It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

220px-happened5avenueThe fact that Miracle on 34th Street and this film came out the same year seems to suggest that there was something special in the air of New York City that year. It was a magical place, specifically during the Christmas season with Santa Claus going on trial and winning, while tramps helped reform millionaires. Admittedly, It Happened on Fifth Avenue is one of those films that could easily come under fire for its implausible plot, its unabashed sentiment, and any number of other things.

But if you have any amount of Christmas cheer at all, it’s overwhelmingly difficult not to enjoy this cheering story for what it offers up in the areas of heartwarming comedy and holiday spirit. There’s even a bit of misty-eyed sentimentality that’s sure to weaken the callous heart that’s ready to be melted.

And the story finds its roots in some very real issues. One is the housing crisis following the end of World War II with GIs flooding back into the country with families to raise and no jobs and no homes to be had. The situation further aggravated by the wage gap. The rich just seem to get richer, buying up all the land and resources in town,  namely the notorious John O’Connor — the second richest man in the world by latest figures shouted by passing tour guides on sightseeing buses. Ironically, in such an environment the panhandling community is especially strong and foremost among their ranks is sophisticated tramp Aloyisius McKeever (Victor Moore).

He migrates as the crow flies to Winter palaces and Summer getaways belonging to those in the affluent sectors of society. He has set up a bit of a revolving timeshare but you could say it only goes one way. None of his benefactors seem to know they are being so charitable and Mr. MeKeever does his best not to draw attention to himself. Letting himself in through fence boards, sneaking down through manhole covers, and setting up an elaborate trigger system to turn off all lights at the moments notice. In this way, he manages to live a rather comfortable life undetected in the boarded up estate of the aforementioned magnate John O’Connor.

Although he’s a rather peculiar character, a conniver and a bit of an opportunist, it should not go unsaid that he does have a conscience — a moral code if you will — that makes him increasingly compelling. Aside from his quirky ways, Aloysius McKeever is quite generous even if it involves someone else’s capital. Soon his great home that he is “borrowing” is filled with a few GIs and families including the drifting Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) who was thrown out of his apartment after Mr. O’Connor bought the land. Now with a place to gather himself, Jim has the seed of an idea — retrofitting old army barracks into track housing for returning GIs. The only problem is they need real estate, real estate being snapped up by the one in the same John O’Connor. You’ve probably gotten tired of hearing his name by now.

All of this would be unrelated if it weren’t for a girl who ran away from finishing school, Trudy O’Connor (Gail Storm). Her last name says it all already, and when she flees to seek asylum at her father’s  winter estate, she’s surprised to find it occupied. It makes for a funny scenario but rapidly she settles into the community and simultaneously falls in love with Jim.

At this juncture, Trudy asks her father for perhaps the biggest favor of her life — that he would play it her way — masquerading as another vagrant so that he can meet her love and not sway him to marry Trudy with the imminent promise of great wealth. And that’s the next enjoyment of the film, watching stuffy old Mr. O’Connor forced to be a guest in his own home, bossed around by Aloysius. But he’s not the only one out of sorts, Trudy’s mother (Ann Harding) also comes to live with them as a cook and this creates yet another complicating layer of wistful romance.

In the process, everyone learns something. There is a newfound appreciation for people and life. What it means to make an honest day’s wages. What it means to live for more than money. What it means to truly love someone so much that you don’t want to live a day without them. Even what it means to live in a caring community that looks to bless each other and share resources in such a way that no one is in need. I would even wager a bet that this is less socialism and more of what the early Christians talked about in Acts.

The film is blessed by some lovable, wonderfully comic performances from a couple great Hollywood actors, most notably Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles who highlight the storyline’s oddities. Meanwhile, some of the younger stars have winning charm that would translate into several solid careers in the growing medium of television. For some ready made feel-good Christmas magic, look no further than 5th Avenue.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Swing Time (1936)

swingtime1I wondered to myself, after watching Swing Time once again, if anyone else might have easily taken Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ places as films greatest dancing couple, and then I quickly discarded this heretical idea. They appeared in 10 films together with this film directed by George Stevens being there six pairing. By now they’re a well-oiled, beautifully elegant dancing machine.

As with many of their films the genre is a hybrid of a screwball comedy and a musical which of course most importantly showcases their legendary dancing prowess.

Astaire is the carefree gambler and hoofer “Lucky” Garnett who gets duped out of his marriage by his buddies and must head to New York to prove himself to his fiancees’ father. He goes off with his faithful friend “Pop” (Victor Moore), who also has a penchant for card tricks. They have nary a penny in their pockets and he meets a pretty young dance teacher (Ginger Rogers) over a stolen quarter.

From her point of view, he just won’t stop leaving her alone and he just wants to get the chance to dance with her. Astaire and Rogers’ first number together, “Pick Yourself Up,” is a peppy piece that sets the bar for the rest of the film. They swivel, glide, and sway, perfectly in sync, orbiting one another. And for the rest of the film whenever they dance together they never seem to lose that innate connection.

As far as the screwball aspect goes, Lucky is tight on money resorting to gambling for some new duds, but his chance to dance with Penny is his big break. They just need an orchestra to accompany them. The only problem is someone else owns the orchestra and the orchestra leader Ricardo is also madly in love with Penny. In a shady set-up all across the board they draw cards for the contract and “Lucky” wins. He and Penny have a growing connection, but he still feels guilt based on his attachment to his fiancee Margaret. And of course his life catches up with him and Penny finds out while simultaneously the orchestra is taken away from him.

It must happen this way so they can realize how much they mean to each other and share one final dance together. Out of all the misunderstandings comes a lot of big laughs and in the end, everybody thinks it’s funny. Since Ricardo loses his pants, Penny decides to marry Lucky after all and everything is right in the world of Astaire and Rogers.

You don’t necessarily watch a film like this for the acting, but thanks undoubtedly to the studio system we have a colorful supporting cast including the two-timing but lovable Pop, Mabel is a wisecracking riot in her own right, and although his screen time is short, Eric Blore is enjoyable as the hissy dance studio boss Mr. Gordon.

“The Way You Look Tonight” is an absolute crooner classic and aside from the initial number it can be heard throughout the film in refrains. The same goes for “A Fine Romance” which feels antiquated, but it still manages to be thoroughly enjoyable in all of its reprises. But the main attraction is, of course, the dancing, from the personified joy of “Waltz in Swing Time” to the graceful gliding of “Never Gonna Dance.” If you set aside the unfortunate blackface for a moment the Bojangles shadow dance is a stroke of creative genius that gives off an amazing result while showcasing Astaire’s individual skill.

From someone with two left feet, this film makes me want to at least attempt to dance because Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers turn dancing into an almost mystical experience. How does he prance and twirl so effortless on the floor? How does she do it equally as beautifully and in heels no less? It looks like they’re having so much fun and yet, in reality, they practiced for hours upon hours to get it right.  Amazing stuff.

4.5/5 Stars

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Make-way-for-tomorrow-1937It seems like Leo McCarey and this film for that matter often get lost in the shuffle. In his day he was a highly successful and well thought of director of such classics as The Awful Truth and Going My Way. However, his moving drama Make Way For Tomorrow is now often overshadowed by a similar film that used it as inspiration, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).

I will not pass judgment on which film I like more. In fact, to even begin to make a decision I would have to go back to both. However, this film opens by restating the 5th commandment. Honor thy father and thy mother. After all, this film is certainly about the gap between generations, parents with children, grandparents with grandchildren, but at its core is this main concern. Honor thy father and thy mother.

The film opens in the home of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi). 4 of their 5 grown children are gathered together on the request of their parents who have something to tell them. Because their father has not been able to work, the bank is taking their house and so they will be displaced. Thus, the story is set up as the kids worry about what to do, because no one feels capable of taking both parents. Finally, it is decided that eldest son George (Thomas Mitchell) will take Mother, and one of the sisters will take father.

It is difficult for everyone. The old folks are split up for one of the first times in their 50 years of marriage. Meanwhile, grandma disrupts bridge lessons, makes life more of a nuisance on George’s daughter, and forces the maid to take on more hours. It does not make anyone angry at first, but it begins rubbing and chafing. Creating bitterness and annoyance which is arguably worse. Things reach the breaking point when George’s peeved wife finds out that her daughter is rendezvousing with men, and she is not happy at all when grandma confesses to knowing about it. She loses her temper and grandma apologizes. Seeing a letter from a retirement home she quietly decides it would be better for all if she simply moves there.

Her husband does not fare much better, and the harsh New York weather is taking a toll on his health. Furthermore, his daughter is obviously getting tired of him as her patience continues to wear thin. Mr. Cooper does make a friend in a kindly old shop owner (Maurice Moscovitch), but he soon is turned off as well. Finally, his daughter decides to send their father out of California. She says it’s for his health, but the real reason is she wants him off their hands so her other sister can deal with him.

With this new turn of events, Barkley and Lucy have one last meeting set up so they can spend time together before he is sent off to California. This is the most touching part of the entire film because underlying this oasis is the doubt that they might not see each other again. In the wake of that proposition, they have sort of a second honeymoon. They ditch the kids and have a magical evening just the two of them, reliving their youth and remembering the olden days. The miracle of this sequence is that everyone seems to finally understand them, appreciate them, and really honor them. They are offered a ride in an automobile and are met by the hotel manager who offers them drinks and listens to their wonderful stories of times past. Even the conductor plays a slow waltz just for the two of them. It’s a beautiful extended moment that is made especially moving in contrast to the earlier scenes. These are two people who, despite their advanced years, are still very much in love. It speaks to the importance that marriage holds in the life of some people. In certain circumstances, it is not a shallow event, but a lifelong friendship that carries so much weight.

When the time comes, the two lovebirds say goodbye at the train station and we don’t know what happens to them. We can guess certainly, but McCarey leaves a sweeter taste in our mouths before finishing with a realistic ending. It’s beautiful, moving, and tearful, but not in an overdramatic sort of way. In the mundane, sorrowful way that seems to reflect the rhythms of real life. Beulah Bondi was featured in some many great films, but I’m convinced that this was her greatest performance as an individual. Victor Moore was a worthy companion for her as well. However, my favorite character was probably the shopkeeper Max, because he was such a personable man in a sea of grumbling and annoyance.

5/5 Stars