Much of one’s enjoyment of “The Great Rupert” will likely depend on their tolerance for schmaltz, and for Jimmy Durante appearing in a leading role. But both of those things feel just right for this strange but charming family comedy set over Christmas, in which the fortunes of a down-on-their-luck family are turned around by a generous dancing squirrel. Yes, that would be the “Great Rupert” of the title.
The film, directed by Irving Pichel, centers around the Amendola family: Louie (Durante), his wife (Queenie Smith), and their daughter Rosalina (Terry Moore). The trio are former acrobats who have fallen on hard times since aging out of their act, and when we first meet them, they have just moved in to the former apartment of another struggling entertainer, Joe (the great character actor Jimmy Conlin), who was just evicted and had to give up the squirrel he trained for his act. The Amendola’s landlords are their upstairs neighbors; the son, Peter (Tom Drake, of “Meet Me in St. Louis” fame), is generous and immediately taken with Rosalinda, but his father Frank (Frank Orth) is greedy and paranoid with his money. So paranoid, in fact, that when an investment he made years ago has finally paid off and he’ll be receiving weekly checks worth $1,500, he stuffs the cash in a hole in the wall of his apartment instead of putting it in the bank. When Mrs. Amendola prays for her family’s fortune to turn around on Christmas Eve, she’s stunned when money starts falling into their apartment from the skylight above—money that Rupert took from Frank’s hiding place and brought to the Amendola’s.
You could stretch and say that there’s some commentary present in “The Great Rupert” on class structure and the distribution of wealth—once the Amendola’s become well-off, they use the rest of the money they receive to help their friends and neighbors thrive, money that otherwise would have sat in the hole in Frank’s apartment—but the film doesn’t really feel like it’s trying to “say something.” It’s just plain sweet, and not so much funny in practice, but funny in the sheer absurdity of its premise. The cast is capable, if Orth and Durante’s big performances overshadow them somewhat, but the real scene-stealer is Rupert himself. “The Great Rupert” was the first film produced by animator George Pal, who received an honorary Oscar in 1944 for pioneering new stop-motion animation techniques with his series of “Puppetoons” shorts. The animated squirrel puppet used to portray Rupert is surprising convincing in appearance and often even in movement (so much so, in fact, that Pal got asked frequently where he found a squirrel trained to dance), and when he dances a little jig dressed in kilt and hat, you’d be hard-pressed not to admit it’s pretty cute.
“The Great Rupert” was rereleased in 2003 under the title “A Christmas Wish” to capitalize on its holiday setting, and it is quite festive, with the Amendola’s using their new fortune to purchase a beautiful Christmas tree and Durante singing a medley of tunes including “Jingle Bells” on Christmas day. The film is now in the public domain and is easy to find just about anywhere: it’s streaming on Amazon Prime, Paramount Plus, and Tubi TV, and can be found online on YouTube and the Internet Archive. Runtime: 87 minutes.