Forgotten Christmas-themed Movie: Fitzwilly (1967)

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Merry Christmas, all and sundry!

Taking a brief respite from the strategy of “What?”s and “When?”s in regards to baking family Christmas gifts. I’ve fallen back upon a request from our Hostess regarding favorite holiday-hemed films. While A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life hold their proper place high in the firmament. And have been critiqued to death. I’ve opted for a later film directed by Delbert Mann.

Whose sublime detail in its many sets firmly ensconce this work in the still glamorous world of 1960s Old Family wealth. And the continuous, often humorous sub rosa and covert scams and grifts employed to maintain it. All under the subtle of of the unassuming family butler.

Fitzwilly (1967)

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Imagine if you will a cabal of Old School and generational full liveried staff and servants attached to Old Family Money all along the East Coast. Loyal to a fault and quite content their positions, lifestyles and standing. Yet, also often willing to bend the rules of social propriety (The Law) to maintain that standing. And the rather relaxed and elegant lifestyles of their respective “families”.

Put that concept in the more than competent hands of director, Mann. Allow him access to a stellar cast of then up and coming character actor and television talent. Back that up with an exceptionally harpsichord and brass heavy orchestra under the touch of an equally up and coming Johnny (John) Wiliams’ Ladle on opulent oaken and maple home estate and high end department store sets. To reinforce the carefree confidence of more the than financial stability of a half century ago.

Then put it all in the hands of Claude Fitzwilliam. (Dick Van Dyke. Rarely better!) A generational manservant and honors graduate of Williams College and completely devoted to the welfare and care of Miss Victoria Woodworth (A very spry and sharp, Edith Evans). Who enjoys the life of elegant luxury. While indulging in esoteric hobbies. Like a dictionary of phonetically misspelled words. Or dabbling in her and her family’s rather racy memoirs. Completely oblivious to (Or is she?) the goings on of her staff of footman, Albert (John McGiver). A bevy of maids and attendants. Chauffeur, Oliver (A very young Sam Waterson) and Fitzwilly. As Oliver guides a rather posh Rolls Royce Silver Cloud into Manhattan. On a walking and rather slick plundering tour of Bergdorf’s, Neiman’s and other high end establishments.

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Checking off items on Fitzwilly’s shopping list: Silver cutlery, forks, spoons, sugar tongs on one level of Altman’s. Antique mirrors and leaded crystal one floor up. Television consoles on the ground floor. Vintage wine at another location. With Fitzwilly affecting a different voice, accent, infliction and body language for each purchase. Billing each to a fictitious family. Then calling the Shipping Department for a cohort (Noam Pitlick) to send on their way to St. Dismas Charitable Fund and its many thrift shops.

While Miss Vickie is otherwise occupied and in need of an assistant. In the shape of initially bookish, smart and bespectacled, Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon in her first and best film role!). Graduate of Business and Literature from Smith college. Expanding her repertoire with Post graduate work at Columbia and wanting to branch out on her own.

Fitzwilly and Ms. Nowell do not hit it off right away. As her evening arrival and interview had been arranged by Ms. Vickie and against his wishes. Creating an possible unwanted intrusion into the butler, staff and other familiar monied families’ staff operating under Fitzwilly’s umbrella. A solution is sought. And found in the holiday remodeling of a Palm Beach manse. Whose $15,000 budget (What roughly a half million would be today! Remember, this is 1967.) is placed into the hands of Byron Casey (Stephen Strimpell). Who wishes to spend as little as possible. And pocket the rest. A quick meeting with Fitzwilly and staff reveals all sorts of possibilities in keeping hold of Casey’s proposed half of the total budget. While procuring a Steinway Grand Piano, Crystal, Silver, Entertainment systems and other accoutrements of the idle rich.

Plans are discussed and set. Along with contingencies to keep Miss Vickie occupied along with Ms. Nowell. Who, besides being terribly efficient. Is also blessed or cursed with the curiosity of a cat. And finds Fitwilly’s and staff’s basement “work shop”. Full of paper stocks, printing presses, inks, pens, labeling machines, letterheads, mimeograph machines. All of the recently used tools of the illegal arts had been used to begin shipping items from north to south.

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A confrontation is to be had as Ms. Nowell kind of misreads what she’s seen. And kind of doesn’t. After quickly executed biblical bar grifts (Sampsom and Delilah) are executed across upper and mid town establishments to cover unexpected shipping costs. Made worse by Ms. Nowell accidentally mailing out Casey’s $7,500 “retainer” check to a charity Fitzwilly has no control over. And can not intercept or stop its payment.

Others would see this as a irredeemable catastrophe, but not Fitzwilly. Who enjoys a challenge and come up with “one last caper” to cover the loss. And perhaps, turn a profit. With Altman’s being an optimum target. Along with a few other reputable firms.

All these plans, schemes, times and places of execution are known by far too repentant Albert (John McGiver). Who is snatched up in the middle of the Christmas Eve rush. And is more than willing to bare his soul as Miss Vickie politely crashes the interrogation between Albert, store manager, Oberlatz (Norman Fell) and Assistant District Attorney Eliot Adams (Dennis Cooney). Who want to nail Albert and company’s hide to the closest wall. As Miss Vickie; who knows Eliot and his family. Begins very polite, yet scandalous negotiations which focus on poster boy, Adam’s less than stellar past in boarding, prep schools and colleges. Watching and listening to the grand old dame effortlessly knocks back proposed felony charges to misdemeanors is a singularly memorable thing of insinuating and groveling beauty.

Clearing the decks for a Happy Ending. Whose details I’ll avoid while avoiding Spoiler Territory.

Now. What Makes This Film A Notable Favorite?

One of the last, most meticulously detailed and executed examples of being rich in the 1960s. And how the rich behave, though little of that has changed over the decades. Used to a certain level of comfort and discretion few may attain. And never apologizing for it.

Part of the film’s humor is in seeing how dropping the right name. Or having the right looking work orders. The right clothes. Behaving in certain cultured, mannered effete ways. Opens doors that most thoFitzwillySoundtrackrough background could never accomplish. Especially when Fitzwilly and his crew in brand name logo coveralls allows them to wrap up and walk out with a full blown African Safari floor display from a top line department store for Miss Vickie’s “Platypuses”. Her version of a rich kids’ Boy Scouts.

This film also possesses one of the best and most helpful soundtracks I’ve enjoyed in a while. Gently enhancing the austerity of Miss Vickie’s posh estate one moment. Then lightheartedly advancing suspense the next. Kudos to young Mr. Williams for so cleverly making an early mark before being “the go to guy” with the creation of later blockbusters.

Cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc is lush and opulent. Everything one could ask for. Indoors and out. Sets have already gotten their due. Costume design and execution by Donfeld are flawless. From Mr. Van Dyke. To Ms. Evans and Ms. Feldon’s early penchant for knit scarves and turtlenecks on down.

Overall Consensus:

This is a film for Mr. Van Dyke to carry, if not take the lead on. Setting well inside the template started with Bye Bye, Birdie and Mary Poppins. Having fun with playing different characters, no matter how briefly. While Ms. Evans delicately manages to steal every scene she is in.

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The chemistry between Mr. Van Dyke’s Fitzwilly and Ms. Feldon’s Juliet is fun to watch from the start. Equals in more way than one. Matching talents and wiles in a film that features the buyers’ insanity of the last minute Christmas season. Though is not centrally themed around it.

Note: This film has finally been getting some proper air time on Turner Classic Movies and is available to be viewed Full Length on YouTube.


Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews



Have you seen Fitzwilly? We’d love to hear what you think!

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16 thoughts on “Forgotten Christmas-themed Movie: Fitzwilly (1967)

  1. This is one I haven’t seen. I’ve always respected Dick Van Dyke even though I may not be his biggest fan. Still this sounds like fun. I think I need to give it a look.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, keith:

      Thanks for taking the time to read and opine!

      Dick van Dyke has made a discreet little career of consistently turning in good work. Ready to take on any role and creating a standard for comedies, Disney and Disney like films through the 1960s and 70s.

      One of the “hooks” with ‘Fitzwilly’ is that it looks like and plays out like a Disney film. With exceptional and clean writing around a clever story. Spread out amongst a notable cast of young and old. And it all works.

      Very worthwhile family or date night entertainment!

  2. This was a TCM Party a couple years ago and it was a big hit. I’ve always loved the rich look of the film, but I didn’t see all the social subtleties you did. Very well done, Jack. Thanks and a very merry Christmas to you.

    1. jackdeth72

      Merry Christmas, Paula!

      I’ve been waiting a while to give this lush, yet little known gem the proper accords it’s due. Its opening white glove inspection with Fitzwilly and Albert sets the stage for the rest of the film.

      I’m glad that TCM had finally gotten around to giving this film a larger audience it deserves!

  3. Hi Kevin, and holiday regards, hope you are happy, etcetera. Nice to see you give a nice review on this one. I love Dick Van Dyke’s squeaky clean persona, but my favorite film of his will be ‘Divorce American Style’ just because he’s a little smudged around the edges and too, Debbie.
    Best wishes 🙂

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Cindy:

      Great point!

      Few actors can do “squeaky clean” like Mr. Van Dyke. Keeping Disney and other studios alive here and overseas requires some versatility and talent to spare. Which is why it’s fun to see him going “off grid” in ‘Divorce American Style’, ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘The Runner Stumbles’.

      Would also have liked to see him play Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon’s famous role) in an adaptation of ‘Days of Wine and Roses’.

      Hoping you’re having a Cool Yule!

      1. I think Jack Lemmon is in the top 5 of my all-time most talented actors list. I loved him (and Shirley would be his female equivalent) in ‘The Apartment’ (Gosh, wasn’t Fred MacMurray great, too?) However, Lemmon’s acting in ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ was nothing short of amazing. Oops, back to DVD: I can’t believe he’s 88!

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, jjames:

      ‘Fitzwilly’ is a nice compact diversion. Mr. Mann does a lot in creating what looks like an opulent New York film. Without ever really leaving the high end of Mirish’s back lots and sets. With deftly executed editing under the guide of a director who knows what to reveal. And what not.

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

  4. Ted S.

    I’ve always been a fan of Dick Van Dyke, used to watch his show when I was younger. But I’ve never heard of this movie before, nice write up as always Jack!

    1. jackdeth72

      Merry Christmas, Ted!

      Thanks much.

      This film was a kind of packaged double features during the Christmas season of the very late 1960s. Along with Disney’s ‘The Sword and the Stone’ and ‘The Sound of Music’ to keep kids amused during weekend afternoon matinees. While parents played Santa at what later would become malls.

      I must have seen it three times with various younger cousins. A pleasant diversion and all around family film.

  5. I wonder why it was missed the first time round. I would have seen it when all the others were popular in the 70’s I had seen a few of them by the time I was 10 at least. I will have to inquire at my local shop as I would seriously doubt Netflix even if I could manage it would have it. The place I go has all those obscure films and since Blockbuster vanished in Canada well it is only a handful of independents still around where you can go in and get a few dvd’s. I am all for progress but you can’t always get suggestions from an online dvd rental thingy. YT has started but with all the trolls around normally would you trust them. So that being said other than the Mr Banks one I think this one will also go on my list thought christmas is over just about with New Year this Tuesday. A Happy New years to you Ruth and everyone here on the “Chatter”

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Stellamaire!

      And a Happy New Year to you and yours!

      This is a film that sadly managed to slip under the radar with the passage of time. Which is sad since it’s a memorably decent little film.

      Also sad that technology has a nasty habit of pushing face to face conversations, negotiations and interactions to the sidelines. Though one of my favorite outlets for forgotten or obscure films on DVD is Oldies.com . Which may not be big in the frills, bells and whistles department(s). Does have an exception list of films, series and music!

  6. jackdeth72

    Welcome, Josh!

    Sorry for the late response. Something hinted that I should take a step back and scroll through earlier posts.

    Mr. Mann and company do perform a neat treat of sleight of hand with ‘Fitzwilly’. A film very much of its time. And an entertaining look back at what light comedy was and could be close to a half century ago.

    I think you’ll enjoy it!

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