films often counted among the greatest holiday films ever made, Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop's Wife, were released that year, while another, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), was still in theatres as the year began. Among the most notable Yuletide movies released in 1947 was It Happened on Fifth Avenue. The film has long had a cult following and, if it does not have the reputation that Miracle on 34th Street or The Bishop's Wife do, it may soon be counted among the very best of the Christmas classics.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue centres on Aloyisius T. McKeever (played by Victor Moore), a hobo who makes his home in the mansion of the second richest man in the world while the millionaire is wintering in Virginia. There he remains until its wealthy owner returns in March. In the film McKeever's usual occupancy of the mansion is complicated by the arrival of a young, newly homeless veteran (Jim Bullock, played by Don DeFore) and eventually others as well.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue was based on the story "The Fifth Avenue Story" by Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani. The story was bought by Frank Capra in the summer of 1945 with the intention of it being the first film released by Liberty Films, newly formed by Frank Capra and Samuel J. Briskin. As things turned out, another Christmas classic would become the first and only one of two films released by Liberty Films, It's a Wonderful Life (the other movie released by Liberty Films was Frank Capra's 1948 movie State of the Union). RKO head Charles Koerner suggested to Frank Capra that he read "The Greatest Gift," a story by Philip Van Doren Stern optioned by RKO that the studio had been unsuccessful in developing into a script. After reading the story, Frank Capra bought it from RKO with the intent of developing it as the first film to be released by Liberty Films. As to "The Fifth Avenue Story", Frank Capra sold its rights to Monogram Pictures.

In the Forties Monogram Pictures was best known for producing low budget, z-grade feature films and serials, but they wanted to expand into A-pictures. To this end they created a new unit, Allied Artists, to make movies with bigger budgets. It Happened on Fifth Avenue then became the first film released by Allied Artists. It Happened on Fifth Avenue cost around $1,200,000 to make, a good deal more than the average film produced by Monogram.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who had directed such films as the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, Topper Returns (1941), and DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). Although an accomplished director, he was not necessarily the easiest man to work with. In her autobiography, I Ain't Down Yet: The Autobiography of My Little Margie, Gale Storm told how Roy Del Ruth would make Victor Moore do retake after retake, without ever telling the elderly actor what Mr. Del Ruth thought he had done wrong. He also would not allow Gale Storm to sing her own songs, despite the fact that she was a trained singer and had already starred in several musicals. She asked him to watch some of her musicals and he refused. She asked him to listen to her sing and he refused. Roy Del Ruth apparently believed that actors should act, dancers should dance, and singer should sing, and there should never be any overlap among them. Ultimately, Gale Storm's voice was dubbed by someone else, a fact obvious to anyone who has seen her musicals.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue  was shot from August 5 to around mid-October 1946. This would have given the film enough time for a release during the holidays, but for whatever reason it was released in the United States on April 19 1947. The film received generally positive reviews. Surprisingly enough given that it was not released during the holidays (or in the winter at all), it did relatively well at the box office. It Happened on Fifth Avenue was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Story (it lost to another holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street). A song from the film, "That's What Christmas Means to Me," would even be a minor hit for Eddie Fisher in 1952.

In 1954 It Happened on Fifth Avenue was released to television as part of a package of Allied Artists and Monogram films. It proved popular on television, with TV stations often showing it during the Christmas season from the Fifties to the Eighties. Over the years It Happened on Fifth Avenue even developed a cult following. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, It Happened on Fifth Avenue disappeared from television screens around 1990, and it would remain unseen for nearly twenty years. It was in 2008 that Warner Home Video released It Happened on Fifth Avenue on DVD. In 2009 Turner Classic Movies began airing the film each holiday season, often multiple times.

While It Happened on Fifth Avenue disappeared for nearly two decades, through repeated airings on TCM, as well as other cables channels, it is once more taking its place among the upper echelon of classic holiday films. It is even available on multiple streaming services. With new viewers rediscovering the film each year, it seems likely that one day it might well be as popular as those other classic holiday films released in 1947, Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop's Wife.

No comments: