It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
Ever watch a movie that you felt was personally antagonizing you? You, personally? That it was pushing your every button, insisting upon its own cleverness, provoking you at every turn? That's how I felt in today's moldy fruitcake of a Christmas film, 1947's It Happened on 5th Avenue. Here's a film so smugly didactic in tone, Frank Capra would have been put off by it. It's directed by Roy Del Ruth, who is mostly known for directing a number of the Broadway Melody films. Those films were simple and entertaining, but It Happened on 5th Avenue indulges in every obnoxious cliché and formula of the worst screwball comedies and Capra-corn films. Loathsome characters framed as wonderful, charming and, God help us, noble? Check. A worthwhile message that's boiled down to overly simplistic moral sludge? Check. Victor Moore, he of the bald head, mumbly voice, and punchable face who ruined Swing Time with his very presence? Oh, big, red, jagged check. In fact, Moore plays what easily one of the most despicable, self-righteous, hypocritical, vile, downright hateful characters I've ever seen: Aloysius T. McKeever.
McKeever is a bum, in more ways than one. He is a drifter who makes a yearly habit of breaking into the boarded up mansion of wealthy industrialist Michael O'Connor (Charlie Ruggles) to live until it's opened up again. He sleeps in O'Connor's bed, wears his clothes, eats food from his larder, and smokes his cigars. Imagine if some homeless person was breaking into your home and using your personal belongings without your knowledge. Kind of a horrid thought, isn't it? But the movie paints this as not only charming, but completely justified, because this is post-WWII America, where there was a housing shortage for GIs and their families. Of course, McKeever is not a GI (hell, he's too old to even be a veteran of WWI), so really he's just a criminal guilty of breaking and entering.
But the movie portrays him as a kindly, almost mystical soul, who lets in unemployed and recently evicted Jim Bullock (Don Lefore, who resembles Ray Milland, only with beadier eyes and a weaker chin). Jim finds out the truth that McKeever isn't the owner of the house, nor is a "guest", but isn't in the least bit disturbed by it. Even O'Connor's runaway daughter Trudy (Gale Storm), who breaks into the house and lies about her identity, is impishly amused by this, and joins McKeever's quest in letting in more squatters… I mean, people who can't find homes.
O'Connor catches wind of all this, but instead of calling the police like a sane, normal person, he lets his daughter drag him into this scheme by disguising himself as a panhandler named "Mike". Trudy has fallen for Jim, and wants O'Connor to meet him for approval, but not as himself, because it's the time-old dilemma of wanting to be loved for yourself instead of your money. The fact that she has to worry about this makes you wonder why she want to marry Jim at all, but no matter. You'd think a fellow hobo like McKeever would treat "Mike" with a little more kindness, but McKeever acts as master of the house and basically treats O'Connor as a slave, heaping verbal abuse and indignities upon him. In a better written movie, this would make him the villain, but, just in case you arrived late, this is far from a well-written movie.
Oh, but there's more. O'Connor's estranged wife Mary (Ann Harding) is also brought along in this, and Trudy also persuades her to join McKeever's incredibly illegal group home in disguise. Trudy is unhappy that her parents divorced years earlier, and would love for them to get back together. McKeever pompously lectures O'Connor about how worthless he is, and how marrying a woman like Mary would improve him. Does O'Connor tell McKeever to butt out and quit being such a sanctimonious dick? No! Again, McKeever is more saintly than Clarence the Angel!
Poor O'Connor is never once allowed to have a point or be right, even with his own family. When he objects to his 18-year-old daughter wanting to marry a man she barely knows, Mary scolds him, saying "You married me when I was 17", and O'Connor replies, "And look what happened to us!". Sorry, all you romantics, but that's a damned good argument! Look what happened to them! When O'Connor tells Trudy he'll offer Jim a job, she spits it back in his face by saying "He'll never be any of your high-salaried yes-men!" Well, fine, then, you idiot! Marry the unemployed guy you just met! Have fun working your minimum wage job at the music store while the hubby waxes poetic on all the injustices the fat cats have dumped on soceity!
Identities are discovered- sort of. Jim never finds out that Trudy is O'Connor's daughter (a cop-out of the highest order). O'Connor and his wife both claim they never wanted that divorce (then why did you?!?!?!) and get back together, and McKeever goes his merry way, everyone better off for having known him.
Just once, wouldn't you like to see a couple get back together, realize why they broke up in the first place, and break up again? Wouldn't you like to see a rich person complain about their mistreatment and be completely in the right? Wouldn't you like to see a poor person be told that being poor doesn't give them carte blanche to treat others however they want?
I almost couldn't finish this movie. I kept having to stop it and try to cool down, it infuriated me that much. It tries to do the "Wealthy Jerk who Learns a Lesson" plot device, but does it badly. I've seen this done well: A Christmas Carol is a great example, as well as Trading Places and It Happened One Night. The difference is that in the aforementioned films, being wealthy wasn't the problem, being a jerk was (well, okay, Ellie in It Happened One Night is more flighty and spoiled than a jerk). In It Happened on 5th Avenue, O'Connor never seems like anything but a reasonable man. Yes, his business deals result in evictions. That's too bad… but them's the breaks, folks! It's called progress, no one ever said it was fair. Remember, if you live or work in the city, chances are someone used to live in that spot where you live and work.
McKeever is the worst character in the movie (I'll gripe about him more in the minute), but Trudy comes a close second. She nastily accuses O'Connor of ruining her life by enrolling her in finishing school and divorcing her mother. Okay, honey? I highly doubt the school your father sent you to was Lowood School, and you seem psychologically sound, despite having the emotional maturity of a 7-year-old. You live a life millions upon millions of young women can only dream of. You have a wealthy daddy who makes sure you're well-provided for, doesn't rake your pampered ass over the coals for giving him lip, lets you drag him into this stupid scheme to meet the chinless, charmless man you've known for all of a week that you desperately want to marry, and you have a closet full of mink coats at your disposal. I think I speak for everyone when I say: quit your blubbering, you whiny, ungrateful, short-sighted little brat!
But McKeever defies description. He is a walking, talking example of utterly appalling writing. We all have our own standards for what makes a good character, and I have mine. "Interesting" is on top of the list, but I think the runner-up is connected more to the writing than to the character. Now, I'm hardly an authority on writing good characters, but I know what I like, and here's the revelation I've had: no matter how wonderful, awesome, badass, fascinating, magical, noble, or whatever adjective you want to throw out there about what a character is, I believe that the character should be allowed to be framed as in the wrong if they are wrong. Now, the character doesn't have to realize this, and I'm not even suggesting that they learn their lesson at the end (but I do welcome it from time to time). No, I'm saying that the writer should take their blinders off and call their characters out for doing awful, awful things. Young Adult showed not only how wrong our protagonist was for wanting to break up her ex-boyfriend's marriage, but how utterly futile and stupid it was. Vince Gilligan never lost sight that Walter White on Breaking Bad was downright evil. I prefer Badlands to Bonnie and Clyde because the criminals in the former aren't glamorized and we see the consequences of their actions. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a charming enough movie about outlaws, but even the titular characters know they live with a Sword of Damocles over their heads. See what I mean? These shows and movies aren't preachy in the slightest, but they don't pretend their characters are saints, either. This is why I hate Tinker Bell in Peter Pan. The story demands that we love this magical creature… who treacherously tried to have Wendy killed out of spite, and never suffers consequences, nor shows any repentance. Clap my hands to save Tinker Bell? I'll keep my hands in my pockets and let the murderous little skank die, thank you.
That's what's so frustrating about how McKeever is framed in It Happened on 5th Avenue. Breaking into someone's boarded up house (and, may I add, rightful property) and living there? He's not a squatter, O'Connor is just a miser who needs to let random people live in his house! McKeever plays Wicked Stepmother to O'Connor's Cinderella while scolding him for being a leach on society? He's not a hypocrite devoid of empathy, O'Connor's learning a little humility! McKeever acts as though the house is his? He's not an entitled jerkass, he's… um, he's MCKEEVER, BOW BEFORE HIS HOLY, SHIMMERING LIGHT!! The final scene has McKeever sauntering away, and O'Connor gravely stating, "There are some men richer than I". Folks, I'm just glad I hadn't been drinking (yet), because objects would have been hurled at my TV screen.
McKeever is never, ever, ever called on for his actions, not once. Everyone regards him with solemn respect and even awe. In one scene, he imparts this little gem:
"I believe people who require money should work for it. As for myself, I gave up working years ago. I never could make enough to satisfy my lavish tastes. So I let other people work for it and I enjoy it."
I don't care where you are on the political spectrum; if you have two brain cells to bump together, that line should piss you off to no end. Mind you, he's saying this to three GIs who are unable to secure employment. Do they hang him upside down and dunk his head in the sink (which they did to a landlord earlier for not allowing their children to live in an APARTMENT BUILDING WHERE NO CHILDREN ARE ALLOWED)? Nope, they blithely listen, not in the least bit disgusted or offended. What were the screenwriters smoking? This is feeding into the FoxNews attitude that homeless people are all lazy tricksters trying to mooch off everyone else (for the record, this is exactly what McKeever is).
This movie is worse than a lump of coal in your stocking, worse than an ugly sweater, even worse than that obviously re-gifted basket of potpourri and lotion from the Clinton administration you had the misfortune of receiving at the office white elephant party. This movie is an excruciating bore (at an unforgivable running time of 115 minutes) and as much fun as a department store return counter the day after Christmas. I hate this movie and everything it stands for, and I hate Victor Moore and his wretched, smirky face. Humbug, I tell you, humbug!!