Us Americans have always been famous for adapting to our surroundings but some things are a little beyond the pale. Like squatting. Obviously, it’s usually not nice. Obviously, it’s illegal depending on where the squatting happens. In California and other states, for instance, it’s what’s called a wobbler, which means a squatter can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony, but in the UK it’s only just recently become illegal in all cases. There’s even a wikiHow page on how to successfully squat. Regardless of the real-world realities of squatting, it’s a pretty safe bet it’s not as glamorous or fun as what we see in 1947’s It Happened On 5th Avenue.
Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) is a high class squatter, sneaking into vacated mansions while their owners are vacationing elsewhere, and this winter he’s hanging his tattered bowler in the abode of Michael O’Connor (Charles Ruggles), who’s currently in Bubbling Springs, Virginia. Sure, the house is checked on every night by a security company, but McKeever has the place hotwired so that the lights go out anytime someone comes through the front door. McKeever wastes no time making himself at home and struts the streets in Michael O’Connor’s finery.
Meanwhile, Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) has handcuffed himself to a bed in an old apartment building because he doesn’t want to leave. It doesn’t matter to him that the building is going to be torn down to make way for a new eighty-story edifice; he’s not leaving because he can’t afford anything else. The moving company and the cops don’t care; they roll the bed out with Jim on it and that’s that. McKeever finds Jim sleeping on a park bench and invites him to share his humble borrowed digs.
Others soon join the party. Trudy O’Connor (Gale Storm) sneaks upstairs to her room to get a mink coat and some other things. Yes, she’s Michael O’Connor’s daughter. She’s left finishing school because she thinks it’s pointless and wants to do other things. When Jim and McKeever find her she pretends to be a poor girl from a large family who’s come to New York City to get a job and she needs clothes. She also happens to overhear Jim and McKeever talking about how they can’t call the police on her because they don’t have any right to be there either. Trudy, who’s listening at the door, doesn’t let on that she knows Jim and McKeever are squatters and even has sympathy for them.
Jim’s old Army buddies, Whitey (Alan Hale, Jr.) and Hank (Edward Ryan) also turn up with their respective wives and children because they need a place to stay and there’s a housing shortage in the city. Jim, Whitey, and Hank cook up a plan to buy an Army camp outside the city and turn the barracks into condos for veterans and their families, but first they’ve got to raise the capital.
They’ve also got to get past Michael O’Connor, who’s come back to New York looking for Trudy. He’s not too pleased to find out that a group of strangers are living in his house, but Trudy convinces him to pretend to be poor so he can get inside the house and keep an eye on things. McKeever puts Michael through his paces, setting him up in the servants’ quarters downstairs and putting him on dish detail, which Michael doesn’t take to because he’s never washed a dish in his life. Or made a bed.
On the sly Michael keeps trying to make his deals, including implementing his plans to turn that Army camp into a major commercial center, and also sabotage Jim and Trudy, who have the audacity to fall in love. McKeever happens upon Michael several times when he’s on the phone, even when Michael tries hiding in the icebox and thinks Michael is playing millionaire games.
Trudy figures out very quickly what’s going on and sends a telegram to her mother, Mary (Ann Harding) who’s been divorced from her father for four years and living in Palm Beach, Florida. Like Michael, Mary has to de-glam so she can get into the house, and McKeever installs her as cook. The house becomes a perfect storm of hidden secrets and misunderstandings that makes the viewer wonder who knows what and when, or if they don’t, wonder how are they going to find it out.
First off, this movie is hilarious. It’s clever, it’s fun, the movie plays with both its characters and the audience, and it’s thinking humor, which gives the viewer a lot to appreciate. It’s not so much sight gags as it is situational humor, and Victor Moore is an ironically fastidious resident advisor.
The film has an unrelenting optimism that I found very interesting given the year of its release. By 1947 many servicemen were home from the Second World War, and there weren’t a whole lot of movies made about veterans readjusting to life back home, not to mention finding a job and a place to live. Despite the GI Bill that guaranteed a veteran his old job back, there was a lot of reshuffling and changes were made, so a servicemember’s job wasn’t always waiting for him when he came back. Or he might get demoted because the management preferred whoever had taken his place. Or a veteran found they just didn’t want to stay where they had been because it didn’t feel like home anymore for whatever reason, and obviously they would have to start from scratch.
Of the few movies Hollywood made about returning veterans, there were different approaches taken, but we’ll get to that way down the road in our “During World War Two” series, so I won’t go into a lot of detail about that for now. In It Happened On 5th Avenue, the obvious message is, again, that of unfailing optimism. Everything would be OK. Vets would find jobs. They would find housing (although preferably without squatting in someone’s vacant mansion). They would be happy with their families. America was on its way up. There was no stopping us. So relax and smile. Take a look around. We were good.
It Happened On 5th Avenue is definitely not a typical Christmas movie, although nowadays it’s often marketed as such, but it gives viewers a lot of fun and a lot to chew on, so seeing it and then seeing it again is a must.
Another Christmas movie review is coming up tomorrow, and it’s yet another disappearing act but instead of a Christmas movie or someone else’s house, we’ll be disappearing into a snow globe. Intriguing, isn’t it? Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…
It Happened On 5th Avenue is available to own on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.
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