20th Century Fox’s production Mister 880 (1950) was a small production that functioned as a showcase for Edmund Gwenn. Gwenn plays Skipper, an amateur counterfeiter, under investigation by Agent Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster) of the Treasury Department. Mister 880 was inspired by the real-life case against Emerich Juettner whose nickname with agents of the U.S. Treasury was “Mister 880”.
Director Edmund Goulding was, by 1950, a tried hand and stylist in a number of genres which made him an excellent choice to helm Mister 880. Goulding brings the same playfulness and sincerity to the project as he did with The Broadway Melody (1929) and Grand Hotel (1932) as well as the taut suspense of his much acclaimed Nightmare Alley (1947); all are qualities sorely lacking from Robert Riskin’s script. Riskin seems to have just shoehorned some disparate genre tropes into the story without a second thought. This is particularly true with regards to Dorothy McGuire’s character Ann Winslow and her courtship with Lancaster’s Buchanan.
But even an experienced stylist of Goulding’s caliber cannot salvage Mister 880 entirely. While Edmund Gwenn is infinitely charming as the elderly criminal, Lancaster hasn’t a clue how to play Buchanan. Steve Buchanan has just one side to his character on the page and it doesn’t lend itself to Lancaster’s sensibilities. The romantic scenes between McGuire and Lancaster feel like early drafts of a better scene that was never filmed. Without the momentum of Buchanan’s investigation or the love story, Mister 880 flounders; a flaccid spectacle of saccharine whimsy.
Mister 880 is a relatively obscure film today that’s really only of interest to die hard fans of Burt Lancaster such as myself. Gouldning, Riskin, McGuire and Gwenn have all also been better elsewhere so it’s probably best to save Mister 880 for one of those days when one feels that there’s nothing of this ilk left to watch. Even then I doubt it’s a film that will make any real impression.