Apparently back in 1947 Hollywood thought it was a good idea to release Christmas films in the middle of the year instead of the holiday season. In June of that year, two films were released within a week of each other. Both placed ads in the New York Times weeks before they opened as if it were a preliminary for the main bout. Who will grab the public’s imagination and more importantly their dollars? The two contenders were the now almost forgotten “It Happened on 5th Avenue” and a film that would become a perennial holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street.”
While the stories are different, the two films do have some similarities. Both take place in New York during the holiday season, both feature kindly cherubic older men and both spread philosophies, though very different, on the goodness of man.
So first let’s get the plots out of the way.
It Happened on 5th Avenue
Millionaire Michael O’Conner (Charles Ruggles) and his wife pack up their luggage and spend the winters down South in Virginia, away from the cold, and the 5th Avenue mansion they own in Manhattan. Meanwhile back in the city, homeless Aloysius McKeever (Victor Moore) unbeknown to the O’Conner’s, moves into the mansion to avoid the heartless cold weather as he has been doing for the past three years. In another part of the city, veteran Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) is being evicted from his apartment, owned by O’Conner who wants to replace the old building with a new skyscraper. The two homeless men meet and McKeever invites Bullock to come live with him in the mansion. Love comes into the picture when Trudy (Gale Storm), O’Conner’s daughter, runs away from boarding school and ends up at the mansion to get some of her clothes. The two men think Trudy is an intruder and just as broke as they are, subsequently inviting her to share the majestic quarters with them (she does not tell them who she really is). Jim and Trudy, of course, become infatuated with each other and fall in love. Along the way Bullock meets up with three of his former Army buddies, now married, and homeless due to the post war housing shortage. All are invited to come live at the budding communal household. O’Conner and his wife, looking for their missing daughter, come back to New York only to find their home a bit crowded. The O’Conner’s pretend to be vagrants themselves and are invited in live in the mansion with everyone else. There are plenty of lessons learned by everyone; the plight of the homeless, joblessness, the true meaning of being rich, along with a happy ending.
Miracle on 34th Street
You would have to be living in a gopher hole to not know the storyline of this classic but just in case you have, let me welcome you back, and well, this is for you. Macy’s Santa is pie-eyed drunk on Thanksgiving Day. The parade’s organizer Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) gets a fortunate break when Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) happens on the scene ready to replace the store drunk Santa. Everyone at Macy’s is so giddy over Kris, as he makes the perfect Santa, they hire him to greet the kids in the store even after he begins to recommend to parents they shop elsewhere else for that perfect toy. Kris also insists that he really is Kris Kringle, to the embarrassment of just about everyone, especially the store’s bizarre psychologist (Porter Hall) who attempts to get Kris fired and committed to a mental institution. There is also a sub-plot involving Doris’ young daughter Susie (Natalie Wood) a precocious young girl who does not believe in Santa Claus. When Kris is forced to face a sanity hearing in court, Doris’ next door neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne), a lawyer with a crush on Doris, defends Kris proving to the world that he is the real Santa.
While both these films reflect the basic goodness in man, ideologically, they are very different. “It Happened on 5th Avenue” attempts to break down class barriers by reflecting the underclass as the people who still have love in their heart, teaching the rich (in this case O’Conner) how to rediscover their human compassion long forgotten in the search to get their fortune. Communal living, people sharing, pooling their resources for the sake of the group are the focus. The film also touches on the housing problem that existed in post war America with the influx of former G.I.’s back in civilian life.
The film is anchored by two excellent performances, first from Victor Moore as the kind vagabond, and the wonderful Charles Ruggles as the millionaire O’Conner who learns that you can be rich in other ways than money. The script was written by Herbert Clyde Lewis (who was eventually blacklisted by the HUAC) and Frederick Stephani, directed by former Warner Brothers stalwart Roy Del Ruth. Originally Frank Capra was scheduled to direct but for unknown reasons backed out and went on to make “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In the early 1950′s Eddie Fisher had a hit single with the song, “That’s What Christmas Means to Me” which was introduced in this film.“Miracle on 34th Street” has no such controversial political bent but like its cohort, is filled with charming performances and wonderful touches. Gwenn’s Kris Kringle is the epitome of Santa, he makes you believe! It was a career defining performance and won Gwenn a well deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The young Natalie Wood, a charismatic beauty in adulthood, is delightful as the bright, maybe a little too bright for herself, Susie, yet her childhood innocence is pleasantly exposed as she finally becomes convinced there is a Santa.
The film is filled with many great scenes from the drunken Santa to Porter Hall’s twitching psychologist to the prosecuting attorney facing his own son in court. In this last scene the young boy is put on the stand by the defending attorney, where in childlike innocence the boy reveals to all his belief in Santa. How does he know this? Well, because his daddy told him, and his daddy wouldn’t lie! Look for veteran character actress Thelma Ritter in a small role as a mother who swears loyalty to Macy’s after Santa informs her she can find the perfect toy for her child at another store. “Miracle on 34th Street” was written and directed by George Seaton.
And so these two films, so different yet similar came to face each other in public in early June of 1947. Originally “It Happened on 5th Avenue” was supposed to be released in December of 1946 but for unknown reasons (at least to me) was pulled back until the following year. Coincidently, Capra’s film that he decided to do instead of “It Happened on 5th Avenue”, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was released in New York City on December 20th 1946 though the rest of the country oddly would not see the film until January of the following year. Again, a strange release pattern for a holiday film.
In May 1947, both films began to advertise in The New York Times as if they were personally competing against each other, and I guess they were. One of the more interesting ads actually came from Macy’s competitor, Gimbels (see below).
“Miracle on 34th Street” premiered at the Rivoli Theater on June 4th and played there until July 1st. “It Happened on 5th Avenue” opened one week later on June 11th at the Roxy Theater and finished it run on June 30th. According to IMDB “Miracle” earned $2.6M, a substantial amount for those days. There are no numbers on “5th Avenue” though I suspect its shorter run of only three weeks may confirm business was not brisk. Financially and at winning the hearts of the public “Miracle on 34th Street” seems to be the winner. In truth, both of these films are charming, delightful holiday films deserving of attention. If you have not seen “It Happened on 5th Avenue” give it a chance. TCM which ran it about a week or so ago has it scheduled for two more showings (December 19th 10AM and December 24th 12PM EST).
It Happened on 5th Avenue (Roy Del Ruth) ***1/2
Miracle of 34th Street (George Seaton) ****1/2