Movies We Like
Miracle on 34th Street
No other film in history has been able to capture the spirit of Christmas and toss cinders on the commercialism that the holiday has come to represent quite like Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street. At 60-something-years-old, the film is still just as relevant, funny, and, ultimately, moving as it ever was. Like How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original animated version), It’s a Wonderful Life,and the more recent A Christmas Story, Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street has become standard, even compulsive, viewing during the holiday season. Today’s kids may think that Christmas is some kind of video game or a season to shop and spend money, but Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street has reminded generations what it’s supposed to be about. As Mr. Kringle says in the film, “Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind.”
The beautiful but icy Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is a cynical single mom who works for the glamorous Macy’s Department Store in New York City. While handling the big Thanksgiving Day Parade she pulls a bearded old man (Edmund Gwenn) off the street to play Santa Claus. The twist is he actually claims to be the jolly toy maker and even calls himself Kris Kringle. The good-natured, but possibly delusional, old coot is so convincing Macy’s hires him to be their full-time in-store Santa. Meanwhile, Doris’s daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), is her mom’s mini-me, with equal disdain for childish things like make-believe. But when she befriends her do-gooder neighbor, a bachelor lawyer with the unfortunate name of Fred Gailey (John Payne), he encourages her to start to act like a kid and gets Doris to instantly open her heart to romance. All three befriend Kris, while he and Fred try to loosen up the two uptight females. Little Susan is taken aback when she see Kris speak Dutch to a peewee foreign girl, giving her the idea that maybe this guy is the real deal.
As Santa Claus, Kris single-handedly changes the rules of the Christmas shopping season by directing customers to other stores for better deals. This could be a firing offense, but when the owner R.H. Macy (Harry Antrim) embraces Kris’s generosity as a solid public relations stunt, Kris becomes the most celebrated store Santa in town. But Macy’s resident shrink, Sawyer (the great weasely actor Porter Hall, who dominated snide character roles of the later ‘30s and early ‘40s, most memorably in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), is not taken by his kindness; finding it to be abnormal, he plots to have him committed. This all leads to a big trial as Fred must represent Kris and prove to the state, legally, that Kris is who he claims to be, which also works as a lesson in faith for Doris and Susan.
Besides Hall and the delightful, Oscar-winning Gwenn, the film is full of great character actors working at their exasperated best. In other scene-stealing performances the judge in the trial is played by Gene Lockhart (His Girl Friday), while William Frawley (Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy) plays his cagey political operative. As the District Attorney, Jerome Cowan is also very amusing (he’s best remembered as Bogart’s partner Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon); during the trial Fred outsmarts him, using his own son against him. And finally, in her film debate, the always interesting Thelma Ritter has a small role as a store customer, the first of many classic films on her resume (All about Eve, Rear Window, etc.).
Though there is a Capra-esque touch of cornball in Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street, it also has some Twilight Zone-type edge (the lighter episodes). Where most Christmas movies themselves feel like manufactured products meant to be wrapped, opened, and forgotten after they are paid for (including the blah, by-the-number remake), Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street feels like a real gift meant to be cherished for a long time. This is a film with the almost radical goal of questioning the entire phony commercialism of Christmas. But, most importantly, it never specifically tells the audience what to feel or think; even the question of “Is Kris the real Kringle?” is left up to the viewer to decide for themselves (I myself must agree with Susan’s earlier observation that he’s just a nice old man with a white beard). Director and screenwriter George Seaton (whose diverse resume ranges from writing for The Marx Brothers to directing Airport) created a film that can appeal to the family. It was a hit for 1947 audiences and still holds up for today’s viewer. Even a forty-something guy like me totally enjoyed seeing it for the gazillionth time on TV this past Thanksgiving afternoon; I became instantly absorbed in it, again. It’s sentimental and even moving but never manipulative; it doesn’t jerk emotions from you, but invites you to believe. Or, as Fred explains it while seducing Susan, “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for: kindness, joy, and love, and all the other intangibles.” I rest my case!
Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street won three Oscars including Best Supporting Actor (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davis), and Best Screenplay (George Seaton), and was nominated for Best Picture.