I strongly associate this movie with a sweaty, empty apartment because I originally reviewed it during a broke summer internship where streaming video was my only luxury. There was nothing signalling to me going in that this was a Christmassy movie, all I knew was that it starred Dick Van Dyke and it was some kind of caper maybe. And at this point, I never really remember much more than that it’s a Christmassy movie, Fitzwilly is running some kind of kind-hearted scam, and I liked it a whole lot more than I expected, to the point that I included my original review (which I made so early in the run of this blog that I hadn’t fully developed my standards for movie poster graphics and so it has a relatively tiny poster) in at least three different bundles of recommended back catalog reading/watching. Over the years I’ve occasionally felt a little disappointed that I didn’t run it at Christmas because I recall it being such a good Christmas movie nobody remembers. So, does it live up to my recollections?
Claude Fitzwilliam has been elderly heiress Victoria Woolworth’s butler as long as he was old enough to run the household, after his father, her previous butler, died and Miss Vicky raised him. Miss Vicky’s father spent all of her inheritance, but Fitzwilly has made it his and his staff’s mission to keep her from knowing this, and to that end has developed an elaborate network of thievery charging expensive goods to other wealthy people and companies and diverting them to his “charity” thrift shops. Aside from the considerable expense of maintaining the house and staff and lifestyle Miss Vicky is accustomed to, the biggest hindrance to this scheme is her great passion for philanthropy, as she is constantly writing checks for thousands of dollars to any noble cause she comes across, most, but not all, being intercepted by Fitzwilly’s staff. A new complication enters this operation when Miss Vicky hires a secretary for her dictionary project who is not handpicked and briefed by Fitzwilly, but a straight and narrow college grad Juliet Nowell, who has to be kept from learning anything about the charade, and in the process comes to worry that Fitzwilly’s job as a butler isn’t appropriately challenging for someone with his mind and education. Under Juliet and Miss Vicky’s noses, Fitzwilly’s gang has to execute their biggest job ever, redecorating a house in Florida for a contact who spent most of the money his employers gave him on himself, in exchange for the remaining $75k, enough money to keep Miss Vicky in her lifestyle for the rest of her life.
For most of the movie I feel like my memory has oversold the amount to which it’s a Christmas movie, however the climax is in a busy department store on Christmas Eve and features carol singers, so it gets there eventually. Until that point it doesn’t even feel much like winter.
The two things this movie runs on are Dick Van Dyke’s charisma and to a somewhat lesser extent, the verbal fencing going on every time Fitzwilly and Juliet interact. Their scenes together are often dazzling displays of conversational agility and both actors meet the requirements of the dialogue expertly.
This is a comedic caper with a chapter that has as much Christmas in it as A Christmas Story, but it’s a much better fit to expectations to watch it for the heisting than for the Christmas.