Christmas Surprise: IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (Allied Artists 1947)

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I’d never heard of IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE until it’s recent broadcast on TCM. This unsung little holiday gem was a TV staple for decades before being pulled from viewing in 1990, only resurfacing in 2009 when a small but dedicated band of classic film fans put the pressure on to see it aired once again. And I’m glad they did, for this charming, unpretensious comedy boasts a marvelous cast, an Oscar-nominated screenplay, and a Frank Capra-esque feel without a lot of the Capra-corn.

Capra himself was scheduled to direct it back in 1945, but instead he chose to make another Christmas film you may have heard of, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Veteran Roy Del Ruth obtained the rights, and IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE became the first release of Allied Artists, the larger budgeted, more prestigious arm of Monogram Pictures (and you know how much I love Monogram movies!). The film was cast, shooting began, and the movie was released- in Easter season! I’m not quite sure why a movie based around the Christmas season was released on Easter, but it didn’t matter, as moviegoers packed their local theaters, and Allied Artists had a huge hit on their hands.

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The story: When “industrial wizard” Michael J. O’Connor, “the second richest man in the world”, goes south to Virginia during the winter months, hobo Aloysius McKeever and his dog Sammy appropriate the property. McKeever meets Jim Bullock, a homeless vet evicted from his room because O’Connor bought his building to put up another skyscraper. McKeever invites Jim to stay with him until he gets settled somewhere.

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O’Connor’s headstrong 18 year old daughter Trudy, still depressed over her parent’s divorce, runs away from boarding school and heads to the family mansion. She’s caught by McKeever and Jim, who think she’s a thief trying to steal a mink coat. When she overhears the two talking about the reason they’re in her home, she plays along, calling herself ‘Trudy Smith’ from Dubuque, Iowa, one of fourteen children with an alcoholic father who beats them all regularly.

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Trudy falls for Jim, and while they stroll down the street they run into a couple of Jim’s old Army buddies, Whitey and Hank, and their families, currently all living in their car due to the housing crisis. Soon all nine people are squatting in the O’Connor homestead, and Jim comes up with a plan to turn a former Army camp into housing for homeless veterans. O’Connor tracks down Trudy, but she persuades pop into playing along so Jim won’t think she’s a spoiled little rich girl. He does for a time, but soon gets fed up with the situation and threatens to call the police, forcing Trudy to call mom Mary in Palm Beach, who arrives and gets in on the charade by posing as an Irish cook!

Got all that so far? Good, but there’s a catch: unbeknownst to each, O’Connor is bidding on that same Army property as Jim, causing more complications. But you just know everything’s going to work out in the end; after all, it’s a Christmas movie, and that’s what Christmas movies do! Producer/director Del Ruth wraps things up neatly with a bow on top, and screenwriter Everett Freeman sends us all home happy in the end (his script lost the Oscar to another Yuletime classic that year, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET!).

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Victor Moore gets top billing as McKeever, a gentle soul of a hobo who’s wiser than his outward appearance lets on. Moore was a star of Broadway and early silent flicks who became a reliable character actor (GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937, SWING TIME). He’s definitely an acquired taste, but is more than acceptable here. The young lovers are well played by Don DeFore and Gale Storm . I’ve told you about my long-time crush on Miss Storm here through viewing reruns of her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE. Gale had a lovely singing voice to boot, but for some reason Del Ruth chose to have her dubbed! Doesn’t matter, Monogram’s home-grown starlet shines anyway as Trudy.

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It’s Charles Ruggles who really made the film for me as the millionaire O’Connor. Ruggles’ facial expressions, vocal inflections, and willingness to take a pratfall or two are a joy to behold, and the veteran comic character star walks away with the movie’s acting honors. Pre-Code darling Ann Harding (HOLIDAY, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE LIFE OF VERGIE WINTERS), always a welcome presence, has terrific chemistry with Ruggles as his former spouse. Young Alan Hale Jr (Gilligan’s Skipper!) plays Jim’s pal Whitey, and Dorothea Kent (a lovely lass) is his wife. Other Familiar Faces joining in on the fun are Leon Belasco, Edward Brophy, Chester Clute, Dudley Dickerson, James Flavin, John Hamilton, Charles Lane, George Lloyd, and Grant Mitchell.

IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE will be on my Christmas watch list from now on, a delightful screwball tale the whole family can enjoy. Tired of the same old holiday movies? Give this one a try; you can thank me later!

 

Spooky Screwballs: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Universal, 1940)

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THE INVISIBLE WOMAN usually gets lumped in with Universal Picture’s monster movies, but has more in common with BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY. In fact, it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies. There are no scares in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, but there sure are a lot of laughs!

When rich playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) discovers his wild lifestyle has left him flat broke, he has to quit funding eccentric Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore).  The crackpot inventor takes an ad in the paper looking for a “human being willing to become invisible…no remuneration”. His ad is answered by Kitty Carroll (Bruce), a model always at odds with cruel boss Growley (perennial sourpuss Charles Lane). Kitty answers the “call to adventure”, and is given an injection, then placed in the professor’s invisibility machine (“It tickles!”)

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The experiment’s a success, and invisible Kitty seeks revenge on Growley for herself and all working girls in a hilarious scene. Meanwhile, mob boss Blackie Cole (Oscar Homolka), hiding out in Mexico, has got wind of the new invention. He sends three goons (Donald MacBride, Edward Brophy, Shemp Howard) to con the addle-brained inventor, but Kitty arrives in time to thwart them.

Russell and faithful butler George (Charles Ruggles, who has the best lines and takes most of the pratfalls) retreat to his hunting lodge. Gibbs and his invisible protégé’ soon follow, with Gibbs telling Russell his money worries are now over. Invisible Kitty imbibes too much brandy, and the alcohol has a strange reaction, causing her to remain invisible. Returning to Gibbs’ lab, they discover housekeeper Mrs. Jackson (Margaret Hamilton) locked in a closet and the machine gone! The gangsters have stolen it, but they forgot to take the formula. The inventor says “without the injection, that machine is apt to do strange things to people”.

The gangsters soon find out when boss Blackie makes deep-voiced henchman Foghorn enter the machine first, and he changes to a soprano! The other two thugs are sent back to retrieve Professor Gibbs, who’s given Kitty a reagent to turn her visible again. She’s warned to steer clear of booze (“When you dissipate, you disappear”). The goons grab Gibbs and Kitty after overpowering Russell and his befuddled butler, taking them to the Mexican hideout. Foghorn, angry at his falsetto fate, goes to Russell and rats his comrades out.

In the lab of Blackie’s Mexican scientist (Luis Alberni), Kitty spies a bottle of grain alcohol on a table and swigs it down, turning invisible again. She takes down the hoods single handedly, right before Russell and company arrive. Determined to make the playboy feel like a hero, she shoots at them and jumps in a pool, where Russell and Kitty finally embrace. They get married and have a baby in the film’s funny coda.

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Virginia Bruce is bubbly and beautiful as Kitty Carroll, giving a wonderful comic performance. Universal’s special effects wizard John P. Fulton does his usual splendid job, though Kitty’s shadow can be seen in the showdown with her and Growley. The comic cast is given lively direction by A. Edward Sutherland, who started in the silent era with Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops, later putting comedy legends like W.C. Fields, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Abbott & Costello through their paces. Screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo were partners in hilarity for years, writing CRAZY HOUSE for Olsen & Johnson and many scripts for Abbott & Costello, including their best, A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Sadly, both writers ended up on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s during the Communist witch hunts. Rinaldo’s last credit was 1952’s JUMPING JACKS starring Martin and Lewis. He died in 1992. Even more sadly, the 91 year old Lees was decapitated in his home by a drug crazed robber in 2004.

But let’s not end this on a down note. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a fast-moving, fun film with terrific acting from a great ensemble cast. Virginia Bruce never looked lovelier (when she’s visible, that is) in one of her best remembered roles. Don’t come looking for scares and shudders, but be prepared to laugh along with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN.

The 2015 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon presents: Virginia Bruce in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Universal, 1940)

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Once again, I’m taking part in the 2015 Summer Under The Stars Blogathon hosted by the lovely and talented Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film. Today’s star is Virginia Bruce, starring in one of my favorite 40s flicks. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN usually gets lumped in with Universal Picture’s monster movies, but has more in common with BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY. In fact, it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies. There are no scares in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, but there sure are a lot of laughs!

When rich playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) discovers his wild lifestyle has left him flat broke, he has to quit funding eccentric Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore).  The crackpot inventor takes an ad in the paper looking for a “human being willing to become invisible…no remuneration”. His ad is answered by Kitty Carroll (Bruce), a model always at odds with cruel boss Growley (perennial sourpuss Charles Lane). Kitty answers the “call to adventure”, and is given an injection, then placed in the professor’s invisibility machine (“It tickles!”)

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The experiment’s a success, and invisible Kitty seeks revenge on Growley for herself and all working girls in a hilarious scene. Meanwhile, mob boss Blackie Cole (Oscar Homolka), hiding out in Mexico, has got wind of the new invention. He sends three goons (Donald MacBride, Edward Brophy, Shemp Howard) to con the addle-brained inventor, but Kitty arrives in time to thwart them.

Russell and faithful butler George (Charles Ruggles, who has the best lines and takes most of the pratfalls) retreat to his hunting lodge. Gibbs and his invisible protégé’ soon follow, with Gibbs telling Russell his money worries are now over. Invisible Kitty imbibes too much brandy, and the alcohol has a strange reaction, causing her to remain invisible. Returning to Gibbs’ lab, they discover housekeeper Mrs. Jackson (Margaret Hamilton) locked in a closet and the machine gone! The gangsters have stolen it, but they forgot to take the formula. The inventor says “without the injection, that machine is apt to do strange things to people”.

The gangsters soon find out when boss Blackie makes deep-voiced henchman Foghorn enter the machine first, and he changes to a soprano! The other two thugs are sent back to retrieve Professor Gibbs, who’s given Kitty a reagent to turn her visible again. She’s warned to steer clear of booze (“When you dissipate, you disappear”). The goons grab Gibbs and Kitty after overpowering Russell and his befuddled butler, taking them to the Mexican hideout. Foghorn, angry at his falsetto fate, goes to Russell and rats his comrades out.

In the lab of Blackie’s Mexican scientist (Luis Alberni), Kitty spies a bottle of grain alcohol on a table and swigs it down, turning invisible again. She takes down the hoods single handedly, right before Russell and company arrive. Determined to make the playboy feel like a hero, she shoots at them and jumps in a pool, where Russell and Kitty finally embrace. They get married and have a baby in the film’s funny coda.

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Virginia Bruce is bubbly and beautiful as Kitty Carroll, giving a wonderful comic performance. Universal’s special effects wizard John P. Fulton does his usual splendid job, though Kitty’s shadow can be seen in the showdown with her and Growley. The comic cast is given lively direction by A. Edward Sutherland, who started in the silent era with Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops, later putting comedy legends like W.C. Fields, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Abbott & Costello through their paces. Screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo were partners in hilarity for years, writing CRAZY HOUSE for Olsen & Johnson and many scripts for Abbott & Costello, including their best, A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Sadly, both writers ended up on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s during the Communist witch hunts. Rinaldo’s last credit was 1952’s JUMPING JACKS starring Martin and Lewis. He died in 1992. Even more sadly, the 91 year old Lees was decapitated in his home by a drug crazed robber in 2004.

But let’s not end this on a down note. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a fast-moving, fun film with terrific acting from a great ensemble cast. Virginia Bruce never looked lovelier (when she’s visible, that is) in one of her best remembered roles. Don’t come looking for scares and shudders, but be prepared to laugh along with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN.