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After a long career in supporting roles starting way back in 1916, English actor Edmund Gwenn became a household name playing Kris Kringle in 1947's Miracle on 34th Street. Fox soon arranged for Gwenn to play other kindly old gentlemen helping younger people -- a college professor in Apartment for Peggy and an angel in For Heaven's Sake. He was also loaned to Warners help out a harried working girl in Pretty Baby. But the best vehicle for Gwenn's special personality is the interesting Mister 880, a clever slice of 'whimsical realism' based on a true incident written up in The New Yorker. Dorothy McGuire and Burt Lancaster star in the Julian Blaustein production, which provides a gentle twist on gritty postwar movies about dedicated federal crime busters.
Secret Service Agent Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster) takes a crack at counterfeiting case number 880, an open file that's been embarrassing the Treasury Department for a decade. Somebody in New York is passing fake $1 bills, always in miniscule quantities. "Mister 880's" fake money is simply awful, printed on ordinary paper and with words like "Washington" misspelled. But the criminal doesn't pass much of it, and rarely in the same place. Buchanan is determined to catch and convict him out of professional pride. Steve and his partner Mac (Millard Mitchell) zero in on U.N. translator Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire) after she passes two of 880's distinctive bogus bucks. Steve goes undercover to date Ann, hoping to find a connection. Ann's neighbor is Skipper Miller (Edmund Gwenn), a toothless old-timer whose only friend is a little dog; as his funds have dried up Miller ekes out a living selling junk. Whenever he runs short, Skipper pulls out an ancient printing press called "Henry" and cooks up some more homemade moolah. Chasing down Mister 880 has cost the Secret Service a lot of time and manpower, and Steve's attitude is that the law doesn't make exceptions. But how can anyone sentence a harmless old snoot like Skipper to prison?
Less well known than Miracle on 34th Street, 1950's Mister 880 uses a similar formula: earnest young people come to the aid of a perhaps-senile old man and learn a life lesson or two. Taken from real life, this story is not a fantasy, and although the climax is sentimental it's definitely not a miracle. For once the happy courtroom finale not only makes good sense, it's how things turned out in real life. Screenwriter Robert Riskin is best known for his 'Capracorn' classics for director Frank Capra, but his light touch and affectionate characters are even more endearing when applied to a 'benign' criminal targeted by federal T-Men more accustomed to apprehending desperate felons.
Director Edmund Goulding had worked with Dorothy McGuire back in 1943 on her starring screen debut in Claudia. Nearing the end of a lengthy career, Goulding's name is on quite a few acknowledged classics, such as Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, The Constant Nymph and Nightmare Alley. The mostly relaxed pace in Mister 880 allows for a number of sensitive and nuanced scenes.
As did fellow producer Val Lewton, Julian Blaustein began his film career working for David O. Selznick before being hired by Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox. Blaustein frequently opted for progressive subject matter. His big hit Broken Arrow casts Native Americans as noble heroes, and presents a romance between James Stewart's army scout and Debra Paget's Indian princess. Blaustein also ran up against political realities in the comedy Half Angel, when his outspoken star Loretta Young insisted that her soon-to-be-blacklisted director Jules Dassin be replaced. Blaustein was the driving force behind the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, which now plays as a liberal protest against militarism and political fear mongering.
Although Mister 880 doesn't criticize the Secret Service, it derives some of its charm from watching Steve and Mac's undercover work thwarted by a harmless old man and a smart young woman. On an outing at Coney Island Skipper passes his funny money right under Mac's nose, and Steve ends up passing a fake bill himself. Ann suspects Steve's ruse early on and quietly uncovers his true identity. Fortunately, they both have a sense of humor. The United Nations gets the equivalent of a publicity plug when Steve and Mac visit and observe Ann working alongside her fellow translators. Steve's coming assignment is to help with criminal problems in the European nations still recovering from the war. In their different ways, both Ann and Steve are working for the international good.
Meanwhile, the lovers must focus on the problem of the adorable public enemy #880, Skipper, who is anything but faultless and adorable. Skipper even makes a good argument that his criminal activity saves the government money. Ann looks out for the old man and doesn't feel that he is a criminal, but Steve can't be swayed from his duty. As Dorothy McGuire was at the time associated with the liberal issue film Gentleman's Agreement, the chance at lighter material is a welcome development. The same goes for Burt Lancaster, most of whose early star vehicles had been violent action films, where his physique earned more critical comments than his acting. Mister 880 sees Lancaster handling a smaller-scale character with grace and good humor.
Mister 880 also fits in well with 20th-Fox's fad for filming on real locations, which at the time was an unusual and expensive practice. Hollywood sets mix seamlessly with material shot on location in New York. The partly semi-docu style also supports the film's insistence on workaday realities. Everyone must earn a living, and the thoughtful Ann Winslow takes on a real responsibility when she looks out for the eccentric man upstairs. There are no fantasy miracles and no exaggerated romantic reversals. Ann and Steve are attracted to each other, even though he thinks she may know the crook he's chasing, and she intuits that he's cozying up to her partly in the line of duty. Mister 880 generates a nice feeling about people.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD of Mister 880 is an acceptable presentation of this charming story. The transfer is not new but it's reasonably attractive, and sharp enough to show precise details on the currency, both real and counterfeit, that Burt Lancaster holds up to examine. A disclaimer title tells us that for this production only, the authorities gave 20th Fox special permission to sidestep Federal laws against using real money on screen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mister 880 rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.