The Great Rupert (1950)

Watching Christmas movies that you've never heard of is always an adventure. Sometimes you find something awful. Sometimes you find something astounding. Something wonderful.

The Great Rupert (later repackaged as A Christmas Wish) is a family film starring the inimitable Jimmy Durante, a ton of other talented comedic actors, and several living and deceased squirrels. Don't worry, it's not macabre. The plot hinges on the actions of a trained squirrel named Rupert, who is variously represented by live animals and extremely skillful stop-motion animation.

It's a hilarious movie, with a really sincere, charming quality to the humor. Erin even found the musical numbers compelling. There is very little wasted time - it's tightly plotted and beautifully made.

We have no idea why this movie has been mostly forgotten. It's easily as good or better than many "classic" Christmas films. As a bonus, the plot concerns an apparent miracle with a very prosaic, if silly, explanation, and an example of the community and economic benefits of the redistribution of wealth.

The story starts with Rupert and his trainer, Joe Mahoney, preparing for what he hopes will be a big break. Phil Davis, the Broadway agent who comes to see Mahoney's new bit, says that squirrels aren't impressive enough, and Mahoney is thrown out of his apartment that day for being unable to pay his rent. He brings Rupert to the park and sets the squirrel free. Mahoney then runs into the Amendola family, a down-on-their-luck acrobatic trio that used to work the vaudeville circuit as a human pyramid. They decide to take over Mahoney's old apartment and quickly con the landlord's son into letting them stay without paying rent upfront. (The fact that young Rosalinda Amendola and Peter the landlord's son are immediately sweet on each other helps.)

The landlord, Mr. Dingle, is angry at his son, but happy about a letter in the mail - he invested in a gold mine that's started to pay off. He gets his first installment, but hides the money behind a wall panel, claiming not to trust banks (or his wife or son).

All the above takes place on Christmas Eve. Mrs. Amendola, at the end of her rope, prays alone in the apartment for the ability to find a place they can stay for more than a few days, or at least to buy new shoes for her daughter for Christmas, in what may be one of the all-time greatest lines in cinema (I don't want to spoil it, so you'll have to trust me). Meanwhile, Rupert, afraid of the wilderness, has returned to his home in the rafters of the apartment and cleans out the $1500 that Mr. Dingle left in the wall, raining it down on Mrs. Amendola.

The Amendolas thank God for the gift, pay their rent, and have a delightful Christmas. Peter shows Rosalinda some music he wrote for her. Phil the agent comes by and starts acting interested in Rosalinda as well.

Over the following weeks, Rupert keeps giving Mr. Dingle's money to the Amendolas, and after they donate a lot of it for shoes for underprivileged kids, they start investing in local businesses. Not because they're smart business people, just because Mr. Amendola can't hold onto money when he sees someone who needs help. (Incidentally, this is where that economic theory I mentioned earlier comes in. Mr. Dingle, who was already decently well-off, got a windfall and just hoarded it. The poverty-stricken Amendola family immediately spent to meet their needs, then invested in their community.)

Finally, the mystery of the money is too much for the neighborhood and a whole passel of agents from the IRS, the FBI, etc. come to find out what's going on. They hear about the miracle, but that very day, the gold mine runs out, and there's no more money from heaven.

Before anyone is arrested, though, Rupert takes a cigarette into his lair and accidentally starts a fire. (Don't worry! He's rescued by a firefighter.) Mr. Dingle thinks his money burned in the fire, but everyone else realizes what happened. Mr. Amendola uses the money he's making from the local investments to rebuild the Dingle house. Rosalinda reveals that she used Phil the agent to get Peter's music published, and Rosalinda and Peter get engaged. Rupert is reunited with Mahoney and finally becomes a vaudeville star.

This movie is a ton of fun, and it's easy to find because it seems to be in the public domain in the U.S. In addition, it's one of the more brilliantly subversive movies we've seen. It doesn't directly come out and state it, but the way Rupert's mundane acts are ascribed to God implies some interesting questions. It's not that much of a stretch to call this an atheist Christmas film. Or, barring that, one positing that God is actually a dancing squirrel. Either way, I want to hear more of the writer's philosophy. For the innovative stop-motion, for the brilliant comedy, and for the delightful Christmas "miracle," it deserves a lot more attention than it's gotten.