MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)

  • Director: George Seaton
  • Writers: Screenplay by George Seaton, Story by Valentine Davies
  • Starring: Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, and Philip Tonge
  • Accolades: 3 Oscars (Best Support Actor – Edmund Gwenn, Best Writing – Original Story, Best Writing – Screenplay), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Picture)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.

I think what I found most interesting about Miracle on 34th Street is how different I experience what is basically the same story as an adult as opposed to the last time I watched it, which might have been a solid 25 years ago. I watched the 1994 remake, written by John Hughes and starring Richard Attenborough as “Kris Kringle,” several times as a kid, and I don’t think it seriously occurred to me that Attenborough’s character wasn’t the actual Santa Claus. But watching the originally, 1947 movie as an adult, I’m not sure the movie itself thinks Edmund Gwenn is actually Santa. If it does, it’s an extraordinarily light touch about it. Not to mention that if the lead romantic couple, played by Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, ever actually kiss in this movie, it was real quick and I wasn’t paying attention. The 1994 version felt the need to not only have them get married, but to heavily imply the mom was pregnant again.

Miracle on 34th Street is less a comedy than it is a drama with extremely low emotional stakes for the audience. Gwenn plays “Kris Kringle,” who gets hired as the Santa Claus who comes at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade after the original Santa is too drunk to go on. O’Hara, maybe the first big Hollywood star to come from Ireland, plays the matter-of-fact Macy’s employee who runs the parade. O’Hara is stunned to find, as time goes on, that Kris believes himself to be the actual Santa Claus, but she puts up with it as long as he continues to drive increased sales. An 8-year-old Natalie Wood plays her daughter, who has had the starkness of reality drilled into her by her mother, to the point of being admonished that Santa is not real at age 8. As an adult, I found the idea that this person would exist bizarre, but as a kid I didn’t question it. Even weirder, the movie posits (very quickly and vaguely) that O’Hara doesn’t want her daughter to believe in Santa because that way lies getting her heart broken by men, which leads us to the never-answered question as to what happened to Natalie Wood’s dad.

Anyway, John Payne, in the only role of his that you’re likely to see today, plays a lawyer who wants to romance O’Hara, but keeps tripping up by encouraging imagination in her daughter, the horror. Eventually, Gwenn raps a jackass Macy’s employee over the head with his cane, and the last half hour of the movie is a commitment hearing where the state tries to put him in an insane asylum for believing he’s Santa. Payne agrees to represent him in one of the movies’ silliest courtroom dramas, and takes the strategy of proving, not that Gwenn doesn’t believe he’s Santa, but that there is, in fact, a Santa, and that Kris is it. As a kid, this was the lamest part of the story, but today, where I am a lawyer for my day job, I found it highly entertaining. Not least for lines like, “The State of New York admits that Santa Claus is real as a matter of law.”

In 2020, it’s absolutely bizarre to think that Miracle on 34th Street was nominated for Best Picture. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like it, I really enjoyed it, but today, no matter how good a movie like this is, it would never get a sniff at the Oscars, for reasons that are not 100% clear to me. Even at the time, its own studio didn’t seem really sure what to do with it. There’s a reason that this is one of the earlier movies in our Holiday Virtual Film Festival, and that’s because Hollywood didn’t 100% trust that people would go see a movie explicitly about Christmas until after World War II. In fact, the head of the Fox studio, Darryl F. Zanuck, absolutely insisted that the movie come out in June, as “more people go to the theater in the summer.” This led the studio marketing department the task of somehow trying to hide from people that this was actually a Christmas movie. The initial poster didn’t have Gwenn on it at all, and the trailer involved mostly people who had seen the movie saying how good it was. One wonders what audiences must have thought when they arrived to find this happening on the movie screen in summer 1947. But Miracle was a hit with critics, and once TV really got going it became a tradition for NBC to play it right after the actual Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day for several decades. So it is a holiday classic today, and Darryl F. Zanuck can suck it.

Perhaps this is revealing that I need to watch more old movies, but I did find this one refreshingly “modern.” What I mean by that is that, though it’s in black and white, otherwise there isn’t much about performances, or editing, or the shots chosen, that would be different if you shot this movie today. In fact, this was one of the first feature black and white movies to be colorized, back in the 80s when that was briefly a thing, and a lot of people who were kids at the right time probably thought it was always a color movie. It was not, and, with colorization firmly out of favor, the black and white version is pretty exclusively what you’ll find today. It probably shows the lack of studio confidence in this movie that they chose to film in cheaper black and white, despite the fact that it starred Maureen O’Hara, who at the time was known as “the Queen of Technicolor.”

O’Hara was a big star that maybe doesn’t get the recognition she deserves today, though the Irish Times recently named her the greatest Irish actor of all time. On screen, she was incredibly beautiful, with long, red hair that blazed from the screen in the early color movies. She was cast by Alfred Hitchcock in Jamaica Inn (a movie he later said was his least favorite of his) and immediately noticed by Hollywood and signed to a big contract. Off screen, she had a reputation as something of a tomboy by the standards of the time. She appeared opposite John Wayne in several westerns (and in John Ford’s The Quiet Man, where she got to use her actual accent for once), and Wayne called her “the greatest guy I ever met.” She was even a rabid sports fan, at a time when that wasn’t something many female stars would admit to, eventually even having an ownership stake in her local football (soccer) team in Dublin.

Miracle on 34th Street feels weightless, in the good sense of that term. It takes as its villain people who don’t believe in Santa, which is something of a straw man to say the least. Nobody’s going around yelling that other people shouldn’t believe in Santa, except in this movie. It never seems particularly in doubt that things are all going to turn out OK. I started this by saying I wasn’t actually sure if the movie thinks Edmund Gwenn’s character is really Santa. I think, on reflection, it might be more accurate to say that the movie realizes, correctly, that this question doesn’t actually matter. It has no big reveal, nor should it. This isn’t a puzzle. It’s a 90 minute movie about Christmas that has a little bit of a twinkle in its eye. And I feel like sometimes that’s enough.

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