Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)Synopsis: Miracle on 34th Street is an irresistible fable that has, for many, become synonymous with celebrating Christmas.

The holiday season is in full swing when a cultured gentleman with twinkling eyes, an ample belly, and a snowy beard (Edmund Gwenn) is hired as Macy’s department store Santa. He claims his name is Kris Kringle, and soon fills everyone with Christmas spirit – except for his boss, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), who’s raising her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to not believe in Santa. But when Kris is declared insane and put on trial, everyone’s faith is put to the test as old and young alike face the age old question: Do you believe in Santa Claus?

An Academy Award winner (1947) for Best Supporting Actor (Edmund Gwenn), Best Original Story and Best Screenplay, this timeless tale of faith, love and imagination remains one of the most popular and best-loved holiday films of all time.

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947) 8.25

eyelights: Edmund Gwenn. Natalie Wood. the originality of the plot. the film’s infectious Christmas spirit.
eyesores: the unconvincing arguments of the third act. the naiveté of its message.

“For the past 50 years or so I’ve been getting more and more worried about Christmas. Seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.”

‘Miracle on 34th Street’ is a movie about the Christmas spirit and on the value of faith. Originally released in 1947, the film garnered four Academy Awards and two Golden Globes for its writing and for Edmund Gwenn’s performance as Kris Kringle. It has become omnipresent in North American pop culture, and has been remade at least four times.

Conceived by Valentine Davies as he was waiting in line at a big department store, and written for the screen by director George Seaton, it revolves around the “World’s Largest Store”, Macy’s Herald Square flagship location. It’s integral to the film, with Gwenn actually playing Santa for Macy’s annual Christmas parade that year – as shown in the picture.

Our story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it follows a jolly old man who claims to be Kris Kringle. Our first glimpse of him is of the man walking through the streets and correcting a store owner who is putting up a Christmas display. He comes off as eccentric, and the store owner thanks him, but quickly dismisses his advice.

Within no time flat, he is hired by Macy’s to be their store’s Santa Claus for the season. Insisting that he is truly Kris Kringle, he finds mild opposition in the form of Doris, the special events director, a single divorcee with a young daughter that she has raised to not believe in fairy tales. Kringle soon develops a friendship with Susan and her faithlessness is shaken.

But there’s more to this holiday tale: conflict arises between Kringle and Macy’s staff psychologist, and the latter advises his employers that the old man is unfit to be around children – and may even be dangerous. That’s when the situation gets dicey for good ol’ Kringle, who will have to face a mental evaluation and even a court battle to clear his name.

It’s a very unusual concept, especially given the time in which it was made, the post-war era, which brought with it renewed hope and prosperity. There was also a cementing of so-called traditional values, the kind that produced movies like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘. So it’s very unusual to find “Santa Claus” on trial – something you’d expect in more cynical times.

‘Miracle on 34th Street’ wasn’t just unusual from that perspective, however: it is also peculiar in that it seems to express a desire for the return of simpler Christmases, one that was more about spirit than consumerism, and yet it takes place right in the middle of the Christmas rush, in the biggest retail store around – it’s virtually a plug for Macy’s (and Gimbels).

As well, it was rolled out with the most unusual of all strategies: by eschewing its Christmas roots in all the promotions. You see, studio head Daryl F Zanuck was of the opinion that people went to the movies more during the summer, so he had the movie released in May – so the marketing department were forced to focus on anything but its Christmas theme.

It worked: ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ was a smash, critically and commercially and has become a seasonal tradition for many. Of course, it benefited from great free publicity: Macy’s had 12000 employees at the time, and it was said that they would all get half the day off to see the movie. Who says that Christmas and consumerism don’t mix?

Personally, I can’t quite remember the first time I saw this picture. I can’t even place that experience in a particular decade – but, given its omnipresence during the holiday season, it’s likely that I knew about it very early on, well before I even saw it. I made a point of watching it again approximately 20 years ago, and it has ever since then become a go-to Christmas film.

What I like the most is its playfulness, in the form of Gwenn’s Kris Kringle. Although he has a sober side to him, he usually has a perfectly-suited twinkle in his eye no matter what he says and does; it’s all a game to him, even as he takes Christmas very seriously. What he does best is to foster people’s good nature, forcing them to free their bigger selves.

Kris Kringle: “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind… and that’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do something about it.”

Edmund Gwenn is absolutely brilliant as Kris Kringle. Thankfully, he doesn’t overdo it by hohoho-ing his way through the picture. What he does is to affect the positive, jubilant spirit one might expect from Santa Claus. His hair isn’t long enough and he’s not as chubby as you’d expect him to be, but he’s otherwise perfect.

His Kris Kringle is such an endearing character, that it makes you wish that Santa Claus were real. Even if, ultimately,  the character might be insane, what he represents transcends any potential folly. What matters is that he has a perfect understanding of what a North American Christmas is meant to be, and embodies it fully, admirably.

Susan Walker: “If you’re really Santa Claus, you can get it for me. And if you can’t, you’re only a nice man with a white beard like mother says. “

Natalie Wood is especially good as Susan, the 8-year-old who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. And not just for a little kid, either: she outshines most of the adults in the picture. She displays intelligence, self-reflection, and delivers lines naturally, credibly. It’s really no wonder that she became a star – she had the raw talent right from the start.

I also enjoyed the character. While she’s just a little girl, there’s more to her: she deconstructs the world from a purely objective standpoint, but longs for the wonder that is usually inherent to childhood. While I dislike that she ends up believing in Santa, I do like that she reconnected with the child within in many other ways. It was sweet to see.

Doris: “Would you please tell her that you’re not really Santa Claus, that actually is no such person? “
Kris Kringle: “Well, I hate to disagree with you, but not only IS there such a person, but here I am to prove it.”

I loved that Maureen O’Hara plays a divorced single mom. That must have been quite the stunner in 1947. Case-in-point, the film received a ‘B’ rating (morally objectionable in part) from the highly influential Legion of Decency because she played a divorcée. But at least it shows different parenting models and it showed an independent woman.

Having said that, the film is critical of her ways, which is trying to raise her child to be rational, not a daydreamer. The film does everything it can to prove her wrong in her method, including saddling Doris with a beau who purposely tries to chip away at her beliefs. What the heck do women know anyway? Men always know better, right? Sigh…

Fred Gailey: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”

John Payne plays Fred, a lawyer who has his eye on Doris, his neighbour. He’s decent in the part, but the character is written in a slightly unconvincing manner, making him sound more goofy than a lawyer likely should, so it’s hard to assess his ability to play it.

As for the character’s courtroom abilities? To me, they come into question when his arguments take extremely wide turns around the issues instead of tackling them in a genuine fashion – for example, his argument about the Post Office. This was simplistic to say the least.

And that’s part of the reason why the third act falls down: it suffers a little bit of speciousness, with the courtroom sequences being very light in their approach to the issue at hand. What we get are the lawyers and judge making quick decisions about the validity of Santa Claus and this Kris Kringle with very little deliberation, and arguments not worth backing.

The most troubling part of it is the fact that the judge is completely biased by the fact that he’s planning to run for elected office and doesn’t want to be the man who rules that Santa Claus isn’t real. To that end, he is being coached throughout the trial by one of his backers – who’s actually in the courthouse giving him signals. No joke.

Firstly, it’s a disturbing notion that this could be considered okay on screen, because it sends a cynical message about judicial impartiality. But it’s even more ludicrous that no one in this court noticed the obvious manipulation of justice taking place (the pair were about as subtle as baseball players). In reality, they would have been caught.

Of course, in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Kris is deluded, does it? So long as he doesn’t do any harm and wholly upholds the values of Santa and the meaning of Christmas, what could the problem possibly be if someone claims to be the one and only Santa Claus? It’s a claim that’s hard to accept, though. And who gets to make that claim?

That’s something I’m not really sure about.

There’s also the matter of the film’s message, which is that one has to have faith and that faith is believing ins something even if it defies all logic. WTF. Um… no! This is what gets people like George W. Bush elected and keeps the Rob Fords of this world in office. I think that critical thinking is essential to human survival and that this is what we should strive for.

…although I believe that a little wonderment and magic doesn’t hurt either. We all need a little bit of it in our lives.

‘Miracle on 34th Street’ delivers 90 minutes’ worth of it. Despite being dated and perhaps too syrupy for modern audiences, it’s a Christmas classic because it manages to make us think, laugh, and tap into our sense of awe all at once. Astoundingly, it retains its power, even 65 years after being made.

In my estimation, you’d have to be a grinch not to enjoy ‘Miracle on 34th Street’. Oh, sure, it’s slightly naive, it can get sappy, if not corny, and it’s not entirely convincing, but it’s all wrapped up in the Christmas spirit from start to finish. It’s also sprinkled with layers of humour and some heartfelt sincerity, making it a jolly ol’ time.

“I believe… I believe… It’s silly, but I believe.”

Post scriptum: The film was remade in 1994, but suffered from less convincing casting and a basically interchangeable script. Why it was even remade at all, aside for modernizing it by making it in colour, is beyond me. It’s entirely redundant – especially since the original was also… ugh… colourized.

Date of viewing: December 4, 2013

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