Mister 880 (1950)
Who better than Oscar Winner, Edmund Gwenn, to play a kindly old timer living in New York City who goes out of his way to befriend children, stray animals and Dorothy McGuire in this light hearted picture for 20th Century Fox under the direction of Edmund Goulding. The problem is he’s on the Treasury Department’s Most Wanted List as Case #880 for counterfeiting and he’s about to have the Treasury’s top dog, Burt Lancaster, assigned to uncover his real identity, intent on sending him “up the river” for the next fifteen years.
You’d think that a counterfeiter would be out to set himself up on easy street for life. Not so with the gentle Mr. Gwenn. On occasion he’ll print off a few one dollar bills to make ends meet. Nothing that is overly harmful to any vendor’s place of business. The bills will occasionally come to the attention of the treasury department making 880 the longest outstanding case having originated over ten years previously. No agent has been able to track the source and arrest the guilty party. But now that there’s star material assigned to locate 880, Mr. Gwenn’s time on the lam might be coming to a close.
Burt will get his first big lead when a phony bill is identified and Miss McGuire is pointed out to Burt as the lady who passed the dollar with the word Washington incredibly misspelled. Along with his partner on the force, Millard Mitchell, Burt is in hot pursuit and takes a definite shine to the lady he’s trailing. In a nicely set up good guy/bad guy scene, Burt saves the fair lady from the evil clutches of a lecherous Mitchell allowing Burt to romance Miss McGuire and learn her movements where money is concerned hoping to track the source as surely she wouldn’t be 880.
This leads to a comical bit when McGuire learns of Burt’s reason for the romance and date slated for the next day. She works as a language translator at the U.N. During their next dinner out on the town she begins to drop slang terms only a counterfeit specialist should know. Burt’s on to her and he decides to place her in “technical custody.” Yes romance is blooming for the one time circus acrobat. The deeper Burt digs into the neighborhood where the phony bills are passed the tougher time he’s having following a definitive trail. All this even after he’s met the kindly old gentleman living in the upstairs apartment above Dorothy whom she calls a friend.
When Burt and Mitchell begin to educate local store keepers on how to spot the fake one dollar bills, Gwenn realizes he’s going to have to stop producing them and do away with his money making machine he affectionately calls, Uncle Henry. By happenstance all our subplots are going to collide when Burt gets a solid lead on locating the remains of “Uncle Henry” and poor Miss McGuire realizes the true identity of 880.
Don’t be too surprised if our favorite Santa Claus from the 1947 version of Miracle On 34th Street doesn’t get sent to Folsom for a fifteen year stretch. Actually this film borrows heavily from the finale of that endearing Christmas film. Meaning we are headed for a happy ending Hollywood style while appeasing the guardians of “the code” at the same time.
Looking back this is somewhat of an unusual title in the career of Burt Lancaster during this early period. Released in 1950 it’s sandwiched between a pair of 1949 Noirs ( Criss Cross & Rope of Sand) and some 1951 action adventures (Vengeance Valley and Ten Tall Men). I guess 1950 proved the year he attempted to play it both romantically light with McGuire and swashbuckler light with Virginia Mayo in The Flame and the Arrow. Let’s be honest with a star of Burt’s caliber they’re all enjoyable and are worth multiple viewings.
On that note I hadn’t actually seen Mr. 880 since the days of Saturday Night At the Movies hosted by popular Canadian Movie Historian, Elwy Yost, back in the late 70’s / early 80’s. For me it’s always been a very rare Lancaster film that I only recently found thanks to the Made On Demand DVD branch of 20th Century Fox. Seeing the film again was a pleasure and as it had been far too long it was like seeing it for the first time. What made it more enjoyable still was the fact that I’ve grown to fully appreciate not only Burt who I admit was a childhood hero but also Miss McGuire and especially the work of Edmund Gwenn. His Oscar winning turn as Santa is a pleasure I love to revisit yearly. If not the whole film then just to see him nail nasty Porter Hall on the beak with an umbrella handle. Cracks me up every time.
With the success of the Christmas classic I’m surprised that Fox never tried to turn this into a cast reunion by assigning John Payne to the Lancaster role and Maureen O’Hara in McGuire’s. Easy to imagine looking back in time. Gwenn would continue acting in more beloved titles of the 1950’s including The Trouble With Harry and Them! before retiring in 1957, finally passing away in September of 1959. Director Goulding would also pass away in 1959. Noir fans may remember him best for his work on Nightmare Alley that cast Tyrone Power against type.
Miss McGuire was a fine actress who somehow never scored an Academy Award despite some great roles in films I number among my favorites. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Old Yeller and Friendly Persuasion among them. She’d mainly act in TV during the 1970’s and 80’s before retiring from the screen and passing away in 2001.
Again if you’re looking to score a copy of Mr. 880 and why wouldn’t you, it’s out there on DVD for those who love to collect.