The Christmas Caper (1952 TVM)

US / 26 minutes / bw / Showcase, CBS Dir: Erle C. Kenton Pr: Hal Roach Jr, Carroll Case Scr: Arthur Orloff Cine: Norbert Brodine Cast: Reed Hadley, Lloyd Corrigan, John L. Coogan (i.e., Jackie Coogan), Alan Dexter, John Phillips, Willie Best, Louis Lettieri, Jeri Lou James, Paul Keast, Argentina Brunetti, Frances Drew, William Fawcett.

Produced at the Hal Roach studios and (alas) sponsored by tobacco giant Philip Morris Inc., Racket Squad ran for a total of 98 episodes between 1951 and 1953. (The Christmas Caper, series 3 episode 15, was first aired on December 25 1952.) As its series hero, Captain John Braddock (Reed Hadley), explained at the outset of each episode,

What you are about to see is a real-life story taken from the files of the police racket and bunko squad, the business protective associations and similar sources all over the country. It is intended to expose the confidence game, the carefully worked-out frauds by which confidence men take more money each year from the American public than the bank robbers and thugs with their violence.

Reed Hadley as Captain John Braddock.

In this particular instance:

Tonight I’m going to tell you a story that’s a little different from the ones you’ve been seeing. It exposes a racket just as the others have done, and it’s a nasty racket that takes hard-earned money from honest people and puts it into the pockets of thieves. But still it’s a different story, first because it’s a Christmas story and second because it put me on a spot I never want to be put on again: I had to arrest Santa Claus . . .

In a poor quarter of the large city where Braddock’s Racket Squad operates, elderly Charlie Dooley (Corrigan) lives alone with his dog Monster. Alone? Well, not so much. All the kids in the tenement that’s his home regard him as their honorary uncle.

Lloyd Corrigan as Charlie Dooley . . .

. . . and as Santa Claus.

It’s the Christmas season, and accordingly Charlie reads The Night Before Christmas to the gang. Afterwards he discovers from the kids that their parents are too poor to give them Christmas presents: last year Grover (Lettieri) got his shoes resoled for Christmas, while Santa brought Charlie’s favorite, the crippled Anna Marie Scarpita (James), a bottle of vitamin pills.

Jeri Lou James as little Anna Marie Scarpita.

Louis Lettieri (right) as Grover.

Charlie promises that this year it’ll be different. What they forgot last time, he tells the kids, is that you need to write to Santa to make sure he’ll deliver the goods. The net result: he promises the kids a heap of expensive presents that, as Anna Marie’s mom, Mrs. Scarpita (Brunetti), gently explains, their parents can’t afford to give them.

Argentina Brunetti as Anna Marie’s mom.

But Charlie has a brainwave. In answer to a newspaper ad, off he goes to the Yule Tide Agency to get a job as a street Santa collecting money from passers-by for the Society for Deserving Poor Children. For his services the charity will pay him $10 a day, collectible on Christmas Eve.

It’s a racket, of course, as Captain John Braddock learns from Mr. Hastings (Keast), chairman of the city’s Conference of Organized Charities. Braddock and his sidekick, Detective Joe Seidel (Phillips), bring in the two crooks behind the Yule Tide Agency scam, Ross Pennington (Coogan) and Elmer Castle (Dexter).

Mr. Hastings (Paul Keast, right) explains his concerns to Captain John Braddock (Reed Hadley).

Jackie Coogan (left) as Ross Pennington and Alan Dexter as Elmer Castle.

But what of the role of Charlie? Is he, too, culpable?

The Christmas Caper offers us a bittersweet tale that succeeds in being rather moving (and with an appealing cameo from Willie Best as the Yule Tide Agency’s janitor), although you might raise an eyebrow at Braddock’s closing comment to the effect that, even though the Yule Tide Agency was a scam, chances are the charity Santas you see on the street this Christmas are honest enough, so give, give, give. While no one would want to dissuade people from generously donating to charity, especially at this time of the year, the episode has just been warning us that . . . well, as Braddock himself explains at the close of every Racket Squad episode,

“I’m closing this case now—or, rather, the courts will. But there’ll be others, because that’s the way the world is built. Remember, there are people who can slap you on the back with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. And it could happen to you.”

Willie Best as the janitor.

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You can find The Christmas Caper at the Internet Archive here, plus countless other episodes of the series here, although as you’d expect the quality ain’t stellar. Alpha Video has put out the entire series on DVD, but I haven’t seen that version.

A relevant Oxfam site is here.

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There’ll be no new post here tomorrow, but what will Boxing Day bring?

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