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Mister 880

There's the hard way to make money. And then there's the easy, but extremely illegal, way: With a printing press. Mister 880 (1950), directed by William Goulding, is a story about the second kind of moneymaking scheme, based on the real-life case of a small-scale counterfeiting operation that confounded federal agents for 10 years. It's a humanist charmer something along the lines of Miracle on 34th Street (1947), with perhaps even a bit less sentimentality-and like that picture, it also features Edmund Gwenn, who was nominated that year for an Academy Award, as well as a Golden Globe, for his gently shaped, affable supporting performance.

Mister 880 stars Burt Lancaster as a Washington Secret Service agent sent to New York to investigate a mysterious case: It appears that someone has been passing bad bills in various neighborhoods in the boroughs of New York. These bills are always in the denomination of $1; the printing is done with amateurish crudeness (the "s" and the "h" in "Washington" are transposed); and the paper used is the kind you could find at any stationery store. And yet somehow, the perpetrator has eluded capture for years, while thousands of other more sophisticated crooks have been caught. His records have been sitting around so long in the Secret Service archives that the agents have begun to refer to him first as "880," and then, almost respectfully, "Mister 880."

Might Edmund Gwenn's junk-dealer codger "Skipper" Miller be the culprit? Finding out is part of what makes Mister 880 such fun: We're in on the con pretty early, while Lancaster and the woman he meets while investigating the case, scrappy United Nations interpreter Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire), spend a great deal of time scratching their heads, wondering just how this wily character keeps eluding the authorities. Lancaster had made his film debut just four years earlier, to great acclaim, with Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946). He'd been working steadily since that time, completing two or three films per year. Before launching his acting career, Lancaster had been a circus acrobat, and he would always be an intrinsically physical actor; in Mister 880 he's rakish and mischievous-there's still something of the circus tumbler in him, even though the role requires no gymnastics.

Ace screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night [1934], Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [1936]) wrote the script for Mister 880, adapting it from a series of New Yorker stories by St. Clair McKelway. Riskin and Goulding ended up following the real story fairly closely, aside from adding the onscreen romance and some other expected fictionalized Hollywood touches. McKelway's original three-part article, as found in the New Yorker archives, tells the story of Edward Mueller, the alias of Emerich Jeuttner, who began printing one dollar bills in 1938. He was in his sixties at the time, and a widower; his two adult children were leading comfortable lives. But he was having trouble making ends meet, a fact that he hid from everyone who knew him, including his children. And so, on a little press he'd purchased, he would print small batches of bills, which he would then spend carefully at various locations in the city.

By the time the Secret Service caught Mueller, in the spring of 1948, they had come to consider him, according to McKelway, "the most exasperating counterfeiter of all time, and the least greedy." For years the agents called Mueller "Old 880"-tweaked into "Mister 880" for the movie's purposes--because his case had been cluttering up their file cabinets for so long. When Mueller was finally captured and charged, he didn't deny what he'd done. "Of course I admit it," he said. "They were only just one-dollar bills." He went on to explain that he "never gave more than one of them to any one person, so nobody ever lost more than one dollar. I gave them all over the city. I went to the Bronx, I went to Staten Island, I went to Queens-the last few years I travelled all around the city, because I never gave more than one of my dollars to any one person."

Mueller was an extremely likeable, benign character, and the agents and the judge not only took pity on him-they genuinely liked him. His sentence was minimal, and he was assigned a fine of-you guessed it-one dollar. Perhaps not surprisingly, he made more money from the film version of his story than he had as a counterfeiter. Even the New York Times' stuffy crab-apple critic Bosley Crowther enjoyed Mister 880, reserving special praise for Gwenn: "His tender concern and affection for 'Cousin Henry,' his printing press, is a touching demonstration of genuine gratitude, and his innocent way of passing fake bills is sufficient to redeem his guilt. The only trouble with the picture is that we don't see enough of him. If we did, we might all take to 'shoving' out of sheer admiration and respect." Any film that could almost drive Crowther to a life of crime clearly has something going for it.

By Stephanie Zacharek

SOURCES: IMDb The New York Sun The New Yorker The New York Times

Producer: Julian Blaustein Director: Edmund Goulding Screenplay: Robert Riskin (screenplay), St. Clair McKelway (article) Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle Music: Sol Kaplan Film Editing: Robert Fritch Cast: Burt Lancaster (Steve Buchanan), Dorothy McGuire (Ann Winslow), Edmund Gwenn ("Skipper" Miller), Millard Mitchell ("Mac" McIntire), Minor Watson (Judge O'Neil) [black and white, 90 minutes]



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