Mister 880 DVD Review: A Forgotten Counterfeit Gem

I wonder if there has ever been a more charming actor than Edmund Gwenn. In 2013, his name may no longer be very familiar, but anyone who has seen the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947) will never forget him. Gwenn was absolutely enchanting as Kris Kringle in that classic film. When watching the new-to-DVD Mister 880 (1950), the last thing in the world I expected to find was a sequel of sorts to Miracle on 34th Street. Yet this film, which is ostensibly about a counterfeiter, is exactly that.

The strains of “Auld Lang Syne” that inexplicably appear in the soundtrack were the first tip-off. This would be understandable if the events took place during New Year’s Eve, or thereabouts. Yet there is no snow on the ground, and it does not even appear to be particularly cold outside. The only reason I can think of that they would use this music was to subconsciously evoke thoughts of the winter holidays. Why they did not go further and actually make it appear to be winter is odd, as if that would be too obvious or something.

It is during the final courtroom scene where director Edmund Goulding really shows what he had in mind. While there are no bags of mail to be dumped on the judge’s desk, as in the climax of Miracle, the finale of Mister 880 is very nearly as heart-warming. If imitation truly is the highest form of flattery, as least the people behind Mister 880 chose a good one for their inspiration.

As I said, at first glance Mister 880 would not seem to have anything in common with Miracle on 34th Street. In the opening, we discover that “Case 880” is the one that the Secret Service has been working on for 10 years. It concerns a counterfeiter in New York, who produces nothing but one-dollar bills. The agents are understandably frustrated, all the more so because the bills are so obviously fake. They are printed on regular paper, with the name “Washington” misspelled as “Wahsington.” Over time, the agents have developed a grudging admiration for this mysterious counterfeiter, and have taken to calling him “Mister 880.”

When Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster) is called in from Los Angeles, he is informed that Mister 880 averages less than $50 a month with his “inept” counterfeit bills. The idea of bringing in Buchanan is to give a fresh set of eyes to the case. His first order of business is to contact the people who have reported receiving the bills.

As this is going on, we meet an older gentleman who is bargaining in a junk store. He is called “Skipper” (Edmund Gwenn), and he walks out with a beautiful, miniature spinning wheel. Skipper takes the wheel to his neighbor Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire), and gives it to her. Ann asks what it cost, and Skipper tells her that it was three dollars. She tells him it is worth much more, and gives him a five-dollar bill. When her back is turned, we see Skipper pull out two singles and put them in her purse.

After this exchange, Steve gets a call from a taxi driver who has just received a fake bill from a young woman. It is Ann, and Steve follows her to a newsstand, where she unknowingly uses another fake to buy a newspaper. She works as an interpreter for the United Nations, and Buchanan realizes that it is not very likely that she is the counterfeiter. She could lead them to Mister 880 though, so he decides to “cultivate” her.

While this is going on, Skipper’s landlord comes to collect the rent, and all he has is the five that Dorothy had given him. The landlord is impatient, and tells Skipper that he needs the whole $20. Skipper tells him that he will have to go see his cousin Henry. “Cousin Henry” is Skipper’s counterfeit press, and we watch him make exactly 15 one-dollar bills. He crumples them to give them that well-worn look, then marks his map of New York, presumably to keep track of where he is passing them.

As the movie unfolds, Steve and Ann develop a relationship. They also both begin to realize that Skipper is the counterfeiter. It is a difficult situation, as they both are very fond of him. But Steve has to do the right thing and arrest him.

At his trial, Skipper’s real name is revealed, his given name is William Miller, and he is a decorated Navy veteran. His motive for counterfeiting is strange to say the least. As a veteran, he was eligible for a pension, which he refused on the grounds of saving the U.S. government the money. He felt that producing the occasional one-dollar bill as he needed it was a better idea. The whole courtroom is oddly entranced by this seemingly harmless fellow, but justice must be served.

The parallels between Miracle on 34th Street and Mister 880 have been well established by this point. You have the young couple who are extremely fond of the eccentric but lovable older man, in a courtroom situation. The icing on the cake comes when Buchanan is asked by the judge if he has anything to say about the case. Buchanan mentions a book he has just picked up and quotes from it, “Justice is too often administered by fixed rules, without regard for the feelings of the human mind, or the charity of the human heart.” The book was written by the presiding judge, who appears moved by his own words. Skipper is given the lightest possible sentence, a year and a day. This will result in him spending only four months behind bars, before he is eligible for parole.

Mister 880 perfectly illustrates the reason that “manufacturing on demand” (MOD) is such a cool thing for movie buffs. This is a film that will appeal to a very limited audience, and would have probably sat on the shelf forever otherwise. Who would have had any idea at this late date that someone had once decided to take the basic ingredients of Miracle on 34th Street and apply them to a story about a counterfeiter? I enjoyed this film a great deal, and am very happy that it is now available on DVD. It is a prime example of a forgotten movie, and one in which I am very happy to have discovered.

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Greg Barbrick

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