Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mr. 880

(1950) Directed by Edmund Golding
Screenplay by Robert Riskin
Starring Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, Edmund Gwenn.
Edmund Gwenn's place in film history is secure. He is famous for one role: Kris Kringle in the greatest of all Christmas films, Miracle on 34th Street. As a further highlight to his resume, he appeared in one of the greatest of all giant insects movies, Them!, as the wise old scientist. You know his strengths: a softspoken charm and playfulness.

Mr. 880 is another fine role for him. The movie is a gentle comedy about an unsual subject: counterfeiting.

Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster) is a Secret Service agent, on the trail of a counterfeiter. His target is an odd duck: he only counterfeits one-dollar bills (which was rare even back when the dollar bought a lot more) and he was very bad at his trade (he misspells "Washington" on the bill). But he has been passing these for over twenty years with no sign of getting caught.

Buchanan manages to find the neighborhood where the counterfeiter is operating and goes undercover. He becomes part of the neighborhood, and romances Ann Winslow (Dorothy Mcguire).

Gwenn plays Skipper Miller, a charming old man who is loved by everyone in the neighborhood. And, yes, it's not a spoiler to tell you that Skipper is the counterfeiter. Buchanan begins to catch on. But Skipper is only passing the bills from time to time in order to make ends meet. Buchanan has to decide how to deal with the issue.

Gwenn, of course, is delightful -- Kris Kringle without a beard. And Lancaster relaxes a bit (he was often too intense in his roles until he learned to relax in Atlantic City).

The script is by Robert Riskin, one of the 30's greatest screenwriters. You've probably never heard of him, but he worked with Frank Capra. Capra didn't like to share credit, but Riskin wrote the screenplays for It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can't Take is With You, and Meet John Doe. He also wrote the screenplay for the more obscure American Madness, which Capra borrowed freely from when he made It's a Wonderful Life (American Madness was about a kindly bank president who believes in making loans for the little guy. When he is on the verge of collapse due to a run on the bank, his friends come through to donate money to help him out. All it's missing is angels.). Working without Capra, Riskin wrote the gangster comedy The Whole Town's Talking. Mister 880 is in a long line of his fine scripts.

The film got Gwenn his second Oscar nomination (he had already won for you know what). It's a worthy addition to the other two films that made him famous.


pauldobbs said...

Wonderful film.

Unknown said...

Wonderful film indeed! Just saw it on TCM, it ended mere moments ago. Hard-hearted thing that I am, I'm not often moved by sentimentality, especially when it's manufacture to be so. Perhaps it was the skill of the actors or more likely, the gravitas of B&W movies from the time, but I was more than moved by the tale. I'm not ashamed to say that during the trial scene when the Skippers eyes shone with tears, I had to wipe my own.