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Friday, January 17, 2014

MISTER 880 (1950)

This modest charmer came late in the careers Robert Riskin (who scripted most of Frank Capra’s best) and genre-jumping vet helmer Edmund Goulding. Loosely based on a true story, it’s really a mash up of two 20th/Fox specialities: the documentary-flavored shot-on-location police procedural (like CALL NORTHSIDE 777/’48) and the cuddly, sentimental MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET/’47. (The finale all but reenacts the famous courtroom scene in MIRACLE.) Edmund Gwenn, who played the possibly delusional Santa Claus there, now goes shabby to play an incompetent tramp counterfeiter. In fact, he’s so bad, and such a small potatoes target, he’s never been caught. Enter Burt Lancaster as the new Secret Service guy on the hunt, and U.N. interpreter Dorothy McGuire as the link between them. The real surprise in the film is seeing Riskin play hit-and-run with all the expected mistaken identity/false assumption running-gags and general forced comic tone of the genre, skirting cuter-than-thouness on all sides. No one’s overselling this one; even the background score refrains from using those awful nudge-nudge, wink-wink ‘funny’ music cues. (No razzes from the oboes or risible kazoos. Hurrah!) In its quiet way, it keeps its dignity. Especially when McGuire lets her boss know why she wants to keep Lancaster in the dark. He’s just too handsome to lose. Amen, lady. Set your expectations to moderate and enjoy.

DOUBLE-BILL: Riskin wrote 10 scripts for Capra, all great. Everybody knows DEEDS/’36; JOHN DOE/’41 and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT/’34. Why not try AMERICAN MADNESS/’32 and LADY FOR A DAY/’33, two lesser-known masterworks.

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