Did anyone catch that movie last Sunday morning at ten on the TCM channel? If you did, you are probably still thinking about it like I am. If you missed it, you have a second chance this Friday, Christmas Eve, at high noon. I’m referring to It Happened on Fifth Avenue, a little 1947 masterpiece starring Gale Storm, Charlie Ruggles, Victor Moore, Don DeFore, and Ann Harding. This may be the best Christmas movie you never heard of. It captures the Christmas spirit like nothing I’ve ever encountered. If you are trying to get into the holiday mood, this movie is the ticket. I’m all in favor of retail therapy, especially at Christmastime, but retail therapy has its shortcomings. For the true spirit of Christmas, call timeout and catch this movie.
It Happened on Fifth Avenue is not a fantasy about Santa Claus and reindeer. The story is possible—at least conceivable—in the real world. It is wildly improbable, even though you want it to be true. You are rooting for a magical world where everything good can—and does—happen. The plot involves happy-go-lucky hobo-philosopher Aloysius McKeever (Victor Moore), who squats in a sprawling Fifth Avenue mansion in November. The place is boarded-up because the owner, industrialist Michael J. O’Connor, “the second richest man in the world,” has gone to his Virginia estate for the winter. Aloysius has made a habit of staying at the lavish O’Connor townhouse every winter, gaining access through an opening in the side gate and a hop down a backyard manhole.
Aloysius does an excellent job, at least for a while, of pretending he’s the place’s actual owner. He meets a handsome and homeless World War II veteran sleeping on a Central Park bench across the street. His name is Jim Bullock, played convincingly by Don DeFore. As luck would have it, Jim has recently been evicted from one of O’Connor’s apartment houses, which is being demolished to make way for a skyscraper. Jim needs a place to live, so Aloysius graciously invites him to the O’Connor digs.
O’Connor’s beautiful young daughter (played by Gale Storm before she cut her hair short) is thrown into the mix. She shows up unexpectedly at the mansion one night to grab some clothes and her fur coat. She calls herself Trudy Smith. She falls for Jim in a big way, and the feeling is mutual. She doesn’t let on that she’s the heiress to the world’s second-richest man’s fortune.
Then Mr. O’Connor shows up looking for his daughter. Trudy persuades him to stay undercover and join the household of hobos while she works her charms on Jim. At Trudy’s insistence, Mr. O’Connor works as a dishwasher and factotum for Aloysius. Trudy talks her mom into flying north from Palm Beach to join the group, posing as a cook. It all seems perfectly reasonable, if a bit outlandish. The O’Connors are divorced but still love each other.
You’ll have to watch the movie to see how it all turns out. Here’s a clip of Gale Storm singing “That’s What Christmas Means to Me” with Victor Moore playing Aloysius playing Santa—before the cops burst in. The entire film can also be viewed in twelve parts starting here.
Orson Welles and Frank Capra praised It Happened on Fifth Avenue, which was nominated for a 1948 Academy Award for Best Original Story. It lost to Miracle on 34th Street. It seems back then that everyone was looking for a miracle. We still are.
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