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There are a lot of modern, hip, up-to-date films that can liven up holiday events and a few truly classic movies that can still thrill a modern audience enthralled with 3-D magic and countless explosions as well as snarky jokes about bodily functions. Many terrific movies fade from collective memories. Filmed in an era of black and white cinematography, It Happened on 5th Avenue refuses to go away, it gets frequent showings on the classic movie channels, and much like a vintage wine, improves with age, opening the gate to an earlier era while imparting important lessons about everyday life.
It Happened on 5th Avenue was a 1947 Roy Del Ruth production for Allied Artists, a low rent studio best known for on the cheap Bowery Boys films and even lesser fare. However, Del Ruth was a popular director, actors were eager to work with him, ensuring the film of a wonderful cast combining veteran performers with talented newcomers.
The lovely Gale Storm is most likely the face a modern (2011) audience would recognize. She plays Trudy O’Connor, a free spirited, "liberated" young woman on the run from her final year at a finishing school. For purposes of plot, she hides the fact that her father is a world famous industrialist.
Don DeFore was one of those actors who was definitely handsome and talented, yet his career never quite soared to the heights. Still, he anchors the film with his ready charm and youthful enthusiasm.
A trio of veterans give It Happened on 5th Avenue charm as well as verve and vivacity. Victor Moore was the toast of Broadway for more than 40 years and, though he made many films (including a series of unfortunately unavailable silent shorts), his unique gifts were hard to capture on film and few film directors took the time to showcase him properly. It Happened on 5th Avenue gives Victor Moore a golden moment, shining as Aloysius T. McKeever, a delightful old codger who winters in a Fifth Avenue mansion, moving in when the family moves out for the winter. Yes, it is a fantasy, but, in this film, the fantasy seems plausible.
Charles Ruggles is another recognizable face and what a face, he could play everyman, often grumpy, out of sorts, but he was also great at playing befuddled and confused. A 60 year career, several starting turns, he gets a fine meaty part in It Happened on 5th Avenue, playing the part of the great industrialist Michael J. “Mike” O’Connor, and in true Christmas spirit, he is a sort of a Scrooge, a man who has lost his way, caught up in making money, losing sight of the value of his fellow man, and the love of his wife.
Ann Harding was a big star during the 1930s, a fading though still viable actress in the 1940s. She gives the part of Mary O’Connor several clever touches, making her a believable character and enhancing the late flowing romance between her and her estranged husband. Ann Harding must have been amused at this stage in her career, her talents lent to a pair of films with a Christmas theme (Christmas Eve).
It Happened on 5th Avenue is a fun film full of delicious comic moments, a believable story and a wonderful cast. It preserves on film many time honored routines from vaudeville, notably the "notorious" loaded gun routine that is both a sex joke and family friendly! Unlike so many modern films, it has an actual story, one that is wrapped up like a gift at Christmas, leaving the viewer fully satisfied.
This review by Go Hastings captures it well, “It Happened On Fifth Avenue is usually defined as a Christmas movie, in part because of its plot time-line, but more than that, it's a movie that, like George Seaton's Miracle On 34th Street -- made the same year -- sings of the generosity of the human spirit, and the feeling of renewal that was in the air in the immediate post-World War II era, a funny, gentle, warm look at people making their way in a time when, for the first time since the Great Depression and the outbreak of the Second World War, cautious optimism seemed an appropriate approach to life.”
One can find an amusing review by the great Bosley Crowther from 1947, a snippet from The New York Times, ”A favorite Hollywood pastime—in its films, anyhow—is that of deflating stuffed shirts and melting frigid hearts. The boys go for such an opportunity like a snowball goes for a silk hat. And so it is not surprising to find this ancient monkeyshine indulged again in the Rivoli's current antic, It Happened on Fifth Avenue. 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.”