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On the night before Christmas, When all through New York, Large lumps of money, Are bouncing like cork.

Fitzwilly
aka Fitzwilly Strikes Back
(1967)

(SPOILERS) If you’re looking for reasons Dick Van Dyke never really made the leap from TV to movie star – the odd Mary Poppins or Lt. Robinson Crusoe, U.S.N. aside: Disney nice-ies, basically – look no further. There’s something curiously empty and unpersuasive about his criminal mastermind butler Claude Fitzwilliam, and director Delbert Mann, of Marty and That Touch of Mink, fails to turn Fitzwilly into a bright and lively caper at any point, which is exactly what it needs to be. Light, jaunty and replete with confident verve. 

Fitzwilly: I'm a butler, not Jack the Ripper.

Instead, it struggles slothfully from scene to scene, searching for chemistry between Dick and Barbara Feldon – of Get Smart fame – as the new assistant of Fitzwilly’s boss, Miss Victoria Woodworth (the peerless Dame Edith Evans, no handbag in sight). Fitzwilly has secretly been commandeering various acts of thievery amongst her household staff, strictly from those who can afford it, to ensure the otherwise broke heiress maintains her affluent lifestyle. So, you know, he has a heart of gold or some such.

The plot finds Juliet, who inevitably falls for Fitzwilly – a romantic lead is not Van Dyke’s strongest suit and was never the core appeal of The Dick Van Dyke Show – putting a spanner in the works of various schemes and endeavours, leading to the need to rob Gimbels department store on Christmas Eve; yes, this is a Christmas movie, but one shorn of any atmosphere, style or tasteless tinsel. Instead, Mann settles on a knowing pedestrian quality; you’ve seen this kind of picture before, many times, and such complacency rather explains its lack of box office. Well, that and Van Dyke not being a movie star.

Indeed, I can much more readily imagine Fitzwilly with the suggested-at-the-time Cary Grant, adding smoothness, or Alec Guinness, adding a Brainiac quality. But DVD? He doesn’t even suggest butleriness – regardless of his “buttery butlery smiles” – and brings to mind another butlery tale, How to Murder Your Wife, two years earlier, that carried off the jaunty, capery element much more successfully.

John McGiver is good as the priest-posing Albert, intent on taking the fall for the robbery to atone for his sins. Also in the crew are a young Sam Waterston and The Waltons’ Helen Kleeb. Fitzwilly names his charity and Thrift store St Dismas (the penitent thief), which is a nice touch. Miss Woodworth is writing a dictionary for people who can’t spell, which somehow turns into a Hollywood screenplay (well, you say that’s absurd, but Sir Ridders has the rights to Monopoly). DVD boats some characteristically bad accents (an impression of Tony Curtis’ Cary Grant impression; French), and there’s a fun scene in which Miss Woodworth reprimands a pushy policeman (“Your time is my time and the time of all tax-paying citizens”).

Fitzwilly: Once upon a time, the very privileged lived like we still do: in quiet luxury, elegance, grace. It’s an almost vanished way of life. Not easy to hold on to. And, terribly expensive to maintain

Mostly, though, Fitzwilly, isn’t really worth your time, unless you’re a diehard Dick Van Dyke fan. Certainly not if you’re a diehard Christmas fan. Notable for an early Johnny Williams score. The story was adapted from Poyntz Tyler’s novel A Garden of Cucumbers (1960), the title taken from an Isaiah quote suggestive of Ms Woodworth’s isolated and rare status. Of course, why we should sympathise with the uber-privileged is anyone’s guess. But then, Christmas movies make quite a habit of asking us to do exactly that.

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