It Happened on Fifth Avenue, released in 1947, was directed by Roy Del Ruth, but was nearly directed by Frank Capra, for whom it was originally optioned. Capra instead decided to direct It’s a Wonderful Life, but there are thematic similarities between the two films that show why Capra had originally considered this film. Though it doesn’t feature any element of the supernatural, the way It’s a Wonderful Life does, It Happened on Fifth Avenue does feature a Scrooge-like character, good honest people who can’t catch a break, a Christmas miracle, and a schlubby “angel” of sorts who brings it all together.
The miracle and the “angel” are purely mundane in this case, but no less charming for it. Victor Moore plays Aloysius T. McKeever, a striking sight on New York’s Fifth Avenue. He walks around with a top cat and a fancy overcoat, he eats fine food, and he resides in one of the largest mansions in town. However, none of it is his.
McKeever — known to his friends as “Mac” — is in reality a vagrant, but he has figured out a scheme to live in comfort. Every winter, real estate magnate Michael J. O’Connor moves to Virginia and boards up his manor. McKeever moves in, unknown to O’Connor, and lives off the food in the larder. It’s a system that he has been exploiting for years. McKeever usually lives alone, but this year takes in a friend, young army veteran Jim (Don DeFore), who has a personal grudge against O’Connor for condemning his apartment building. The two are then joined by a third — O’Connor’s estranged daughter Trudy (Gale Storm), who impishly decides to pretend to be an interloper herself. Things start spiraling out of control from there, with more “guests” being invited to the manor and the crowd trying to get along, find work, and run the place without being discovered.
It will surprise very few viewers that a romance begins between Jim and Trudy, but the film actually plays this very lightly. In a way, although Trudy’s affections for Jim (and vice-versa) form the basis of the plot, they aren’t the focus of the film. Rather, the film is about the transformation in character of Michael O’Connor. After Trudy falls for Jim, she manages to manipulate both of her divorced parents — played by Charles Ruggles and Ann Harding — into coming to the manor. But not as the proper owners of the place; she talks them into playing along with the panhandler pantomime as well. The result is that a film which could have been a purely sappy romantic film has a fair amount of comedy as well. Ruggles and Moore provide most of the humor between them; the business magnate is completely ill-equipped to do common household chores, while the trespassing vagrant cheerfully imposes order on the “panhandler with delusions of grandeur”. The film greatly relies on these two characters to keep things interesting; while the other major characters are well-acted and are likeable, they aren’t as nuanced in their personalities. Though Jim, Trudy, and Mary O’Connor all have mischievous streaks to them, they’re essentially the basic romantic-comedy protagonist template; they would not be out of place if dropped into another film. Mike O’Connor and Aloysius McKeever, however, feel like distinctive personalities that only fit well in this particular story.
And the story works well because of those characters. It has a nice warm Christmas-centered heart to it, with an uplifting character arc and even a decent musical number with an original Christmas song. And it’s a funny film, with both physical and situational humor. It’s the sort of film that would be difficult to remake nowadays — the notion of nobody having ever seen a picture of “second richest man in the world” O’Connor would be baffling in today’s surfeit of celebrity information. But at the same time, it’s a film that is timeless. It doesn’t need a remake, because the characters and their situation are as believable and entertaining today as they were in 1947.