Delbert Mann’s Fitzwilly is a film that came to my attention last year, as one of those seasonal films that doesn’t have any obvious Christmas references in the title. The Dick Van Dyke comedy sounded like a fun film, but I didn’t manage to catch it then, and almost didn’t this year; its sole airing, as far as I can tell, was quite late at night on TCM. Still, I made a point of staying up to watch it, and I’m glad I did. It’s a very funny film, and Van Dyke gets a lot of laughs out of his character’s chutzpah in his scheming.
Van Dyke plays Claude Fitzwilliam, “Fitzwilly” to his friends, the butler of the esteemed society lady Miss Victoria Woodworth (Edith Evans). Miss Woodworth comes from old money, and is a stern but big-hearted old lady, who fancies herself one of the world’s greatest philanthropists. The only problem with that is, unbeknownst to her, her father’s fortune ran out the moment she inherited it…
Fitzwilly, who she practically raised herself, is tremendously devoted to her and can’t bear to see her face the reality of the situation. He wants her to live in the lifestyle she’s accustomed to for the rest of her natural years; keeping himself and the rest of the staff employed is also well and good, of course. And so he and the staff have come upon an unusual means of keeping the old lady in comfort: larceny. For several years, he’s been running numerous scams, signing purchases in the names of the other upper income families and laundering them through a false charity. It’s a well-oiled machine, but a wrench is thrown into the works when Miss Woodworth hires a new secretary, played by Barbara Feldon. On the cusp of their biggest scam in years, Fitzwilly and the staff have to deal with a newcomer who isn’t privy to their little arrangements.
The film is a comedy that works on many levels. There’s character comedy, with Dick Van Dyke’s charming schemer playing off various foils, including Evans, Feldon, and John McGiver as a former preacher on the staff whose conscience is troubled by their scams. There’s romantic comedy of the classic screwball type between Feldon and Van Dyke. There’s a little bit of absurdism; the secretary’s hiring is due to a writing project that is simultaneously genius and idiotic. And, of course, there’s the fun of all the scams. I enjoy a good heist movie, and the sheer audacity of Fitzwilly’s planning is delightful, as is the way he is forced to modify his plans on the fly.
Taking place during late December, the film could theoretically have been placed any time during the year, but it makes use of its seasonal setting. The initial big scam is only possible due to a family going on vacation elsewhere for the holiday; the later major heist outright depends on the Christmas buying rush. Sure, it’s possible the scheme could have been pulled off in another month, but then we’d miss the fun of involving a troop of caroling Cub Scouts in a robbery.
The schemes provide the fun of the picture, but it also gets a lot of help from its lead actors. Van Dyke is always charming, and mugging for the camera constantly, and moves with tremendous energy as he rushes from one scam to the next. Feldon, meanwhile, gets a lot of mileage just out of her expressions, conveying disapproval, kindness, or outright shock with just a look.
It’s a highly entertaining film, and it’s a bit of a shame that it doesn’t appear to be better known. (It currently has a little under 750 votes on IMDb). It’s a film that I could easily see myself watching many times in Christmases to come.