In The Great Rupert/The Christmas wish, an animal trainer has trained a tamed squirrel named Rupert to wear a tiny kilt and tam and dance. However, a broadway agent informs him that the squirrel isn’t “box office” because he is too small to be seen in a Broadway show. This is the animal trainer’s last chance before he’s evicted from the shack leaning against the fancy home of his landlord (Frank Orth-Inspector Farraday from the TV version of Boston Blackie). He releases his tamed squirrel into a local park, but the squirrel struggles to survive in the wild, so he returns home and takes up residence in a hidey-hole between the shack and the landlord’s fancy home.
The story is actually about a down-on-their-luck Vaudeville family with the father, Louie, played by Jimmy Durante. It’s Christmastime, they only have forty cents for a tree, and they can’t afford shoes for their daughter (Terry Moore). At the same time, the miserly landlord learns that his gold mine investment has paid off and that each week he will be receiving $1,500 (about $16,000 in today’s money.)
With bad memories from the 1929 crash, he doesn’t trust banks, so he hides his cash upstairs in a hole in the wall, unaware Rupert has built his nest right behind it. The money takes up space the squirrel is storing nuts in, so he dumps the money out, above a hole in the shack’s roof, which the money falls through just as Louie’s wife (Queenie Smith) is praying. Christmas is saved and so is the rest of the year as the landlord keeps putting money in like clockwork and Rupert keeps tossing it out to Louie’s family, who are unwittingly paying their rent with the Landlord’s own money.
There’s a lot to like about the movie. Rupert was a stop-motion animation. For the times, he looks really life-like and cute.
Louie is mostly a typical Jimmy Durante character: positive, upbeat, and a lot of fun. Yet there were a few moments when he’d acknowledge the problems he’s facing. It makes the character someone who understands life’s challenges but faces them with laughter and a positive attitude rather than a crazy screwball character. Queenie Smith gave a sweet, down-to-earth performance and played well opposite of Durante.
While the story is light and fun, it does have some interesting ideas at its core. It asks what money is for and fundamentally how you approach the rest of the human race, Louie and his landlord have different approaches and it’s interesting to see how they play out over the course of the film. Again, this is done without being heavy-handed.
There’s some nice music here. A Christmas Party sets up a couple signature Durante piano numbers, including one wishing Christmas came twice a year, and a piece called Melody for Two Orphan Instruments.
The film does have its flaws. The original title, The Great Rupert, isn’t a good choice as Rupert is only the focus of the film at the beginning and toward the end. It’s often sold under the title The Christmas Wish, which makes far more sense. The plot does sag a bit in the middle before the final act and some of its resolution is too pat by modern standards. Still, this is a fun film with a sweet feel. It makes nice viewing around Christmas or any other time you want to escape the cynicism of our modern world.
Rating: 4.0 out of 5
Note: This film is in the public domain and is available at numerous sources on DVD, but is also available for free download through the Internet Archive.