I'd always assumed Mister 880 (1950) was written specifically for British character actor Edmund Gwenn, whose signature performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) won him an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. In Mister 880 Gwenn plays another elderly eccentric beloved by children and adults alike, and it likewise revolves around a young couple's conflicted emotions about the best way to address their friend's behavior. And, like Miracle on 34th Street, there's a big trial at the end where the old man faces possible incarceration, a prospect everyone would just as soon avoid.
And yet, astoundingly, Gwenn got the part only after Walter Huston, the actor originally cast in the part, died suddenly of an aortic aneurism. Huston, who'd won the same Best Supporting Actor Oscar one year after Gwenn for Treasure of the Sierra Madre, might have been terrific, too, but today Mister 880 is remembered primarily for Gwenn's performance. The movie, very closely based on a true story first told in The New Yorker, is interesting and shrewdly crafted.
A Fox Cinema Archives manufactured-on-demand release, Mister 880 sources what may be an older but still pretty good transfer (a Fox Television logo appears at the tail).
Filmed more or less in the same semi-documentary style that began in Fox-produced films like The House on 92nd Street (1945), Mister 880 opens with a newsreel-like introduction to the anti-counterfeiting unit of the Department of Treasury's Secret Service branch. There, case number 880 remains unsolved after ten years, longer than any other, and the mysterious New York-based counterfeiter earns the nickname "Mister 880." Ironically, despite eluding arrest for so long, 880's counterfeit bills, all singles, are quite amateurish, printed as they are on regular paper stock with many obvious mistakes, including a misspelled "Wahsington" on the front.
The case is sent to Los Angeles office agent Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster), whose zeal to catch the counterfeiter impresses no one at the New York office - until Steve doggedly turns up several new leads. One of his discoveries is that United Nations interpreter Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire) has been passing several of 880's bills.
From almost the beginning of the movie the unlikely counterfeiter is identified as "The Skipper," a kindly, elderly, near-destitute junk dealer living with his mongrel terrier. In an early scene, his neighbor Ann buys from him a miniature spinning wheel for $3 but she insists on paying him $5. Not wanting her charity he quietly slips two $1 counterfeit bills into her purse.
Steve begins dating Ann, hoping to learn how the bills came into her possession. But she's a smart cookie herself and, after accidentally learning Steve's real identity, decides to play a practical joke on him. She leaves an incriminating (but manufactured) letter in her typewriter, and later lets slip bits of counterfeiting jargon she picked up in a library book. Soon, the two are head-over-heels and, completely unaware that the Skipper is 880, spend time with their elderly friend, inviting him to places like Coney Island where the Skipper continues passing counterfeit money.
The movie avoids several potential landmines. The Skipper is passing bills right under Steve's nose and even successfully passes one to Steve himself, who in turn passes it to a hawker at Coney Island. All this runs the risk of making Treasury agents look as inept as the Keystone Kops, but instead Robert Riskin's script merely marvels at the irony of these odd-but-true circumstances.
The movie also grapples with wanting to catch lawbreaker 880 yet not wanting to be too harsh on the Kris-Kringly Skipper. Moreover, like Emerich Juettner, on whose activities the Skipper is closely based, he passes at most a few $1 bills per day and never at the same place twice. He certainly never amasses great wealth, using the fake money only to subsist. Conversely, Steve himself seems totally inflexible and largely humorless for most of the film, condescendingly lecturing everyone for carelessly accepting the Skipper's obviously funny money. No matter who 880 turns out to be, Steve argues, and regardless of the circumstances, he deserves the maximum punishment. How this quandary is finally resolved is dramatically satisfying and, coincidentally, how things turned out for Juettner in the real world as well.
Unlike his eternally optimistic Kris Kringle, Gwenn is very low-key as the Skipper, playing him as a much more realistically aged eccentric. (Gwenn removes his dentures for the role, playing him toothless like the real Emerich Juettner.) He's identified only as "Skipper" Miller in the credits but like Juettner is supposed to be a German immigrant. In several scenes he is heard speaking that language, but Gwenn doesn't try to hide his slight Cockney accent, an odd mixture. Though billed above the title after Lancaster and McGuire, Gwenn's name is in a significantly smaller font on the credits, unfortunate considering Gwenn had already won an Oscar and would earn another nomination for his work here.
Video & Audio
Mister 880 looks pretty good, not great but above average in its black and white, full-frame image. The audio is English mono only with no subtitle options, though the disc is region-free. Chapter stops divide the film into 10-minute intervals. No Extra Features, not even a trailer.
An intriguing little film with three engaging leading performances, Mister 880 is a good, historically-based family film that comes Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.