Thursday, December 6, 2012

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - It's Groovy!

DVD cover for Miracle on 34th Street
Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

"Miracle on 34th Street" ( 1947), produced by Twentieth Century Fox, is one of the big guns of the holiday season. It is a film that never seems to go out of style despite the fact that it is black-and-white and reflects the mores of a bygone era. Written and directed by George Seaton from a story by , it won Academy Awards for Edmund Gwenn in a supporting role, Best Writing, Original Story and Best Writing, Screenplay. While it lost the Best Picture nod to "Gentleman's Agreement" in a true case of robbery, not too many people remember that one, but everyone remembers this every time Christmas rolls around. The most fascinating aspect of this tale is how it manages to blend the "true meaning" of Christmas (which is never really gone into too deeply) with the reality of the holiday season - which is its commercialization. It's never been done as well, before or since.

Fred and Susan talking in front of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
A marvelous, classic shot of the Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC in "Miracle on 34th Street." 

The story of "Miracle on 34th Street" concerns a "slice of life" among a group of ordinary New Yorkers between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Ordinary store clerk Kris Kringle (Gwenn) complains to Macy's event director Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) that the store Santa (Percy Helton) is drunk. She replaces him with Kris, who does such a great job that he becomes the Santa at the Macy's flagship store in Manhattan (which, of course, is located at 34th Street, hence the title).

Doris and Susan talking in Miracle on 34th Street
Haven't we all seen that look on a child's face? Natalie Wood and Maureen O'Hara.

Kris does a wonderful job, but in some ways it is too good. He turns out to be kind of a loose cannon because he puts the interests of the child ahead of those of his employer. In fact, Kris has the audacity to direct mothers to other stores when Macy's doesn't have the proper gift for a child (usually Gimbel's, the major competitor to Macy's at the time). Kris is so good, in fact, that young Susan (Natalie Wood), Doris' daughter, comes to believe that he is the real Santa. Doris tells Kris to make clear to Susan that of course he isn't the "real" Santa  - but Kris says he can't do that, because he really is Santa Claus. As in, the one and only Jolly Old Gent from the North Pole.

Kris, Susan, Doris and Fred look at a Christmas tree in Miracle on 34th Street
A 1940s view of childhood Heaven in "Miracle on 34th Street."

Doris is aghast and wants to fire Kris for being crazy. However, word has gotten around town amongst all the mothers (and their children) that Macy's has the best Santa in town. So much good publicity results (and extra business) that Mr. Macy himself (Harry Antrim) gives both Doris and the head of the toy department, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge) bonuses for their perspicacity in hiring Kris. Kris then passes a psychological test and remains as store Santa. Back on the job, Kris injects a little of the holiday spirit creeps into the entire retail sector as all the stores, including Macy's and Gimbel's, change their policies and have their Santas refer customers to the best place to get a toy even if it isn't their own store.

Doris holds Susan in Miracle on 34th Street
Maureen O'Hara really had to work hard to steal any screen time from Natalie Wood in "Miracle on 34th Street ."

Fred Gailey (John Payne), an attorney friend of Doris', decides to help out and allows Kris stay with him. A romance blossoms between Fred and Doris, and Kris learns that Susan's only wish is to live in a nice house with a swing in the back. Naturally, such a house is beyond Doris' means on her own, but Kris has some ideas about that, too.

Kris hugs Susan in Miracle on 34th Street
The world was a better place when this was the picture of pure innocence in "Miracle on 34th Street."

Meanwhile, the Macy's store psychologist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall), in one of those thankless roles that every actor has to take now and then, who doesn't like Kris, is frustrated that he couldn't fire Kris and makes disparaging comments about him. Kris retaliates by rapping him on the head with his umbrella in frustration. As a result, Sawyer convinces the authorities to lock Kris up in Bellevue Mental Hospital. Kris is discouraged that Doris appears to be against him as well and deliberately fails a mental test because he is depressed. Fred is determined to fight for Kris, though, and takes his case to court. The case, in which Fred must somehow prove that Kris actually is Santa Claus, becomes front page news before judge Henry X. Harper (a very comically confused Gene Lockhart). The judge, meanwhile, is advised by his sharp political guru, Charlie Halloran (William Frawley), who notices the case's extreme sensitivity - and Kris' astounding appeal to female voters.

Kris Kringle riding in a sleigh in Miracle on 34th Street
The perfect Santa in "Miracle on 34th Street (1947)." That is Edmund Gwenn the actor playing Santa Claus in the 1946 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the traditional start to the holiday season. At this time, nobody outside the studio knew that he was going to play Santa in a film.

"Miracle on 34th Street," made just after the other top holiday classic, "It's A Wonderful Life," was released in May of 1947 because the studio figured that more audiences went to the theater during the summer, and it didn't matter what the film was about. Releasing a holiday film just as the weather was heating up was one of the strangest studio decisions of all time, and marketing accordingly downplayed the obvious holiday connection both in posters and the trailer, neither of which so much as mention the word "Christmas" or contain any holiday references. The bizarre decision didn't matter, though, as "Miracle on 34th Street" became so popular that there have been four remakes, a Broadway Musical, television and radio adaptations, and, of course, the book, which came out at the same time as the film.

Original film poster for Miracle on 34th Street
This was the Summer 1947 poster for "Miracle on 34th Street" - can you see any sign of Christmas, or a Santa?

Did I mention yet that this holiday film that is great because it basically uses the holiday as merely a backdrop for a much deeper tale also has quite possibly the best courtroom scenes ever filmed? Well, it does. Paradoxically for such a film, its best scenes are in the courthouse, something you would not expect in a holiday movie. Fred fights desperately to keep Kris out of the mental ward (commonly known as a "Section 8" order). Other scenes take place in authentic locations such as a post office and an apartment overlooking the actual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade of 1946. William Frawley, better known as Fred on "I Love Lucy," plays a pivotal role in this proceeding that fits in perfectly with his later characterization of the tough, street-smart antagonist of all the crazies in his life, but - you guessed it - with a heart of gold.

Kris and Fred in court in Miracle on 34th Street
One of the best courtroom scenes ever filmed in "Miracle on 34th Street (1947)."

I would stack the simplicity and charm of these courtroom scenes against anything in "Perry Mason" or later efforts such as "CSI." Less is more sometimes when you have genuine wit and charm, and this is a classic case of that. Anyone interested in how a trial should be presented on the screen should study "Miracle on 34th Street." The way that Fred attempts to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt, based as much on prosaic reality as on any larger truth, that Kris indeed is Santa Claus is one of the most marvelous plot twists in film history.

Kris holds Susan's hand in Miracle on 34th Street
Every child's dream in the 1940s in "Miracle on 34th Street."

Let's sum it up: "Miracle on 34th Street" is a terrific holiday treat, mixing the sentimental with the ordinary in such a way that the mundane concerns of life make the sentimental conclusion possible. It truly is a brilliant, brilliant script, and the performances are its equal. Maureen O'Hara and Natalie Wood (in her breakthrough role) are delightful, and Gwenn really did deserve that Oscar. In a weird case of verisimilitude, Gwenn, a journeyman character actor who already had 30 years in the business, actually played Santa in the 1946 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, though without any fanfare. Bottom line: everybody should see "Miracle on 34th Street (1947)" at some point during the season at some point during their lives.

You may view the trailer below. Notice the clever absence of references to the holidays. And, as the man says, it's groovy!


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