By Craig Leask
It Happened on 5th Avenue is one of those little gems that reappeared after having slipped into obscurity for several decades due to a series of unfortunate events, finally falling out of copyright in 1976. On Nov 11, 2008, Warner Home Video released the film on DVD, and in 2009 Turner Classic Movies aired the film for the first time on its network, which was when I was first introduced to this treasure.
Directed by Roy Del Ruth, who earned his chops directing silent films, the film was made by Monogram Pictures (which operated between 1931 and 1953) under a newly created division – Allied Artists, which had been conceived to break from Monogram’s “poverty row” reputation of producing low budget films. In 1947 It Happened on Fifth Avenue, the new division’s first release, was developed with a budget in excess of $1,200,000 (whereas the average Hollywood picture cost $800,000 to produce at the time), with a great deal of the budget spent on very elaborate and well detailed sets. This new venture paid off handsomely with a $1.8 million return at the box office.
The movie is the story of a wealthy miser, Michael J. O’Connor (Charlie Ruggles), who, by happenstance, finds himself surrounded by a group of less fortunate individuals in his own 5th Avenue mansion. From this group he learns the values that are truly important in life – that being that people are much more important than possessions. Sound familiar?
This version of the tale, however, has a sweet angle. In this case a lovable, eccentric hobo by the name of Aloysius T. McKeever (played brilliantly by Victor Moore) makes his home in mansions which have been boarded up while their owners are residing in one of their other homes. This particular winter he has invited himself into the seasonally closed Manhattan mansion of Michael J. O’Connor (the “second richest man in the world”) while O’Connor is wintering at his home in Virginia. While walking his dog through Central Park, McKeever stumbles on a recently displaced G.I. Vet Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) and invites him to share “his” home. Jim soon comes across several of his homeless war buddies and their families, inviting them to join the pair in the large mansion. This group of interlopers is eventually completed by the mansion’s real owner, the befuddled multi-millionaire Michael J. O’Connor, his estranged wife Mary (Ann Harding) and their 18-year-old, runaway daughter Trudy (Gale Storm) who, due to a charming plot development, are posing as homeless vagabonds. By the end of the film all residents of the mansion know the true identity of the O’Connor’s, save for McKeever, ensuring the movie maintains its sweet innocence.
Although the plot is far from original, what director Roy Del Ruth has created is a simple film using the very real shortage of housing and employment faced by ex-G.I.’s as the basis of the story. In the late 1940’s, when It Happened on Fifth Avenue was released, there were many multi-millionaires who were still living in gilded aged splendor with numerous large homes scattered throughout New York City, Newport, Connecticut and Palm Beach, while many G.I.’s and new families faced a great housing shortage following the war.
Del Ruth treats this very real problem, and the eventual enlightenment of O’Connor, with a sensitivity and light humored approach, while renewing and showcasing the generosity of the human spirit and the strength of mutual support. Victor Moore is the heart of this great film, unwittingly helping and guiding each of his “guests” with a wisdom developed through his own life experiences, instilling confidence and compassion throughout the household. While the film does not shy away from social commentary, I am certain that the times following the war were never as sweet as this movie portrays. The film beautifully and lightheartedly suggests that a more humane ethic existed at this time than we generally see around us today.
It Happened on 5th Avenue was nominated for the Best Writing – Original Story Oscar but lost to another Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street. The late 1940’s was a good time for movie making. This was the period immediately following the end of WWII when, for the first time in decades, there was cautious optimism in the air and this new attitude was reflected beautifully in the movies.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.