Beyond the classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old films and examines what makes them memorable. In this episode she sheds light on the story of the vacation film It Happened on 5th Avenue.
It is the time of year that we settle down to see our favorite vacation classics again. In addition to Meet Me in St. Louis and Miracle on 34th Street, there are plenty of old Hollywood dishes that are worth checking out year after year. It happened on 5th Avenue, for example. Produced and staged by Roy Del RuthThe comedy of the allied artists from 1947 contains all the details of a wonderful holiday picture that will make your heart beat faster. And while it’s hardly an obscure Christmas movie, it has an interesting story tied to one of the most famous holiday movies of all time.
In It Happened on 5th Avenue, an empty mansion belonging to millionaire Michael O’Conner (Charles Ruggles) becomes a safe haven for several homeless New Yorkers. Eccentric Old Man Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) sneaks into the residence every winter when O’Conner is vacationing for the season in one of his other villas. This year McKeever records Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), a World War II veteran who was evicted from his apartment thanks to O’Conner’s plans for a new skyscraper.
While the men feel at home on the empty estate, they gather a troop of Americans who have lost their luck. This bunch also includes members of the O’Conner family, disguised as homeless strangers so their guests can take them in. As the mansion guests spend Christmas together, they show the grumpy O’Conner what the family is all about, with no reward in mind.
If that act sounds like it goes with a Frank Capra Film because it was almost one. Capra was originally offered to direct It Happened on 5th Avenue in 1945 when Liberty Films acquired the rights to The Fifth Avenue Story. The new title even mirrored Capra’s 1934 hit screwball comedy It Happened One Night. Film magazines announced Capra’s new project, but he soon gave up the script for another Christmas story entitled “The Greatest Gift,” which he did nothing but adapt It is a wonderful life.
Capra’s vacation classic wasn’t the American treasure we know today when it was released in 1946. The film notoriously failed at the box office and didn’t become a classic until the 1980s when it was believed that it got into the public domain and television stations could air it every year without having to pay any studios for the rights.
In 1946, many critics and filmmakers viewed It’s a Wonderful Life as the film that signaled the end of Capra’s popularity with American audiences and made it seem like he should have done it on 5th Avenue instead. Capra wasn’t bitter about how it happened on 5th Avenue under the direction of Roy Del Ruth. He was just one of several celebrities who “raved about” the film in promotional materials sent out prior to its release.
Even without Capra, It Happened on 5th Avenue achieves what we normally only associate with his films. It is able to address injustices and hardships while conjuring up a heartwarming ending that will make everyone believe in the power of goodness. Jim and his veteran friends experience what many families have struggled with after soldiers return from the war. In connection with the severe evictions of veterans, many civilians who depended on the many jobs the war created also experienced homelessness.
Jim’s idea of converting former barracks into affordable housing seems like a far-fetched solution if we watch the movie today, but the citizens were in dire need of decent housing. The Housing Act of 1949 was still two years away and citizens looked for solutions wherever they could. Something similar happened in Ohio in 1946, and perhaps in other cities in the country.
To the Many Americans who saw this film in 1947 saw the fights they saw on the big screen every day. The film balmed their desperation and presented a story in which an individual’s work has the ability to change lives. One thing that Capra usually does better than anyone is to expose the problems within American society without ever promoting real anger at the American way of life.
It’s a wonderful life that shows how much power wealthy people like Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) can have in our country, but George Bailey (James Stewart) as an every-man-American can defeat Potter with the help of his kind-hearted neighbors. We know this story wouldn’t happen in reality, but in the hands of Capra and Stewart we will eat it up.
Del Ruth is able to portray the same critical yet patriotic portrayal of American society in It happened on 5th Avenue. At first, Jim refuses to leave his apartment when O’Conner’s men clear an entire building full of people. He scolds and raves that O’Conner and men like him are a threat to society. In the rest of the movie, we see how selfish and reckless O’Conner is. He is just one of many millionaires who live on 5th Avenue in New York and control much of the country.
Even if Jim is offered a well-paying job in another country, it is O’Conner’s attempt to separate Jim from his daughter Trudy – he refuses, claiming that he would never want to live anywhere but America. Jim still loves America because he and his fellow veterans are mistreated after they return from the war. Del Ruth never makes the audience think that American society cannot be reformed. This was the only way I could criticize America in Hollywood when this film was made.
Del Ruth shows a change in character for O’Conner at the end. He’s still a millionaire, but a Reformed man willing to help the homeless and treat his family better. The country’s problems are not resolved by the end of the film, but the characters’ lives are better, which is all we need from a feel-good vacation movie.
It happened on 5th Avenue and it contains all of the sentimental elements necessary to balance the solemn aspects of the story and create a vacation classic. How Judy Garland’s iconic portrayal of “Merry Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis became “This Is What Christmas Means To Me” a huge hit after it featured on It Happened on 5th Avenue. The unlikely group of guests in the villa gathers around the tree on Christmas Eve to sing together. It is at that moment that O’Conner realizes that family is home, and the homeless he has met are luckier in that regard than ever as a millionaire.
Even after it received an Oscar nomination for best story on 5th Avenue, it faded from memory. The Monogram / Allied Artists film library, including It Happened on 5th Avenue, was sold to MGM and Warner Bros. in 1979. As It’s a Wonderful Life circulated television programs year after year, Del Ruth’s vacation film was kept invisible by newer generations after 1990.
It Happened on 5th Avenue was absent from vacation broadcasts for nearly twenty years. A fan website dedicated to the film and a campaign for Turner Classic Movies to play the film brought it back on television in 2009. Since then it has been an integral part of the TCM holiday program and a renewed Christmas classic.
Del Ruth does a great job bringing a wonderful vacation story to life at It Happened on 5th Avenue. Audiences can return to the film to see a representation of postwar American life while enjoying a somewhat silly plot. And the holiday season is the perfect time to enjoy the hopeful ending.
When so many of us can’t be with our traditional families, it is comforting to see the McKeever and Jim families invite those around them to their celebration. With so many people going through a rough year, It Happened on 5th Avenue is the best movie in which we value what we have and how we can help others.