(director: Edmund Goulding; screenwriters: Robert Riskin/from the New Yorker article ‘Old Eight Eighty’ by St. Clair McKelway; cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle; editor: Robert Fritch; music: Sol Kaplan; cast: Burt Lancaster (Steve Buchanan), Dorothy McGuire (Ann Winslow), Edmund Gwenn (“Skipper” Miller), Millard Mitchell (“Mac” McIntire), Minor Watson (Judge O’Neil), Howard St. John (Chief), Hugh Sanders (Thad Mitchell), Larry Keating (Lee, lawyer); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Julien Blaustein; 20th Century Fox; 1950)

Charming light comedy about a kindly old codger who is a small-time counterfeiter passing one dollar bills.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Charming light comedy about a kindly old junk dealer codger who is a small-time counterfeiter passing one dollar bills, made on his printing press, only as a means of supporting himself without asking for help. The amateur criminal has been doing it for ten years, making this the longest unsolved case on the Secret Service files. It’s based on a true story, that appeared in the New Yorker Magazine in a series of stories by St. Clair McKelway. It’s deftly written by Frank Capra regular Robert Riskin. The title is derived from the Secret Service calling the case Mister 880, the Mister was added out of respect to the gentle counterfeiter. Director Edmund Goulding (“Grand Hotel”/”The Razor’s Edge”/”Dark Victory”) makes like it’s a Capra feel-good pic and that strategy works, as the schmaltz is limited and the actors are all likable and believable, and the story is easy to take. British actor Edmund Gwenn, as the ‘funny money’ passer, duplicates the success of his bizarre Santa role in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and earns an Oscar nomination. It also helps that the effective location shots of NYC give it an authenticity.

The NYC Secret Service office, headed by Thad Mitchell (Hugh Sanders), needs a fresh outlook in trying to nab the bureau’s longest unsolved case, and hotshot LA agent, Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster), is sent in to help. The counterfeit bill is of the poorest quality, but it has been successfully passed in all the boroughs. Buchanan teams with agent Mac (Millard Mitchell), and soon discover a phony dollar bill was passed by pretty single gal French interpreter at the UN, Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire), and that leads to the agent investigating where she got the counterfeit bill and beginning a beguiling romance with the transplanted small-town girl. When agents finally get their man, who gives the bogus money to kids in his Brooklyn neighborhood, the counterfeiter who lives in the same building as Ann, the hardened agents show compassion and the judge thereby gives him a minimal sentence.

The Secret Service caught the real-life counterfeiter Mueller, in the spring of 1948, and considered it at the time its most frustrating case. The film mirrors how the actual case was solved and how the agents found their widower counterfeiter to be forthright and likable, so they went to bat for him in getting a minimum sentence.

It proves to be a good example of how Hollywood can do justice to a whimsical comedy if it’s in the right hands.

Mister 880 Poster

REVIEWED ON 11/21/2013 GRADE: B+   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/