Tag Archives: Dorothy McGuire

Mister 880 (1950) – Romantic Comedy and Counterfeit Money

Mister_880It’s a bit like Miracle on 34th Street, though surprisingly I liked Mister 880 even more than the celebrated Christmas classic. It was made in 1950 and stars Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire and the man who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, Edmund Gwenn. Despite the similarities, it’s a more low-key film, a bit less sentimental and has a little less of a point to make. It’s also based on a real story and so the film feels more everyday, about people doing their job and doing the best they can for themselves and other people. There are no villains in Mister 880.

The Secret Service has been interested in the case of an amateur counterfeiter they call Mister 880 for ten years. He’s a terrible counterfeiter, he even spells Washington as Wahsington, but because he only counterfeits one dollar bills and never uses them at the same place, the secret service has never been able to catch him. For a fresh perspective, they bring in Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster) to work on the case.

He begins to notice that there is a geographical pattern to how the money is being used and soon a suspect turns up. Two counterfeit one dollar bills are used by Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire). Ann is a respectable translator who works at the UN and Buchanan quickly rules her out as the source of the money, but thinks that perhaps she can lead him to the real counterfeiter. 

The real counterfeiter is an elderly war veteran called Skipper (Edmund Gwenn). He likes to deal in ‘antiques’ and barely has enough money to live on. Whenever he’s really in a bind, he tells people that he must go to “Uncle Henry,” who turns out to be a money press. He only uses it in extreme emergencies, and then only prints one dollar bills and makes sure that he never gives anyone more than one dollar (though he did give his neighbor and friend, Ann, two dollars, but he really felt she over-payed him for an antique he bought her). He’s such a lovable guy; he likes kids and people really respond warmly to him.

Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, Edmund Gwenn

Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, Edmund Gwenn

Buchanan is convinced that the counterfeiter is in Ann’s neighborhood, but although he is always visiting Ann (they’ve fallen in love) he doesn’t realize that the man he is looking for is right under his nose.

It’s a fun, irresistible and warm film. Gwenn really does play him as a lovable, though vulnerable, guy. When Buchanan is closing in on the counterfeiter, Skipper has to stop making his one dollar bills and without that source of income he must sell his beloved collection of antiques (some people would call it junk); antiques that he always said kept him company and which he made up stories about. It’s not a drawn out scene, but very poignant that this lonely old man, without a word of complaint or a tear, is selling off all he owns and cares about.

But his creed is that he doesn’t want to be a bother. That is why he refused a service pension that he is entitled to. He thought he could save the government time and money by just making a dollar here and there as the need arose, ironically causing more trouble for the government than he ever could have imagined.

Dorothy McGuire and Burt Lancaster are also really good in this film. She’s competent and smart and gets on to Buchanan almost from the get go, though she says she hopes that once he figures out she’s not a counterfeiter that he won’t drop her too fast; she thinks he’s hot (and it’s Burt Lancaster, so I can’t disagree). And although he could play extremely tough men, Burt Lancaster is also endearing in this film. He’s a bit gung-ho about his work and talks a hard line about catching and prosecuting counterfeiters, but he’s no Inspector Javert. He’s really a nice guy.

phot6360Another thing I enjoyed about this film is that no one has to change. Sometimes, these kind of films can be a bit preachy; how the by-the-book secret service man must learn compassion and bend his principles, but there is none of that here. Nobody has to change and nobody gets mad at anyone. Ann doesn’t even get angry at Buchanan when he does his job and arrests Skipper, though she is grieved. Even the judge, who also believes in taking a hard line on matter of counterfeiting, is not antagonistic, though he is stern. He too responds to Skipper’s warm personality and it doesn’t take much for Buchanan to talk him into a lenient sentence. It’s a charming film about good, affectionate people trying to do the right thing.


Posted by on January 30, 2015 in Comedy, Romance


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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

spiral staircaseThe Spiral Staircase is exactly my definition of a well done mystery/thriller. Actually, it is often described as a psychological thriller. It’s very post WWII in its concerns: the strong preying on the weak (disabled) and issues of shock and post traumatic stress. Most of the story occurs inside a large home with a shadowy wine cellar that has passages and doors, there is a rainstorm outside, and a diverse assemblage of people in the house who are, one by one, removed from the scene until there is only the killer and the victim.

The story occurs in the early 1900s when there were still carriages and cars on the roads. There is a silent movie being shown in a ground floor room in the local hotel, while upstairs a girl is murdered (there is a rather alarming moment when she opens up her closet and we realize that there is somebody hiding behind her clothes, watching her. It’s almost enough to make you not want to ever open your closet again). It is the next in a series of murders, all women, who have a disability of some kind. One woman was lame and another was mentally handicapped.

At the hotel during the murder is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), who works as a maid for the very wealthy and ill Mrs. Warren, and people are concerned that since she is mute she will be the next victim. She makes it home without incident, however, though someone does appear to be watching her.

The home belongs to Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) who is very ill and hates her much-put-upon nurse (Sara Allgood) and greatly prefers Helen, who once studied to be a nurse. However, it seems that Helen has now given up this intention, somewhat to the disapproval of the new doctor in town, Dr. Parry (Kent Hunt), who likes Helen and wants to help her speak again. He believes that her inability to speak is owing to the shock of seeing her parents burned alive in their home when she was a young child and wants to take her to Boston with him to see of they can help her.

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

Also in the house is Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), who is Mrs. Warren’s step-son, Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), his secretary, and Mrs. Warren’s son, Steven (Gordon Oliver). The servants are comprised of Helen, and Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester – always a delight to see).  Also, Dr. Parry is in the house to see how Mrs. Warren is doing and to talk to Helen about coming to Boston with him.

Repeatedly, during the evening, Mrs. Warren tries to warn Helen to leave the house. She is not well and her thoughts seem to wander a lot, so Helen does not know exactly what to make of her wild warnings. However, Dr. Parry is concerned and agrees that he should take Helen to stay with his mother. Before he can do so, however, he is called to visit another person who is unwell.

Meanwhile, the housekeeper, Mrs. Oats, is getting drunk, the nurse is getting fed up and the two step-brothers – Albert and Steven – don’t like each other, but both like Blanche. People begin to leave the house in various ways, the rain continues outside, Mrs. Warren continues to warn Helen, and finally, the killer is after Helen.

In an era when most movies are at least two hours, I really appreciate watching a film that is 90 minutes or less. There is something very satisfying about brevity, no wasted scenes, everything intricately part of the story. The Spiral Staircase is 83 minutes and flies by, all taking place in one evening, almost entirely in the house.

Dorothy McGuire, George Brent The Spiral Staircase (1945)

George Brent and Dorothy McGuire

Dorothy McGuire received wonderful reviews on her performance when the movie was first released, and deservedly so. Because she cannot speak, she must convey everything through her expression and body language. She is also no helpless woman in distress, which I found refreshing. She never goes into hysterics, she keeps moving and trying new things when it is clear who is trying to kill her, looking for the gun she knows Mrs. Warren had, trying to attract the attention of the sheriff.

Ethel Barrymore plays the bedridden Mrs. Warren whose mind seems to be wandering and yet alarmingly fixed on one thing with great clarity. She is the second wife of Mr. Warren, who evidently died many years before. She seems to have worshipped him, a man who believed in strength (he was an excellent shot and hunted and so on) and despised his sons as weaklings. It actually seems to be through the dead Mr. Warren that the twisted thinking that the strong are more fit to live has entered the house. And Mrs. Warren knows it. She likes Helen and repeatedly tries to get her out of the house, but it is through her passivity that the murderer is free to operate. Really, she would have let Helen die if it hadn’t been that she discovered she was wrong about who the murderer was. All disturbing concepts to contemplate.

Many people have commented on how very Hitchcockian the film is and when I think good, old-fashioned mystery/thrillers, old country-house murders, old dark house, black and white films with shadows and unique camera perspectives, this is the kind of movie I would have imagined being made. It’s quintessential.


Posted by on November 4, 2014 in Movies


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