A Sly Story for the Shopping Season: The Great Rupert

The Great Rupert is a wonderful little movie from 1950. It features plenty of laughs, a love story, and it has two great characters: Jimmy Durante and Rupert the Squirrel.

Jimmy Durante (February 10, 1893 – January 29, 1980) was an “American singer, pianist, comedian, and actor”. All of his talents are on full display in The Great Rupert in “one of his best screen roles” as Louie Amendola, patriarch of a down-on-their-luck family of acrobats.

It is Christmas time and the Amendolas have no place to live and no money. But a little bit of luck nets them a tiny apartment in a garage. Jimmy Durante, as Louie Amendola, sings, plays the piano, heaps on the  laughter, tugs at the heart strings, and even juggles in this film set during the Great Depression.

Jimmy Durante was born in the Lower East Side of New York City in 1893. He dropped out of school in eighth grade to play ragtime piano full time. He combined jazz and jokes to become a vaudeville star by the mid-1920s. In 1933 he made the jump to radio star with the first of his several radio shows. In 1950 Jimmy made his first appearance in his long running, successful TV career.

Throughout his long career, Jimmy made excellent use of his two most arresting features: his distinctive, gravely, New York accented voice and his even more distinctive, prominent nose which he referred to as his Great Schnozzola. Among his famous catchphrases like “Ha- cha-cha-chaaaaaa!” and “I got a million of ‘em!”

But despite all of Jimmy Durante’s talents, he is completely up-staged by the utterly adorable Rupert the Squirrel. Rupert is the creation of “Hungarian-born American animator and film producer” George Pal (1908 – 1980). George was a pioneer in film special effects. He developed an unique animated puppet technique that he showcased in his series of short films known as Puppetoons.

In 1950, George switched to live action film making combined with animation in The Great Rupert. The stop-motion animation that George “used in creating the illusion of a dancing squirrel (Rupert) was so realistic that he received many inquiries as to where he located a trained squirrel”. George also cut in scenes of a real squirrel to make Rupert seem even more realistic. Yes, Rupert’s movements are a little jerky and certainly not as lifelike as many of the creations of modern SFX but George kept Rupert’s appearances to a minimum which helps with the effect. It’s more than 65 years after his debut and Rupert still looks charming and delightful.

Our movie, The Great Rupert, was re-released in 2003 as a colorized holiday film re-titled A Christmas Wish. It’s not entirely a Christmas movie despite the first part of the story being set at Christmas time. Rupert the Squirrel is set free in the city park by his penniless trainer Joe, when Joe has to move away. But Rupert is not too happy with the great outdoors; he prefers city living. The enterprising little creature returns to Joe’s old apartment and makes a comfortable home in a hole in a wall. On one side of the wall lives the Dingle family: penny pinching Frank, his wife Katie, and their son, and wanna-be musician, Pete. On the other side of the wall is the converted garage apartment that soon becomes home to the Amendolas: singing juggler Louie, his wife, and their harp-playing daughter, Rosalinda.

It’s love at first sight for Pete Dingle, the minute he casts his eyes on Rosie. He lets the Amendolas have the apartment almost rent free much to the disgust of his miserly father. Mr. Dingle’s disgust is soon forgotten when he gets a letter informing him that one of his investments has panned out and he will be getting fifteen hundred dollars every week. Mr. Dingle does not trust banks so he makes a hiding place behind the baseboard in the wall of his bedroom. Unfortunately, that hiding place is also Rupert’s bedroom and he is none too happy with a bunch of paper being stuffed into his space. So, Rupert tosses the  money out another hole into the Amendola apartment just as a desperate Mrs. Amendola prays to heaven for help (they are literally down to their last two pennies and poor Rosalinda badly needs new shoes). The Amendolas are convinced that they have a magical windfall.

The Great Rupert is in black and white (although it was colorized in 2003) and only 87 minutes long. Besides the wonderful Jimmy Durante and the winsome Rupert, the movie also stars Terry Moore as young Rosalinda. Terry had originally been the star of the movie until Jimmy Durante was added at the last moment and the script was altered to add Jimmy-style patter and songs. But she is excellent as the cheerful and pretty Rosie. Actually she seems much younger than her swains: the lovelorn Pete (played by handsome Tom Drake and the talent agent Phil (played by Chick Chandler). The Great Rupert also stars Queenie Smith as the despairing Mrs. Amendola. The cast is rounded out with Frank Orth and Sara Haden as miserly Mr. Dingle and his wife.

There are also several musical numbers in our movie, The Great Rupert. Jimmy Durante plays the piano and sings several songs including Jingle Bells and (Isn’t it a Shame that) Christmas Comes But Once a Year. Also, Joe (played by Jimmy Conlin) performs his Rupert song and Rosalinda and Pete perform Melody for Two Orphan Instruments on their harp and tuba.

One of the most enjoyable things about watching our movie, The Great Rupert (besides Rupert himself), is suffering sticker shock when the characters discuss the outrageous price of things. Joe and the Amendolas have trouble scrapping up the rent for the apartment – it’s an outrageous $32 a month. Until Mr. Dingle raises it, again and again, to the unbelievable price of $125 a month. But the Amendolas must pay if they are to stay in the apartment where money magically rains down.

Early in the movie, Mr. Amendola tries to buy a live Christmas tree. He offers 40¢ but the seller wants a whole $1. The magical $1500 a week is such a huge fortune for the time that Mr. Amendola is able to buy interests in nearly every business in town as well as lavishly decorate the apartment and buy fashionable clothes and, later, rebuild the Dingles’ entire house. In fact the name “Amendola” plays into the whole “money buys happiness” theme underlying the whole movie. Just think about it: Amendola….Amen – dola….Amen dollar! And the almighty dollar certainly plays into the way the modern holiday season has become one loooooong marathon shopping spree for many people.

So, The Great Rupert features a absolutely adorable Rupert the Squirrel, a wonderful Jimmy Durante, fun and catchy songs, and a timely message for the holiday season. But, of course, the best thing about our movie, The Great Rupert, is that it is FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive.

The Internet Archive has two different versions of The Great Rupert. The Great Rupert Version #1 has video quality that is a little worn in places (some scratches, fuzziness) but still watchable. Version #2 has much better, cleaner, sharper video quality. The audio quality of both is excellent.

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