Monday, December 24, 2012

It Happened on Fifth Avenue

When people think of holiday films, they are likely to think of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), or A Christmas Story (1943). They might also think of such films as Christmas in Connecticut (1945),  The Bishop's Wife (1947) and Holiday Affair (1949). Unless they happen be a classic movie buff, it is unlikely that they will think of It Happened on Fifth Avenue. This is sad, as it happens to be something of a lost gem from the same era as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a comedy in which a hobo (Aloyisius T. McKeever, played by Victor Moore) makes his home in the mansion of the second richest man in the world (Michael J. O'Connor, played by Charles Ruggles), which is boarded up for the winter, every year starting in November until its wealthy owner returns in March. McKeever finds his usual occupancy of the mansion complicated when he takes in a young, newly homeless veteran (Jim Bullock, played by Don DeFore),  after which he is joined by O'Connor's runaway daughter (Trudy, played by Gale Storm, who pretends to be a thief) and later McKeever's friends (a young Alan Hale Jr. among them).

Interestingly enough, the history of It Happened on Fifth Avenue is tied to another holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life. The film originated with the story "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" by Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani. Frank Capra acquired the rights to the story in 1945 with the intention of directing a movie based upon it. It was then planned that It Happened on Fifth Avenue would be the first film released by Liberty Films, newly formed by  Frank Capra and Samuel J. Briskin. This would never come to pass, as 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 was 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. In the end, it would become the movie It's a Wonderful Life. As to It Happened on Fifth Avenue, Frank Capra sold the film rights to Monogram Pictures.

While It Happened on Fifth Avenue would not be the first film released by Liberty Films, it would become the first film released by Allied Artists. Allied Artists began as a subsidiary of Monogram Pictures, a Poverty Row studio known for z-grade movies. Anxious to get into the major motion picture business, Monogram Pictures established Allied Artists so they could make A-pictures without having to release them under the "Monogram" name. Producer and director Roy Del Ruth was set to direct It Happened on Fifth Avenue, while  stage and movie veterans Victor Moore and Ann Harding were cast in key roles. About a month later Don DeFore and Gale Storm were cast.

Despite being set at Christmas and having a holiday theme, It Happened on Fifth Avenue was released in the United States on 19 April 1947. Regardless, the film received generally good reviews and did well at the box office. The film was nominated for 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. It was released to television in 1954 as part of a package of Monogram Pictures and Allied Artists films. And over the years, it developed a loyal following. It would seem that it would have been destined to be counted among such holiday classics as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.

Unfortunately, things would not go smoothly for It Happened on Fifth Avenue. For whatever reason, It Happened on Fifth Avenue disappeared from television screens after 1990, and it remained unreleased on DVD for many years (the Warner Archive released the film in on DVD in November 2008). The film would not return to television until 2009 when Turner Classic Movies broadcast it in 2009 during the holiday season. Since then TCM has shown it at least once a year during the Yuletide.

I have to say that it is a real shame that It Happened on Fifth Avenue was not broadcast for twenty years, as it is a true holiday classic. In fact, of the holiday films released from what I consider the "Golden Age of Christmas Movies (about 1941 to 1949)," it is perhaps the one that touches upon the concerns of post-war America the most. It Happened on Fifth Avenue deals with soldiers returning from the war, the housing crisis that occurred upon their return, the problem of unemployment many soldiers experienced upon their return, and so on. That is not to say It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a boring sociological treatise. It also happens to be one of the funniest holiday movies ever made.

Much of this is due to Everett Freeman's adaptation of the story (with additional dialogue by Vicki Knight). While It Happened on Fifth Avenue takes a while to get started, once it gets started the laughs come fast and furious. Indeed, there is one conversation that is not only hilarious, but so innuendo laden I have to wonder how it got past the Breen Office. Of course, the script is helped by a fantastic cast, in which the lead roles are both played by two of the greatest character actors of all time--Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles. The two of them both give stand out performances that are among the best of any Christmas movie. While It Happened on Fifth Avenue may not have the big names that some other holiday films do (most notably It's a Wonderful Life  and The Bishop's Wife), it has one of the best casts of any of them. In the end, I have to say that It Happened on Fifth Avenue is one of the best holiday comedies. It might not be quite as funny as Christmas in Connecticut or The Lemon Drop Kid, but it almost so.

Fortunately, while It Happened on Fifth Avenue was not broadcast for twenty years, it appears to be making up for lost time. Those who saw it before it left the air in 1990 are now able to rediscover it, while many who have never seen it are able to find what has long been a lost gem among holiday movies. Since TCM started broadcasting the film in 2009, it has gathered yet more fans. While It Happened on 5th Avenue may not currently be regarded as a holiday classic in the same way that It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street are, it may soon be.

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