WEIRDLAND: Ann Harding in "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" & "Christmas Eve" (1947)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ann Harding in "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" & "Christmas Eve" (1947)

"It Happened on Fifth Avenue" (1947) directed by Roy Del Ruth, starring Don DeFore, Ann Harding, Charles Ruggles, Gale Storm, etc. This Academy Award-nominated story is about a homeless man setting up in a vacant 5th Avenue mansion whose owner, millionaire (Charlie Ruggles), lives in another VA mansion until Spring.

Before putting her Hollywood career on hold for a second time, Ann Harding made two minor films back-to- back: It Happened on Fifth Avenue and Christmas Eve, both filmed in 1946 and released in 1947. It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) became a sleeper and was the first film produced under Monogram’s high-budgeted unit, Allied Artists. Although the original story was nominated for an Academy Award, the likeable film has a tendency to crawl from one scene to the next. Some have ventured to compare it to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life [The picture was originally optioned for Capra], but It Happened on Fifth Avenue doesn’t come close to carrying the dramatic weight of Capra’s masterpiece.

With a budget of more than a million dollars, director Roy Del Ruth created a mostly charming and sentimental film about a hobo philosopher named McKeever (Victor Moore) who spends his annual winter retreats in a boarded-up mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Moore’s character, a capitalist imposter, waddles across the screen smoking expensive cigars while sharing “his haven” with homeless veterans. The plot begins to boil when Trudy (Gale Storm), the headstrong daughter of the wealthy owner, unexpectedly shows up and keeps her identity a secret. She and one of the jobless veterans (Don DeFore) provide the film’s romantic interest.

Trudy’s estranged parents (Ann and Charlie Ruggles), disguised as transients, join the mix, and by the finish are rejuvenated by McKeever’s “generosity.” The film is half over before Ann arrives, and then retreats to the kitchen. She isn’t given much to do other than remind her ex-husband, “You left me and married your money!” Nevertheless, her scenes with Ruggles carry a poignancy and impact that is lacking in the romantic interludes of the younger set. The New Republic commented, “Ann Harding’s acting gets more real and… she gets better looking with the years.” The New York Times complimented It Happened on Fifth Avenue for the “amusing social comment in the temporary reversal of [Moore’s and Ruggles’] roles.” Following the film’s premier at Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Los Angeles Times critic Edwin Schallert commented that Ann’s work was “sincere, pleasing and efficient.”

To save her fortune from a designing nephew, Matilda Reid (Ann Harding) must locate her three long-lost adopted sons in time for a Christmas Eve reunion.

As if to underscore her desire for character parts, Ann took on the assignment of playing an elderly woman. “Having played Holiday with Ann Harding,” Hedda Hopper reported, “I couldn’t resist going on the set of Christmas Eve to see her do the role of a 70-year-old mother. She mothers—by adoption only—George Raft, who plays a night club operator in Rio; George Brent—a confidence man, and Randy Scott—a rodeo star. There also was Reggie Denny playing a forger. We just don’t care what we do with our nice stars in this business, do we?” Producer Benedict Bogeaus had a penchant for casting his films with aging stars the studio system ignored.

Ann played an aged recluse, Aunt Matilda, a curious creature living alone in her Manhattan mansion. She’s about to lose her fortune to greedy nephew Phillip (Denny), who wants her committed. Phillip invites a doctor and lawyer to witness Matilda’seccentricities. After she tosses birdseed around her elegant living room, and opens windows to allow a flock of pigeons inside for a feast—they get the idea. Matilda is convinced her three adopted sons, whom she hasn’t seen in years, will miraculously rescue her on Christmas Eve from Phillip’s nefarious plan. As it turns out, they need rescuing from themselves. George Brent’s character survives by cashing fraudulent checks; cowboy Randolph Scott, who has a fondness for firewater, is suspected of stealing babies for a living; and tough guy Raft is a shady gambler who has escaped from the clutches of the FBI.

The three male leads parody their screen personas — a fact that would be completely lost on audiences nowadays. Critic John L. Scott for the Los Angeles Times commented, “The bright spot is Aunt Matilda, finely acted by Ann Harding.” The New York Times agreed, saying she came “closest to the mark” of being convincing. -"Ann Harding: Cinema's Gallant Lady" (2010) by Scott O'Brien

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