The Great Rupert is a film directed by Irving Pichel and released in 1950. Having lapsed into public domain, it was later colorized and retitled as A Christmas Wish. (Though the colorized version is the one I saw, I will be referring to the film by its original — and more distinctive — title.) As the new title implies, a large portion of the film takes place in the days leading up to Christmas, though the latter part carries on past it.
The film stars Jimmy Durante as the patriarch of a small family of down-on-their-luck vaudevillians. The Amendolas come to the city of New York and rent a small apartment — more like a one-room guest house — on the promise that they’ll pay their first rent in a few days. They have no money with which to do so, but hope to be able to string the landlord’s son along as he is smitten with their daughter.
Scamming innocent young men, a classic holiday tradition.
While Rosalinda (Terry Moore) makes eyes at Pete (Tom Drake), Papa Amendola tries to find work and a source of income. He doesn’t have long to wait, but it’s not work that he finds. Unbeknownst to the family, when their friend who recommended the place moved out, part of his act remained behind: a trained squirrel named Rupert. Rupert is creation of George Pal, the creator of Puppetoons; in fact, this film was the first to feature his handiwork. The puppet squirrel is quite realistic in appearance, even if his motions are a little bit jerky, and Rupert’s dancing may have been fairly convincing back in 1950.
Rupert comes into the act when Mama Amendola (Queenie Smith) sits in her rocker and prays for the money to make the rent and meet their other expenses. Unknown to her, at the same time, landlord Frank (Frank Orth) is stashing away the dividends from an investment. Not trusting banks after the crash of 1929, he makes a secret panel in a wall, and stuffs the cash inside it… which happens to be the overlap between the house and the apartment, and Rupert’s nest. Rupert tosses the money out, and soon Mama is showered with $1500 in cash (to give an idea of how much money this was, the rent on the place was $32 a month.) With the “Christmas miracle” repeating every week, the Amendolas soon find themselves becoming inexplicably prosperous.
He’s singing “Jingle Bells”, but it somehow has overtones of “We’re in the Money”.
The film is the sort of lightly humorous affair that makes for inoffensive, but ultimately unremarkable, Christmastime viewing. Durante puts on a good performance, singing and juggling and joking, and is definitely the highlight of the feature. In fact, while none of the actors do a poor job, Durante is pretty much the only reason to check it out; the other characters are mostly pretty flat. The only other character who really gets any development or humorous bits is Tom Drake’s Pete, and even then it’s mostly just some light situational humor. Still, it’s a fun film to act as filler between more solid Christmas movies.
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