‘It Happened on 5th Avenue’: the Holiday Movie That Frank Capra Passed Up

This rediscovered Christmas movie has a fascinating history and is the perfect watch for this year’s turbulent holiday season.
It Happened On Th Avenue
Allied Artists
By  · Published on December 12th, 2020

Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she highlights the history of the holiday film It Happened on 5th Avenue.

It’s the time of year when we settle in to rewatch our favorite holiday classics. Beyond Meet Me in St. Louis and Miracle on 34th Street, there is plenty of old Hollywood fare that is worth revisiting year after year. It Happened on 5th Avenue, for instance. Produced and directed by Roy Del Ruth, the 1947 Allied Artists comedy holds all of the trimmings of a delightful holiday picture that’ll tug at your heartstrings in the process. And while hardly an obscure Christmas movie, it does have an interesting history connected to one of the most famous holiday films of all time.

In It Happened on 5th Avenue, a vacant mansion of millionaire Michael O’Conner (Charles Ruggles) becomes a safe haven for several New Yorkers without homes. Eccentric old man Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) sneaks into the residence every winter when O’Conner vacations in one of his other mansions for the season. This year, McKeever takes in Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), a World War II veteran evicted from his apartment thanks to O’Conner’s plans for a new skyscraper.

As the men make themselves at home in the empty estate, they accumulate a troupe of Americans who are down on their luck. This bunch winds up including members of the O’Conner family themselves, disguised as homeless strangers so that their guests will take them in. As the mansion’s guests spend Christmas together, they show the grumpy O’Conner what family is all about, caring for one another without any reward in mind.

If this plot sounds like it fits a Frank Capra movie, it’s because it nearly was one. Capra was originally offered to direct It Happened on 5th Avenue in 1945 when Liberty Films acquired the rights to the “The Fifth Avenue Story.” The new title even mirrored Capra’s 1934 hit screwball comedy It Happened One Night. Movie magazines announced Capra’s new project, but he soon abandoned the script for another Christmas story he came across called “The Greatest Gift,” which he adapted into none other than It’s a Wonderful Life.

Capra’s holiday classic was not the American treasure we know it as today back when it was released in 1946. The film notoriously failed at the box office and only became a classic in the 1980s when it was believed to have entered the public domain and television stations could broadcast it every year without having to pay any studios for the rights.

In 1946, many critics and filmmakers considered It’s a Wonderful Life to be the film that signaled the end of Capra’s popularity with American audiences, making it seem like he should have made It Happened on 5th Avenue instead. Capra wasn’t bitter towards how It Happened on 5th Avenue turned out under Roy Del Ruth’s direction. He was just one of several celebrities who “raved” about the movie in promotional materials sent out before its release.

Even without Capra, It Happened on 5th Avenue achieves what we usually only associate with his films. It is able to address unfairness and hardships while still conjuring a heart-warming ending that’ll make anyone believe in the power of kindness. Jim and his veteran friends experience what many families struggled with after soldiers returned from war. In conjunction with the severe displacement of veterans, many civilians who depended on the many jobs the war created experienced homelessness as well.

Jim’s idea for converting former army barracks into affordable housing seems like a far-fetched solution as we watch the film today, but citizens were in major need of adequate homes. The Housing Act of 1949 was still two years away and citizens were looking for solutions everywhere they could. Something similar actually happened in Ohio in 1946 and perhaps other towns across the country as well. 

For many Americans watching this film in 1947, the struggles they saw on screen were what they saw every day. The movie provided a balm to their despair, presenting a story where the work of an individual has the ability to change lives. One thing Capra usually does better than anyone else is uncovering the issues within American society without ever encouraging real anger towards the American way of life.

It’s a Wonderful Life shows how much power rich people like Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) can have in our country, but George Bailey (James Stewart), as the everyman American, is able to defeat Potter with the help of his good-hearted neighbors. We know that in reality, this story would not happen, but in the hands of Capra and Stewart, we eat it up.

Del Ruth is able to tap into that same critical yet patriotic depiction of American society in It Happened on 5th Avenue. In the beginning, Jim refuses to leave his apartment as O’Conner’s men clear out an entire building full of people. He rants and raves about how O’Conner and men like him are a menace to society. Throughout the rest of the movie, we see just how selfish and ruthless O’Conner is. He’s just one of many millionaires living on 5th Avenue in New York who controls much of the country.

Even when Jim is offered a great paying job in another country — this is O’Conner’s attempt at separating Jim from his daughter Trudy — he refuses and claims he’d never want to live anywhere but in America. As he and his fellow veterans are mistreated upon their return from war, Jim still loves America. Del Ruth never lets the audience think that American society is beyond reform, which was the only way to criticize America in Hollywood when this movie was made.

Del Ruth shows a change in character for O’Conner by the end. He’s still a millionaire, but a reformed one who is willing to help the homeless and treat his family better. The country’s problems are not solved by the end of the film, but the lives of the characters are better, which is all we need from a feel-good holiday movie. 

It Happened on 5th Avenue also has all the sentimental elements needed to balance the solemn aspects of the story and make for a holiday classic. Like Judy Garland’s iconic rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis, “That’s What Christmas Means to Me” became a huge hit after being featured in It Happened on 5th Avenue. The unlikely band of guests in the mansion gathers around the tree on Christmas Eve to sing together. That’s when O’Conner realizes that family is what makes a home and the homeless whom he’s met are more fortunate in this regard than he has ever been as a millionaire.

Even after It Happened on 5th Avenue received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story, it faded from memory. The library of films made by Monogram/Allied Artists, including It Happened on 5th Avenue, was sold to MGM and Warner Bros. in 1979. When It’s a Wonderful Life was circulating television broadcasts year after year, Del Ruth’s holiday film was kept unseen by newer generations after 1990.

For almost twenty years, It Happened on 5th Avenue was absent from holiday season broadcasts. A fan website dedicated to the film and a campaign for Turner Classic Movies to play the movie brought it back to television in 2009. Since then, it has been a staple in TCM’s holiday programming and a renewed Christmas classic.

Del Ruth does a splendid job bringing a wonderful holiday story to life in It Happened on 5th Avenue. Audiences can return to the film to see a representation of post-war American life while enjoying a somewhat silly plot at the same time. And the holiday season is the perfect time to enjoy its hopeful ending.

Now, when so many of us cannot be with our traditional families, it’s comforting to see the family McKeever and Jim create by welcoming those around them into their celebration. As so many people are experiencing a tough year, It Happened on 5th Avenue is the best movie to make us appreciate what we have and how we can help others.

Related Topics: ,

Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_