Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Christmas Treats (Other Than Your Aunt Mildred's Gingersnaps) | 0 comments

Disclaimer: Sweeter than a dozen candy canes.

Santa Claus is alive and well and living at a nursing home in Long Island; that is, when he’s not working at Macy’s in New York. Such is the premise of this holiday classic that remains a timeless slice of holiday spirit and manages to speak to audiences as poignantly today as it did originally during the post-war era of consumerism. For the scrooges or grinches who have grown weary and no longer believe in Kris Kringle, I implore them to watch Miracle on 34th Street and then, with a straight face, confidently declare there is no Santa Claus. It can’t be done; I’m pretty sure it’s one of Newton’s Laws.

The movie opens on the bustling sidewalks of New York City as a white-bearded old man stops at a storefront to advise the owner that he misplaced “his” reindeer. Then he drops by the Macy’s Parade and scolds its Santa Claus for being drunk. The parade’s organizer, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), hires the old man as a replacement. After a successful parade, the old man earns the same position at Macy’s to help improve toy sales. When he learns of this, the old man exclaims, “That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years; the way they commercialize Christmas.” So when a young boy requests a fire engine for Christmas and his mother (Thelma Ritter in her film debut) can’t find it anywhere, the old man gleefully sends them to a store down the street. While the store’s managers initially think ill of the gesture, which he repeats several times, it’s a huge hit with customers so Mr. Macy demands it continue for long-term profit and an image boost.

Everything seems fine until Miracle1employees actually talk to the old man, who introduces himself as Kris Kringle or Santa Claus and his employment card lists reindeer for references and his age says, “a bit older than my teeth.” Management then refers him for a psychological exam, but since he doesn’t pose a threat to himself or others, he’s fine. It seems Kringle accepted the position to research why the spirit of Christmas is waning, as “it’s not just a day; it’s a frame of mind.” Meanwhile we follow disbelieving Doris and her daughter Suzie (8 year-old Natalie Wood). Doris is a progressive single mother, who believes, “We should be realistic and completely truthful with our children and not have them growing up believing in legends and myths like Santa Claus.” Her daughter, therefore, is void of imagination, hates games, and doesn’t know any fairy tales. She, too, does not believe in Santa and tells Kringle, “Whatever I want I’m sure my mother will get for me as long as it’s sensible and doesn’t cost too much.”

Kringle and the Walker girls are tied together by attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne), a well-intentioned gentleman hoping to date Doris and bond with Suzie – essentially restoring two lost childhoods in one fell swoop – and Kringle’s temporary roommate. After Kringle engages in a brief argument with the Macy’s staff analyst, he finds himself committed to a state mental asylum. With Gailey by his side, the duo must take the case to the state supreme court and prove, once and for all, that there is indeed a Santa Claus.

Miracle on 34th Street is, primarily, a movie that intends to remind us what Christmas is all about. While capitalism rages forward and stress mounts, this delightful movie comes down and rights a few wrongs, while still maintaining that Christmas is definitely about buying gifts. It’s an endearing picture with a tear-soaked ending that was remade three times for television (1955, 1959, and 1973) and once in cinematic form (1994), but all missed the magic of the original that caused the American Film Institute to place it among the top 10 most inspiring films of all time.

Part of its charm is owed to Valentine Davies’ story and George Seaton’s screenplay/direction. The other portion of its charm comes from the cast, which pulled off a near-impossible feat of making a Christmas film a success despite its May release. During the studio era, producers often relied on the drawing power of a few A-list stars for a movie to turn a profit. Yet the cast of this film was a list of no-names and B-listers. But O’Hara’s believable turn is spot-on, the wide-eyed Wood is absolutely wonderful, and, lest we forget, Edmund Gwenn’s portrayal of the cane-clutching old man in red is iconic. Gwenn is so convincing and genuine that Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “If ever the real Santa wants to step down, Mr. Gwenn is the man for the job.” As the movie states, “Faith means believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” Well, thanks to Miracle on 34th Street, our faith in Santa Claus is restored once again.

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