It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
There is a definite Frank Capra feel to It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) with its populist themes, eccentric, individualist characters, and focus on the American dream. Indeed, Capra’s company Liberty Pictures purchased the film rights to “The Fifth Avenue Story” in the summer of 1945, and Capra was slated to produce and direct the film, now titled “It Happened on 5th Avenue,” with production beginning in December or January.
The new title would have echoed nicely with Capra’s 1934 classic It Happened One Night, and the story certainly fits Capra’s oeuvre. But in late August, just after plans were announced in the trade papers for It Happened on 5th Avenue, Capra came across a story called “The Greatest Gift” and decided to film it instead of “The Fifth Avenue Story.”
According to Motion Picture Daily, at the end of November 1945, Liberty Pictures sold It Happened on 5th Avenue to Monogram Pictures for $100,000. There, producer/director Roy Del Ruth shelved the project for several months before production finally cranked into gear in August 1946.
Meanwhile, after many revisions and rewrites, Capra renamed “The Greatest Gift” “It’s A Wonderful Life.” That now iconic film premiered in December 1946. And flopped. But that’s another story!
Back to this movie! Monogram was a Poverty Row studio that mostly produced B-pictures. (These were used to fill out double features: an A-movie would play first, followed by a B-film, which were made with smaller budgets and shorter production schedules than A-movies.) But in 1946, legendary producer Walter Mirisch pushed Monogram to start a new unit called Allied Artists Productions to make more expensive movies. The studio chose It Happened on 5th Avenue as the new division’s first project. The film had a $1.2 million budget compared to Monogram’s average of $90,000 and Hollywood’s overall average of $800,000.
For their first A-film, Allied Artists cast one of Monogram’s biggest stars, Gale Storm. Storm was born Josephine Cottle, and had an unusual, too-Hollywood-even-for-Hollywood origin story. Josephine grew up singing and dancing, and she performed in plays at her high school in Houston. In 1940, her teachers suggested she enter a radio contest called “Gateway to Hollywood:” the prize was a one-year movie contract at RKO. Seventeen-year-old Josephine won and the studio christened her with the improbable name “Gale Storm.” Storm worked at RKO for a year in low-budget films and then became a star at Monogram.
She made almost forty movies at Monogram and then transitioned to television with My Little Margie in the early 1950s and then The Gale Storm Show, which ran from 1956-1960. She also enjoyed a successful recording and stage career, and she performs four songs in this movie.
Fun fact: the male winner of the “Gateway to Hollywood” contest was a young man from Indiana named Lee Bonnell. His name was changed to Terry Belmont at RKO, but he also performed under his original moniker. He and Gale Storm were married in 1941, had four children, and remained together until his death in 1986.
Storm’s co-star in It Happened on 5th Avenue is Don DeFore, whom you may recognize as the suspicious husband in Romance on the High Seas (1948). DeFore had appeared in smallish roles since the late 1930s, and he would act in films until the 1950s. But he became most famous as “Thorny” on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet on TV in the 1950s.
Storm and DeFore are just one couple in a tapestry of characters and plots. This movie is a definite ensemble picture and features some excellent character actors including Victor Moore, Charles Ruggles, Edward Brophy, Grant Mitchell, and Ann Harding.
Roy Del Ruth produced and directed this film, and Harry Revel and Paul Webster contributed four songs, including “That’s What Christmas Means to Me.” (Not to be confused with the Eddie Fisher or Stevie Wonder songs with the same name.) Revel’s version became a minor Christmas standard, though it’s not well known today.
To the film! We open on–you guessed it–5th Avenue on a double decker bus tour of the famous street and its gilded mansions. But we soon leave the bus and focus instead on a shabbily dressed man with a shabbily furred dog sneaking towards the back fence of the O’Connor mansion, home of Michael O’Connor, an “industrial wizard” and the 2nd richest man in the world.
The man pops open a plank in the fence, dislodges a manhole cover in the garden, and soon he and the dog have disappeared underground…
…only to resurface inside the magnificent mansion. First, he wires all the lights to turn off when the front door opens (clever!), and then he and the dog make themselves at home.
It’s a delightful sequence.
We learn that the man is Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore), and this is his third winter inside the O’Connor mansion. Michael O’Connor spends the winter at his Virginia estate, his ex-wife Mary lives in Palm Beach, and their daughter Trudy is at school. So McKeever has the huge, boarded-up house all to himself from November until March! He hides in the icebox (walk-in refrigerator) at 10pm to avoid the nightly police patrols, but otherwise it’s a wonderful way to spend the winter. In McKeever’s mind, he’s doing the O’Connors a favor by keeping their house in order and airing out Mr. O’Connor’s clothes (by wearing them.)
Meanwhile, on a less desirable street, O’Connor’s company is about to tear down an apartment building and build a skyscraper of offices. One tenant refuses to vacate, though: it’s Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), a recently discharged veteran who struggled to find this apartment and rages at being pushed out.
His anger might seem overblown today, but there was a huge housing shortage at the time. It began during WWII when about 15 million Americans moved out of their homes during the war, mostly to work in war-related industries. All of these people needed places to live, but the infrastructure often didn’t exist.
As I wrote in History Through Hollywood: 2nd Edition, this was particularly acute in Washington, D. C., but housing was a problem in many other places, too. For example, 1.4 million people moved to California to work in the state’s many aircraft and munitions plants, shipyards, and military installations. Few cities were prepared to handle this onslaught, and many of these “boom town” ran out of beds.
The problem wasn’t magically solved when the war ended. In fact, America faced its worst housing shortage ever thanks to stalled development during the Depression and the war, plus the massive influx of returning soldiers who needed homes, the rising birth rate, and the needs of families who had relocated for war work.
Also, thanks to the GI bill, many people were in a position to buy a house for the first time, but there weren’t any available. Developers and the government started building temporary housing, suburbs, and prefabricated housing, but for a few years it was very difficult to find a home. (You can read a great article, which includes “house wanted ads” from the 1940s, by a vet who found himself in the center of LA’s housing crunch in 1946 here.)
Hollywood made at least twenty movies during the war and a few after that dealt with the shortage, including one of my favorites, The More the Merrier (1943). So although the housing shortages of the 1940s aren’t very well known today, you can bet that contemporary audiences knew exactly what the films were talking about. So O’Connor’s plan to tear down an apartment building and replace it with offices in the middle of the housing crisis would have signaled his selfish villainy at once.
Speaking of the devil: Michael O’Connor (Charles Ruggles, whom you may recognize from Bringing Up Baby (1938)) is furious about Jim’s protest. He complains about it to his right-hand-man Farrow (Grant Mitchell), but the damage is done.
O’Connor doesn’t let Jim distract him from the matter at hand, though: his company wants to turn Camp Kilson, a now disused 300-acre Army camp outside of New York City, into a shipping hub for airplanes, ships, and trains. His Board agrees to the project and the company starts negotiating with the U.S. Government to buy Camp Kilson.
Meanwhile, poor Jim is sleeping on a park bench. McKeever (all dolled up in O’Connor’s clothes) invites him to stay at the house for the night. He doesn’t tell Jim that they’re squatting, so honest Jim has no idea they’re trespassing. You can watch it here.
That evening, the lights suddenly go out in the mansion because Trudy O’Connor (Gale Storm) comes in through the front door. She has run away from school and stops at home to grab some clothes. Jim and McKeever think she is a thief, but before Jim can call the police, McKeever takes him aside and tells him the truth about the mansion. You can watch the scene here.
Jim is horrified at first, but acclimates to their illegal activity quite quickly. Trudy overhears McKeever’s confession, but instead of calling the police herself on the squatters, she thinks it’s kind of cute and decides to play along. She tells them she is Trudy Smith and she’s homeless, like them. So they invite her to stay in the house, too.
The next day, Trudy gets a job as a pianist and singer at a sheet music and instrument store. (Back then, you would go into a shop and ask someone to play you a song before you bought it!) This allows Gale Storm to get in some tunes.
Jim walks her home from the store and runs into the wife of an old Army pal. She and her young son, as well as another veteran’s wife and baby, are living in their car as they try to find an apartment. The housing shortage is really brought home by this visual of two families crammed in the station wagon.
The husbands fail to secure the apartment because the landlord finds out they have children. It’s back to the car for them. Now we are even madder about O’Connor’s decision to rip down an apartment building, and his huge, empty mansion on 5th Avenue suddenly seems less amusing and more ridiculous. It’s a powerful juxtaposition throughout the film.
As you can see, this film doesn’t shy away from social commentary. There are many references to the lack of jobs for veterans and obviously the lack of housing. The rich have gotten richer (O’Connor has three giant houses and these two families can’t find one apartment to share), and the wonderful world of high-paying jobs and homes the soldiers were promised fails to materialize. Something has clearly gone wrong when even good, decent, hard-working veterans and their families can’t find housing! That element gives this movie a Capra-esque, socially conscious feel that evokes films such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), My Man Godfrey (1936), Easy Living (1937), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941).
Anyway, Jim invites his pals Whitey (Alan Hale, Jr.) and Hank (Edward Ryan) and their families to stay in the O’Connor mansion until they find places of their own. So now 11 people are squatting in the O’Connor house. How in the world they’d hide that many people, including a kid and a baby, along with all of their stuff during the nightly patrol is never shown nor discussed…
Instead of worrying about that, Trudy focuses on making Jim fall in love with her. She’s known him for almost 24 hours by this point, and she’s already decided he’s the one for her. (See History Through Hollywood: Love for more on the classic trope of rapid romances.) So she puts on an evening dress and begins the seduction. No one questions why Miss O’Connor’s clothes fit Miss Smith so perfectly.
It’s quite the gown. Lorraine MacLean was the fashion supervisor on the film.
When Jim isn’t romancing Trudy, he comes up with a plan to ease the housing shortage: why not turn empty Army barracks into housing for families? Many military bases sit empty now that the war is over, and the buildings already have power, water, and other basics in place. Turning barracks into “apartments” would help his friends and the thousands of other vets in their position, plus, they could hire out-of-work veterans to do the construction!
McKeever, who has a keen business mind despite his utter disinterest in working, helps Jim, Whitey, and Hank develop the plan, and soon they have enlisted a group of 200 other GIs as investors and a labor force. They decide to start with Camp Kilson since it is just outside of the city. But they have to hurry–the government is selling the land in 10 days! Conflict!
Meanwhile, Michael hires detectives to find his missing daughter. They quickly track her to the music shop, and he shows up to take her back to school. She tells him that she has been very unhappy and lonely since he and her mother divorced, but she is finally happy now. And it’s all because of Jim.
She also tells him that a bunch of people are squatting in their house, but begs him not to do anything yet. She wants her dad to pretend to be homeless so that he can come squat in [his] house and meet Jim without betraying Trudy’s identity. She wants Jim to love her for herself, not her vast inheritance.
So he exchanges his fancy clothes for lumpy secondhand garb and shows up at his house as “Mike,” just another drifter. He barely keeps his cool when he sees that his imposing entrance hall has become the laundry, though.
We get a great scene packed with double entendres when he mistakenly assumes that the baby in the house is Trudy and Jim’s. He’s about to shoot Jim before the real parents arrive and clear everything up! I love how they positioned the tiny cardigan on the laundry line so perfectly against Ruggles.
As Trudy frets about her love life, Jim moves ahead on the barracks project. He tells Mike about it, but neglects to mention which camp they’re hoping to buy. This is good, because as you may remember, O’Connor’s company has made an offer to buy Camp Kilson for its super-port.
After several embarrassing situations that are far below the dignity of the 2nd richest man in the world (he hides in the ice box to call his office, and Jim and McKeever think he’s crazy when they find him, and McKeever accuses him of stealing a key when he catches Mike entering through the front door!), he tells Trudy he is going to evict everyone. We rather hoped that seeing the plight of his house guests would soften him, or at least make him slightly sympathetic to their situation, but so far he shows no mercy.
Then he arranges for one of his construction companies to dismiss Jim’s barracks idea but offer him a job somewhere far away. He specifies that the offer must be contingent on Jim remaining single. So now he is actively trying to keep Jim from Trudy.
Trudy doesn’t know about the construction company, but she telegrams her mother in Palm Beach and asks her to come to New York. Glamorous Mary O’Connor (Ann Harding) arrives immediately and listens to Trudy’s now rather complicated tale. She volunteers to come to the house in disguise and see if she change Michael’s mind. Fun fact: Harding had been in movies since 1929, and she became a huge star at RKO in the 1930s. She was famous for her dramatic roles and her long blonde hair. But she “retired” in 1937 and only acted occasionally after that, including a role as Jane Powell‘s mother in Two Weeks With Love (1950).
“Mike” is shocked to see Mary, but their unexpected reunion doesn’t go very well. He tells her that she has gained weight, and she retorts: “You’re no Van Johnson yourself! I can remember when you only had one chin!” Zing!
At dinner that evening, things get uncomfortable for the O’Connors when McKeever expounds on the idea that money doesn’t buy happiness. He is sure that the O’Connors were miserable when they were in the house even though they had “everything,” but he doesn’t feel sorry for them because they’re probably bad people anyway. Everyone laughs…except for Mike and Mary.
Michael and Mary start to reconcile as they spend time together as “poor people.” They enjoy the masquerade: they probably haven’t done laundry or vacuumed in decades, so it’s kind of fun! They originally fell in love when Michael had nothing, and they drifted apart when he began to care more about his wealth than his family. So being “poor” takes them back to the “good old days.”
McKeever notices their chemistry and suggests they get married, not realizing that they’re already divorced! Oddly enough, they take his advice and get engaged.
This movie just keeps going! So many layers. So far we have the romance plot between Trudy and Jim, the romance between Mary and Mike, the housing situation facing Whitey, Hank, and Jim, the barracks project vs. the O’Connor port project, and the overarching plot of McKeever’s trespassing. Oh, and Christmas!
They’re decorating the Christmas tree with tinsel (what else?!) when Mike finds out that Jim’s GI-group is bidding against him on Camp Kilson. And he learns that Jim turned down the construction company’s job in Bolivia. He wants to stay in the US and work on his housing project.
I take Jim’s position on the ladder above Mike as symbolism of Jim’s higher moral ground.
You can watch the scene here:
So. Much. Tinsel.
Anyway, we sneak away with Jim and Trudy for the same money/gold digger conversation that happens in so many classic movies. The rich one always worries that her beloved only loves her because of her money, and the poor one always insists that his affection is true and he doesn’t care about wealth at all.
At least at the end–they might start out more mercenary, though Jim never does. “Good” characters always choose love in the end. (See The Richest Girl in the World, Midnight, Moon Over Miami, Hands Across the Table, Holiday, The Palm Beach Story, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and many others.)
Trudy and Jim’s version goes like this: “What if my name wasn’t Trudy Smith?” Jim responds with “I don’t know and I don’t care what your name is. But whatever it is, the minute I land a job, I’ll give you a chance to change it.” Cute! And stupid. You should know who you’re marrying, dummy.
The overt addition of this gold digger trope adds a 1930s screwball/romantic comedy element (Think of Midnight, Hands Across the Table, and Holiday) to the Capra-esque film. So add that thread to the tapestry of plot lines we’ve already got!
The gang celebrates Christmas Eve in grand style, though McKeever’s eyebrows turn his Santa from sweet into scary.
Everyone is having such a grand time that they forget about the nightly patrol!
Fortunately, McKeever works his charm on the two policemen (Edward Brophy and Arthur Hohl) and they agree to let the group stay in the house until New Years Day.
The happiness in the house is soon punctured by the news that O’Connor’s company won the Camp Kilson bidding war. Mary calls off the (re-)marriage because she realizes that Michael hasn’t changed if he was willing to crush Jim’s noble project so his company could make more money.
Sidenote: at this point we’re tired. This movie keeps going. Just when we think it’s ready to wrap everything up, it adds new twists and plot lines! The film runs an hour and 55 minutes, which is a little longer than the average at the time. But I think the pace and the number of characters and plots makes it seem a lot longer than it is. It’s still enjoyable–just long.
So now Michael and Mary are estranged yet again, and soon Jim and Trudy join them in breakup land. Now that his Camp Kilson project has fallen through, Jim decides to take the job in Bolivia. He will only be gone a year or so, but she’s mad that he’s giving up on the housing plan. He defends his decision because a guy like him can’t even get his foot in the door, so how can he ever compete with a wealthy, powerful company like O’Connor’s? (Yet another element of social commentary–is the American dream dead?)
Then Trudy and Mary find out that Michael arranged the Bolivia job to get Jim out of the way. They’re furious, and he knows he’s done badly. So he tells them he’ll fix the situation, and he actually does! He sets up a meeting with Jim and his buddies and tells them they can use Camp Kilson for their housing plan. At first they think he’s crazy and lock him in the closet so he won’t get caught “impersonating” Mr. O’Connor, but they eventually realize Mike is really Michael.
Fun fact: Jim’s idea to use empty Army barracks as civilian housing was not farfetched. In fact, it actually happened in 1946-1947 in Hamilton, Ohio, and probably other locations across the country! You can read more about it here.
Jim still doesn’t know that Trudy is Michael’s daughter, so when he proposes, Trudy knows it’s because he loves her. (Hopefully he’ll hang around when he finds out she’s been lying to him since the moment they met. It sometimes seems that every love affair in old movies begins with fibs about identities, though, so they’ll probably be fine. Her enormous fortune might help.)
Meanwhile, Mary and Michael get engaged again, too, and the families who crashed in the house leave for new housing at Camp Kilson.
New Year’s Day finds the core group saying goodbye to McKeever. It’s a surprisingly tender scene. Everyone has grown terribly fond of this eccentric, charming bum. When the other characters invite him to stay with them, he says he doesn’t need a place to live because he is off to his spring/summer residence, the O’Connor estate in Virginia! He still doesn’t know that Mike, Mary, and Trudy are the O’Connors–it’s this humor that keeps the character and the movie from becoming too saccharine or preachy.
So off they go, but Michael and Mary linger to watch McKeever and his dog walk away. Michael says, “Remind me to nail up the board in the back fence.” We gasp–surely he’s not still a terrible, selfish tycoon–but he follows the statement with:
And we sob, instead. The end!
This movie was in production in early August through the middle of October 1946, and premiered in April 1947. Oddly, for a movie with so much Christmas, it had an Easter premiere!
As I mentioned, this was the first movie released under the Allied Artists division at Monogram Pictures. It was a good start for Allied Artists, though the film was overshadowed by another classic Christmas film (with another street in the title, no less!) that premiered in June, Miracle on 34th Street. They competed at the Oscars, too: both were nominated for Original Story, but It Happened on 5th Avenue‘s Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani lost to Miracle on 34th Street’s Valentine Davies.
Anyway, Allied Artists heavily promoted their movie and even sent some of the actors on a cross-country bus tour in double decker New York City buses. The premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood on May 16, 1947 featured the stars arriving in those buses, too.
Overall, box office was good, and most critics were kind. Film Daily decreed that It Happened on 5th Avenue was a “Delightfully amusing picture finely played and directed. Should register solidly at B.O. [box office]: Victor Moore’s work is brilliant.”
The Los Angeles Times reviewer Edwin Schallert agreed, writing in his review on May 17, 1947 that the movie “expresses a great deal of charm…and delightfully furthers the cause of humor.” He noted that “Good will toward men is the theme most strongly expounded although the film goes overboard with its ‘soak the rich’ motif.”
Schallert praised the actors, calling Gale Storm “all radiance and springtime,” and he lavished Victor Moore with particular compliments, writing that the movie “is keyed by Moore, whose tempo is never animated, but who attains a fascinatingly droll warmth in his interpretation.”
Variety called it “overlong” (thank you!) with some “rough edges, but otherwise [it] should be a solid pleaser for general audiences.” The review noted the various topical themes, and claimed that the “preachments occasionally slow things down and make for over length of footage, but it is all so well-resolved under Del Ruth’s direction that general entertainment is sustained.” Like the other reviews, this one called out Moore’s performance as “a gem that thoroughly clicks in every facet.”
As usual, Bosley Crowther at The New York Times was cranky. He complained of the tired social themes, the “ancient monkeyshine” in the film, but praised its execution:
It is not surprising to find it, but it is surprising to discover it done with as much geniality and humor as is evident in this modest comedy. For Roy Del Ruth and the others who helped him in making this film apparently went about it as though they were on a new tack. They took that dog-earred story of the hard-hearted millionaire given a lesson in human relations by a kindly disposed vagabond and they dressed it up in such trimmings as to make it look almost fresh. And they found themselves fortunately supported by a charming performance from Victor Moore.
He compliments Ruggles, too, writing that he is “equally competent in his contribution to the topsy-turvy farce. Happy to say, the batch of authors have played off the two men [Moore and Ruggles] artfully and have got some amusing social comment in the temporary reversal of their roles. Crowther concludes by praising Moore: “Indeed, there is nothing about this picture more deserving of gratitude than Mr. Moore, Without him—or a reasonable facsimile—it would be just another hopeful try.”
Shortly after this film premiered, Moore, Ruggles, Storm, and DeFore reprised their roles for a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on May 19, 1947.
Fun fact: just six years after this film was released, Monogram changed its name to Allied Artists Pictures Corporation. The studio remained active until 1979 when its library was sold off. After various mergers and subsequent sales over the decades, MGM now owns most of Monogram/Allied Artists’ 1936-1946 movies, and Warner Bros. ended up with the biggest chunk of the post-1947 collection, including It Happened on 5th Avenue.
Unlike some of the other classic Christmas movies, this one disappeared for a while. It fell into relative obscurity thanks to its absence from television for about twenty years, but it finally resurfaced on TV and DVD about ten years ago. But the story was popular in India: this movie has been made there twice, first as Pugree (1948) and then Dil Daulat Duniya (1972).