'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947) Will Make You Believe in Santa Again

Updated on January 2, 2019
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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

1947's Miracle on 34th Street is a comedy-drama film based on a story by Valentine Davies. The film is about a Macy's store Santa who claims to be the real Santa and is put on trial for the belief.

I hadn't looked at this film for many years when I decided to watch it again this holiday, and it's just as wonderful as it was before. In fact, I almost want to believe in Santa again. Hell, maybe I do.

Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) is a woman who has allowed her bitter divorce from her husband to make her cold, rational, and cynical. She has forgone all magic and emotion because she was raised to believe that a Prince Charming would come along to take care of her, only to discover that reality is a bit colder than that.

When we are first introduced to Doris, she is in the middle of organizing the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. The Santa Claus is drunk and is roundly lectured -- and almost beaten with a cane -- by the real Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), who is appalled that he's being so crassly represented.

Doris begs Mr. Kringle to take the drunk Santa's place, and after grumpily refusing, he agrees, realizing he can't let the children down.

Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) has been raised to be a cynical mini version of Doris. She believes in reason and logic alone, scoffs at fairy tales, and most certainly doesn't believe in Santa Claus.

By raising her daughter not to believe in magic and dreams, Doris Walker has essentially robbed her daughter of her childhood.

I've met Doris Walkers before. These are people who let the world make them bitter and cynical, and as a result, they steal the joy from their children's lives. The point of "lying" to your children and allowing them to believe in Santa Claus is to nurture their imaginations, give them some magic and joy and fun before they grow up and become mindless drones serving the elite (and to bribe them into behaving every year).

All children should have a little magic and make believe in their lives.

Fred Gailey (John Payne) is a lawyer and a neighbor to the Walkers who happens to be dating Doris. He sees the emotional harm Doris is doing to her daughter and attempts to step in a few times. First, he tries to tell Susan about fairy tales, then he takes her to see Kris Kringle at the mall.

An irritable Doris takes Fred aside and politely tells him to mind his own business, and even though Fred is right, I was glad Doris told him to back off. Fred may have been right, but it wasn't his place to try and parent Susan.

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Meanwhile, Susan starts to change her mind about the new Macy's Santa. She watches in amazement as he speaks fluent German to a little German girl, while taking out his notebook and locating any toy in the world just like that for frustrated parents.

After Mr. Macy (Harry Antrim) decides to keep Kris Kringle around (because his altruism will make the store look good and will consequently earn them more money), Santa Claus is subjected to a mental examination. He's been through them so many times that he knows the test by heart and winds up examining the examiner instead (Porter Hall).

Immediately after the examination, Granville Sawyer decides that Kris Kringle should be packed off to an asylum -- not because he's failed the examination. In fact, Mr. Kringle passed with flying colors.

No, Granville Sawyer wants Santa Claus slapped in a straitjacket as revenge. Immediately after Kringle leaves the room, we see Sawyer bickering on the phone with his wife, and it's obvious he's just angry because Kringle made an unfortunate observation about him that was correct.

In essence, most of the adults in this film suck. Mr. Macy only cares about making money while hiding behind a guise of altruism. Doris Walker is bitter and cynical and wants to be rid of Mr. Kringle because his pure spirit unsettles her and forces her to self-examine. Mr. Sawyer is an angry, miserable man who just wants to punish someone for having the gall to point it out.

This story is basically about how people grow up and forget what it was like to dream and imagine, how everyone's inner child is screaming inside them to play and laugh and forget all their cares. Because that's how life should be. We should be living in the moment, happy, not bogged down by anger, not living in the past, not worrying about the future. We should be happy right now, and because we were able to master this as children, it is important to keep that childlike spirit alive.

That's what Santa teaches all the adults in the film (and the adults watching the film).

Susan is so stunted by her mother's strict upbringing, she has no idea how to play pretend. An appalled Kringle teaches her to pretend to be a monkey.

So many drunk people in this film.
So many drunk people in this film.

Meanwhile, Doris' coworker, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), gets his wife drunk (Lela Bliss) in order to convince her that Kris Kringle should stay in their son's vacant bedroom for the holidays.

Doris is desperate to get Kris away from her daughter and is ecstatic the plan worked. Unfortunately for her, however, Fred Gailey has sabotaged her plan by offering to let Kringle stay in his apartment. This means that Kringle will still continue to see Susan and help her learn to be a child.

In the next scene, Susan reveals what she wants for Christmas more than anything: a house.

I don't know any children who like living in apartments. I know I didn't, which was why I always related so much to Susan in this film.

Susan tells Kringle that if he's really Santa, he'll get the house for her. Kringle is amazed by such a little girl's ability to dream so big. He points out that Susan already lives in a beautiful apartment and should be grateful.

That's another thing: being grateful for what you already have is a part of living in the spirit of generosity, and Kringle fully embodies that in this film.

Susan explains that she wants a backyard with a "great big tree" to tie a swing to. When she sees the reluctance in Kringle's eyes, she decides that he isn't Santa after all and can't get it for her. She apologetically starts to take the picture back, but he insists that he'll try to get her a house and asks to keep the picture.

Earlier in the film, Kringle implies that he's been Santa Claus for a very long time. This is said after a young guy in the beginning of the film comments on how old and beautiful his Santa suit is. But for some reason, Susan is the first child to wish for a house?

What, Santa doesn't listen to children who are homeless and living in shelters? Children in war zones? Children in orphanages?

Geez. Being an adult ruins these kinds of films.

It's probably fair to say that plenty of children wish for homes. Susan was probably just the first to approach Santa and say, "Please bring me this exact house for Christmas!"

I'll admit, you don't normally hear kids at the mall shouting on Santa's knee about how they want a new house for Christmas. Even when I was living in an apartment as a seven-year-old, all I wanted for Christmas was a new set of Legos.

Over lunch one day, Kringle finds out that his coworker, Alfred (Alvin Greenman), a kind-hearted seventeen-year-old boy, is being brainwashed by Sawyer into believing he's a bad person with a "guilt complex."

Kringle storms over to Sawyer's office and accuses him of being a callous and cruel man. He then threatens Sawyer to stop his sessions with Alfred. When Sawyer tells Kringle to get out of his office, Kringle bops him on the forehead with an umbrella. (Does anyone else find it hilarious that Santa Claus has such a cute little temper? The righteous indignation!)

The bop really isn't that bad, but Sawyer uses it to his advantage, pretending to be unconscious when he is found by Doris and Julian. He tells deliberate lies, framing Kringle as having turned violent without provocation when he knows damn-well he spurred him on.

Kringle is then tricked into a car and is shipped off to Bellevue, an insane asylum.

Kris Kringle calls Fred to bring him his things from the apartment, and what follows is probably the most heartbreaking scene in the film: a slouched and depressed Santa Claus who has let the world get to him.

Because of Sawyer, Kris Kringle has stopped believing in the good in people. Like Doris, he gives in to cynicism and stubbornly doesn't answer when Fred sadly accuses of him of purposely failing his mental examination.

Thankfully, Fred gently talks Kringle out of his slump, and Kringle asks him to represent him in a court hearing, proving he is mentally sound.

Sawyer tries to slide Fred some hush money in the hope that he can cover up what is going to be a huge shitstorm. He is now worried about looking bad after going behind Mr. Macy's back to set up a harmless old man in the devious and petty way that he did.

Fred Gailey plasters the court hearing all over the newspapers in gleeful retaliation, bringing Sawyer's worst nightmares to pass.

Fred has a real "oh shit" expression, doesn't he?
Fred has a real "oh shit" expression, doesn't he?

Then Gailey announces -- to gasps of shock -- that he intends to prove that Kris Kringle is the real deal and is not insane for believing himself to be Santa Claus.

He does this by bringing in a bunch of people who sit on the stand and claim that Kris Kringle is Santa. Sadly enough, these people are only doing it for selfish reasons. Mr. Macy, for instance, doesn't want bad press and is angry enough to fire Sawyer in the middle of the courtroom. Meanwhile, Judge Harper (Gene Lockhart) is only doing it for the sake of politics and keeping his place in office.

Fred even goes so far as to bring in the young son (Bobby Hyatt) of the prosecutor Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan). Mara's son claims that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus, then goes on to say that his father told him Santa was real and that his father wouldn't lie to him.

This proves the final straw for Mara, who -- in a moment of guilt and frustration -- gets up and declares that he wants Fred Gailey to provide real, physical proof that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus.

Back at her apartment, Susan writes a letter to Kris Kringle, and her mother signs it as well, adding at the bottom that she now believes in Santa Claus. The letter is noticed in the sorting room at the post office, where it's decided that the hearing is the perfect chance to get rid of all the Santa letters in the dead mail room.

The next day at court, when all seems lost and Fred admits he has no defense, the letters arrive just in time. The most iconic scene in the film unfolds as man after man enters the court room bearing a huge sack of letters to Santa, which are all upturned on the judge's desk.

The letters are viewed as undeniable proof that Santa Claus exists -- if not in tangible reality then in the hearts and minds of children. Which is arguably the same thing. Our thoughts are our reality.

The judge declares that since the United States government recognizes Kris Kringle by delivering the letters to him, then he must be Santa Claus.

Because of Susan and Doris' belief in him, Santa Claus is then acquitted and released.

Susan and Doris don't give up believing, and their reward is the exact house Susan wished for.

Having realized that Doris has given up her bitter and cynical outlook, an overjoyed Fred kisses her and proposes that they buy the house and become a real family. As they are joking about what a great lawyer he is for making the world believe in Santa Claus, they look up and notice that Kris Kringle has left his cane in a corner of the house -- a cheeky little way of letting them know the house is from him.

Miracle on 34th Street
Miracle on 34th Street

Own this classic and watch it every year.

 

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    © 2018 Ash

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