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A Christmas Wish
(The Great Rupert)

A Christmas Wish
Fox Home Entertainment
1949 / B&W & Colorized / 1:37 flat full frame / 78 min. / The Great Rupert / Street Date November 4, 2003 / 14.98
Starring Jimmy Durante, Terry Moore, Tom Drake, Frank Orth, Sara Haden, Queenie Smith, Chick Chandler, Jimmy Conlin, Frank Cady, Don Beddoe
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Production Designer Ernst Fegté
Film Editor Duke Goldstone
Original Music Leith Stevens
Written by Ted Alle, Harry Crane, James O'Hanlon and László Vadnay
Produced by George Pal
Directed by Irving Pichel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Note: there is an older Image release of The Great Rupert that has not been colorized and retitled.

This DVD release is the screwiest marketing charade Savant has yet seen in the DVD game. An outfit calling itself Legend Films has taken a little-known Jimmy Durante movie and is proclaiming it a Christmas Classic along the lines of It's a Wonderful Life. Now it's being distributed through Fox Home video - In Color for the First Time! - with a commentary by its star Terry Moore.

But what's not said anywhere on the packaging is that the film is really George Pal's first feature producing effort, The Great Rupert, an okay 'programmer' that exhibits all of his strengths and weaknesses. It's in color because the new 'producers' - who have added themselves to the package's credit block while subtracting Pal's key producer credit - have colorized it.


An out-of-work Vaudeville act, the Amendolas, take a room vacated by another old-time performer, not knowing that his pet squirrel Rupert has stayed behind. When Mrs. Amendola (Queenie Smith) prays for some new shoes for her daughter Rosalinda (Terry Moore) money falls onto the floor, seemingly from heaven. Good egg Mr. Amendola (Jimmy Durante) is generous with the cash, helping others and investing in businesses. Every week another boodle falls from the ceiling, and it looks like it will never end. What the Amendolas don't know is that the money belongs to their landlord Mr. Dingle (Frank Orth), who's been squirreling it away weekly in a wallspace hiding place. That niche just happens to be occupied by Rupert, the real squirrel. The rodent has no use for the money, and has been tossing it into the Amendolas' apartment as soon as Dingle stuffs it through the wall.

This exercise in aggressive marketing is all about George Pal's The Great Rupert, a sweet but disappointing production that says a lot about the beloved producer. Made with the same key creative talent as his breakthrough follow-up Destination Moon, Rupert is a modest comedy that's a little limp in the magic department, and as thematically confused as other Pal films. The Rupert of the title is a trained squirrel that dances jigs in a Scots costume for Jimmy Conlin, the lovable Preston Sturges regular. Rupert is obviously as much of a miracle as the performing frog in the Chuck Jones cartoon, but agent Chick Chandler isn't impressed one bit. This bit of illogic makes us think that Rupert might originally have had a bigger role in the story, but was cut back to save money or to concentrate on Jimmy Durante. As it is, the fantastic squirrel has no personality and no part in the tale except to redistribute the wealth from a landlord to his freeloading tenants, providing the story's dubious 'miracle.'

The supposed miracle is the film's weakness. The Amendolas are indeed good people blessed by something, as many of Durante's generous investments in local businesses pay off. Not only that, but Terry Moore's relationship with the amorous agent results in a musical career for her boyfriend Tom Drake, and with money borrowed from Amendola (and really belonging to his father, the landlord), Drake strikes oil. Having the Amendolas simply accept the falling cash as heaven-sent is forced and a little condescending, especially with the heavenly choir that accompanies each shower of green.

The movie is old-fashioned, even for 1949; it plays like a Depression-era story. Everybody in the film is Nice with a capital 'N', which is not a bad thing and a quality surely encouraged by the sweet, pleasant Mr. Pal. Yet there's a strange concentration on money, survival and unemployment that has a Great Depression desperation about it. Mr. Dingle's miserliness is criticized (he doesn't even have fire insurance, to his eventual regret) while Amendola's generosity is rewarded. The message is jumbled; how do the rest of us emulate Amendola's virtue without his miraculous weekly cash advance from God? Even though it talks about other kinds of happiness, The Great Rupert makes us spend most of our time thinking about money. Neighbors aren't very nice; gossip about the Amendolas' source of revenue brings Jimmy Durante to the attention of local cops, the FBI and the IRS. A big music sale and an oil gusher that turns everyone into millionaires end the show with the message that riches and happiness are the same thing.

Pal's sweetness makes this a very good Durante film; he's less grating than usual and very charming. The other adults are a cross-section of believable middle-agers, with Queenie Smith making the best impression as the wife who prays for new shoes and gets cold cash direct from heaven. Terry Moore's performance is an improvement over the previous year's Mighty Joe Young, probably because she's directed better. Everyone else is what you'd call serviceable; Irving Pichel's direction maintains a tone that really doesn't have any emotional high points. There's nothing terribly wrong with The Great Rupert. It's just not all that memorable.

For a movie about a fantastic squirrel, The Great Rupert lacks magic. Part live-action and part stop-motion, the dancing rodent is an animated model a la Harryhausen and not one of Pal's replacement-animation Puppetoons. The animation is not very impressive in either realism or character. It's fun to see Rupert dance, but the rest of the time he's just a dumb squirrel devoid of personality.

The Great Rupert has Christmas scenes but the 'wish' of the replacement title isn't related to Christmas at all. Durante sings several songs at the piano, including a jolting rendition of Jingle Bells. With Eagle-Lion pictures folding, the show didn't get much attention and was mostly ignored in 1949, to be rediscovered as a minor oddity on television early in the 50s. Along with many other late-night offerings, it disappeared when cable took over in the 1980s. It's known mostly by George Pal fans who relate it to his Puppetoons and to his famous Science Fiction films: it's fun to see Frank Cady, the millionaire's weasly servant from When Worlds Collide as a tax man.

Fox's DVD of A Christmas Wish is just plain misleading. Nowhere on the package does the title The Great Rupert appear, even though it's an industry practice to be upfront about retitlings. A banner in front says 'Digitally Restored - First Time in Color!' The transfer is splendid, clearly from an original element, but the original title has been replaced on both transfers on the disc. You won't find the words 'colorized' on the packaging either, an omission that implies that the film was shot in color but released in B&W, as sometimes happened.

The audio commentary really burned me up. The disc producer jovially introduces himself and talks as if A Christmas Wish were an acknowledged classic wonderfully restored to its former glory. He brings Terry Moore on-mike for her interview, even though she barely remembers the picture and only makes inane statements: "My first three movies were about a horse, a giant ape, and a dancing squirrel". It's obvious that she was fed facts to recite for the track. She cheerfully tells us that when she filmed the movie, George Pal was a famous maker of Science Fiction films. Of course, that only happened later.

The final blow comes with the film's credits, which have a 'special new version' end crawl as long as the restoration credits for Lawrence of Arabia. Legend Films' colorization process is touted in the PR, when it looks like the same old garish tinting that has long fallen from favor. Some of Durante's ties and suits have a gaudy zing, but faces still look like pale pumpkins. The scroll title has at least a hundred names of the Indian technicians that did the actual work, which will upset unemployed Christmas buyers looking to cheer up the family - 'Merry Christmas, to all of you whose jobs have gone overseas!'

The audacious 'restorers' have amended the film's credits on the package. Six Legend executive producers, 'color producers' and a 'color designer' usurp Pal and Pichel's credits. Instead, they're given an invented, 'a George Pal production an Irving Pichel film' nod up top. I wonder what the DGA would have to say about this? What a cheap scam.

The Great Rupert is a cute and inoffensive little show that's been repurposed to provide Fox with a holiday classic to shill. Technically, it's up to their quality level only if one ignores the ugly colorizing. Otherwise, it's a deceptive marketing trick, not something I'd expect to be released from a prestigious studio like Fox.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Great Rupert (A Christmas Wish) rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good, if you skip the colorized version
Sound: Good
Supplements: Commentary by star Terry Moore
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 31, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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