Clever, witty reworking yet again of Gwenn's Oscar-winning Miracle on 34th Street formula. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives, their vault of hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released Something For the Birds, the 1952 political romantic comedy directed by Robert Wise, and starring Victor Mature, Patricia Neal, and Edmund Gwenn. Not a sequel (despite that flat-out misleading poster art) to Gwenn's other Miracle re-working, Mr. 880, Something For the Birds finds Gwenn taking on another adorable scammer role, showing up corrupt Washington politics with a gentle, benign touch, while steering lobbyist Mature and conservationist Neal together. No extras for this super-nice full-screen black and white transfer.
Foster & Sons Printers and Stationers, established 1868, in the tony Washington, D.C. enclave Georgetown. Quiet John Adams (Edmund Gwenn), an engraver with the company for 36 years, leads a double life―for years now he's swiped the invitation proof copies of various exclusive Washington parties and, in rented tux, has established himself as genial, gregarious "Admiral" Johnnie Adams, U.S.N., retired. A fixture on the party circuit, and friend to everyone who's anyone in D.C. power circles―since he never asks them for any favors―the Admiral is shamed when he meets fellow gate-crasher Anne Richards (Patricia Neal), a naive spokesman for the SPCC: the Society for the Preservation of the California Condor. She thinks he could help her gain access to Congress to fight a bill favoring connected Continental Gas' plan to dig up the condor's habitat. However, Adams, fearing exposure of his ruse, declines...until he happens on a plan: let slick lobbyist Stever Bennett (Victor Mature) help out as a thank you for the graft-procured refrigerator Bennett scored for the Admiral's landlady, Mrs. Chadwick (Madge Blake). However, Adams soon realizes to his horror that that gift leads a paper trail to his fictitious alter ego, and once scandal-happy Washington gets wind of Bennett's other fridge gifts to congressmen and senators―gifts to secure votes for Bennett's client, Continental Gas―Adams realizes the jig is up.
I had never heard of Something For the Birds before this disc showed up in my mailbox, but when I saw the original poster art on the hardcase, I assumed the movie was some kind of sequel to Gwenn's 1951 hit, Mr. 880, which I had seen before, and which had scored Gwenn another Oscar nod. After all, the poster clearly says, "Mr. 880 Is Back―881 times phonier." However, that bald-faced lie was apparently a bit of marketing duplicity to piggyback Something For the Birds onto Gwenn's earlier hit, because he doesn't play real-life counterfeiter "Mr. 880" here at all. Vague parallels exist; he's an engraver here rather than a forger, who manufactures his own counterfeit invitations as a gateway to glamorous Washington, while guiding a young couple towards love. Just as close, though, is Something For the Birds's framework to Miracle on 34th Street, with Gwenn assuming an alter ego here (the reverse of Miracle, where the real Santa plays "store Santa"), before creating anxious tension for all his friends when the kindly old gentleman gets "caught" in his scheme. The connections with Miracle continue as Gwenn utilizes his assumed persona for good (lobbying the lazy senators with subtle blackmail in place of his successful, counter-intuitive marketing campaign in Miracle), with a big public showdown as the movie's finale (here it's a televised congressional hearing, rather than Miracle's courtroom trial). Here, Gwenn comically champions decency in a cynical world, before he helps a girl's dream come true (the movie combines Miracle's two resolutions of Natalie Wood getting a home and Maureen O'Hara getting John Payne: Neal gets her condor-killing bill squashed, and Victor Mature).
Those aspects of Something For the Birds may seem a tad familiar (though still slickly and entertainingly done by efficient director Wise), while one or two other elements don't work particularly well (Archer MacDonald's broad, unfunny bird caller keeps popping up seemingly from another movie, while mismatched stars Mature and Neal struggle to find any on-screen chemistry). However, Something For the Birds' easy-going political satire is frequently hilarious, and, as with any story that calls out Washington as a town of weak-willed toadies beholden first to money, second to covering their asses, and third to their own parochial interests, it's spot-on and easily recognizeable (particularly) today. The screenplay is credited to soon-to-be legendary writer and Billy Wilder collaborator I.A.L. Diamond (Some Like it Hot, One, Two, Three, The Fortune Cookie) and Boris Ingster (Cloak and Dagger, Southside 1-1000, TV's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), based on "stories" by historian Alvin M. Josephy (The Captive City), Joseph Petracca (The Jayhawkers!, TV's Rawhide and Route 66) and Ingster, and it's filled with funny, observant asides about our lawmakers who do as little as possible unless it serves their own narrow interests...especially if a little gift of money or a FridgidaireŽ crosses palms.
Interestingly, the satire isn't particularly mean-spirited or nasty; this isn't muckracking, social protest moviemaking as you might expect from Fox's Zanuck, nor is it coarse, cartoonish, easy mockery. Something For the Birds, rather refreshingly, off-handedly suggests that corruption and all-too-human petty self-interests are not only matter-of-fact and basic to the American political system...but weirdly necessary to get anything done―heresy in today's world of phony mainstream media outrage and low information voters. Mature makes a logical case for today's most hated aspect of Washington power games (his lobbying efforts save the bird, after all), while the politicians here are comical, farcical, rather innocuous figures who, with the help of a little soft-sell blackmail, will eventually get their arms twisted into doing the public some good (only the movie's contempt for big business is presented without humor, unfortunately). This laid-back tone gives Something For the Birds a deeply cynical yet oddly good-natured, light sophistication that seems to elude today's too-broad, too obvious, too one-sided, too-hectoring political satires from useful idiots like Clooney and Damon. That light touch seems likely to have come from Diamond, as well as all the funny one-liners ("In Washington, if you only seem to know what you're doing, you can get away with anything,"), both of which are quite welcome suprises here in Something For the Birds.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.