Should I Watch..? 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947)
What's the big deal?
Miracle On 34th Street is a festive comedy-drama film released in 1947 and was written and directed by George Seaton. Based on a story by Valentine Davies, the film concerns a department store Santa who believes he is the real Father Christmas and the effect he has on those around him. The film stars Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and a young Natalie Wood. Despite being released in summer, the film became a much-loved festive favourite immediately with critics lauding the film's charm and Gwenn's performance as Kris Kringle. Gwenn also won one of three Oscars the film picked up although it missed out on a fourth. The film was followed by a number of radio and TV adaptations before a film sequel of the same name was released in 1994. It was also selected for preservation at the National Film Registry at the Library Of Congress in 2005.
What's it about?
With the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade about to begin, a kindly old man with a big white beard is disgusted to notice the man playing Santa Claus has been heavily drinking. After pointing this out to parade organiser Doris Walker, Doris asks the old man to replace the drunk Santa due to his resemblance to Santa. Reluctantly, the man agrees and is an instant hit with the crowds - so much so that he is asked by R.H. Macy himself to work for him as his department store Santa.
Despite being directed by the head of toys Julian Shellhammer to sell certain products, the man - who calls himself Kris Kringle - instead directs shoppers to other stores in order to find exactly what they want. Initially distraught, Doris and Julian are amazed to find more customers than ever flooding into Macy's although they are a little perturbed by Kringle's apparent insistence that he is the actual Santa Claus...
Trailer (of sorts!)
Frederick M. Gailey
Hon. Henry X. Harper
DA Thomas Mara
Release Date (US)
4th June, 1947
Comedy, Drama, Family, Festive
Best Supporting Actor (Gwenn), Best Original Story, Best Screenplay
Academy Award Nominations
What's to like?
Despite the lack of snow, this film is possibly the most festive film I've ever seen and I'm including It's A Wonderful Life in that list. But instead of soppy romances over the festive period or determined parents overcoming the crowds to find that magical present, Miracle On 34th Street offers a much deeper experience than you might suppose - one that almost borders on spiritual. On the surface, it's about whether a kindly old man is really Santa but underneath, it's an exploration on faith and the spirit of Christmas itself. Narratively, the film is a winner and it's no surprise to me that the film remains an iconic picture at the most wonderful time of the year.
Although O'Hara and Payne are the headliners, Gwenn deserves every bit of credit for convincing the cast of characters (and ourselves, of course) that he is Santa. The role is a dream and Gwenn breathes life into it with unfaltering generosity, kindness and as much charm as an Christmas elf. His rapport with Wood, scarcely believable in the role of O'Hara's daughter, feels utterly natural to such an extent, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Well, except Richard Attenborough if you've already seen the remake. But I love the film's optimistic tone and the examination of something fantastical in a legal setting. The film has the same fuzzy warmth you get at the end of It's A Wonderful Life but provides it from the very start.
- The cast and crew universally loved Gwenn. Alvin Greenman (who plays Alfred the young Santa impersonator) called him "a dear, dear man" while Robert Hyatt (the DA's son Thomas who is called as a witness) described Gwenn as "a really nice guy, always happy, always smiling... He had this little twinkle in his eye." O'Hara later added that she'd "never seen an actor more naturally suited for a role."
- Speaking of Greenman, he also appeared in the 1994 remake as a doorman. Coincidentally, both films bookended his film career - he debuted in this film and made his last film appearance in the remake. He's also the only cast member to appear in both films.
- Gwenn actually appeared at the real Macy's Thanksgiving Parade as Santa in 1946, in able for the film-makers to shoot him in the role. He was even introduced to the crowd by Tonge in character and the parade served as the opening of Macy's Christmas shopping season.
What's not to like?
As regular readers are no doubt discovering, there are no shortage of Christmas films for viewers to catch from the monochrome magic of It's A Wonderful Life to the hyperactive slapstick of Home Alone. In the face of this tide of goodwill and cheer, I couldn't help but feel that Miracle On 34th Street was missing something. It isn't as much fun as you'd hope although you can't help but smile at Gwenn inhabiting the role as completely as he does. The film offers no real doubt as to where its intentions lay and you can't help but admire the way it ties things up.
My other issue, albeit a slight one, is that Gwenn is so good that he easily outshines the rest of the cast who remain fairly forgettable or deeply stereotypical. From the Brylcreamed, idealistic Payne to O'Hara's flustered single-mother pulled into rom-com cliché by her daughter, the film lacks another memorable character to play against Gwenn's eccentric Claus. The film also doesn't explain what Kringle was doing at the nursing home before the film or follow up what happens to him at the end. I wanted a little more exposition but obviously, I've been a bad boy this year.
Should I watch it?
I can see why religious groups could use the film to help justify their faiths but I wholeheartedly endorse Miracle On 34th Street as family friendly festive viewing. Gwenn's unforgettable performance as Santa is possibly the greatest screen interpretation in history while the intelligent screenplay works as both a festive favourite as well as a powerful parable about the nature of faith and childhood innocence. It's nice to see a film with an actual message behind it instead of relying on a famous actor hamming it up in costume.
Great For: Christians, families at Christmas, anyone who hasn't seen the remake, Macy's
Not So Great For: young children who bore easily, black-and-white snobs
What else should I watch?
In truth, the niggles I have with this film shouldn't be enough to only score the film four out of five. But compared to Frank Capra's classic, it simply hasn't a chance - no film has ever effected me like It's A Wonderful Life and no character have I ever identified with so much than James Stewart's George Bailey. The film is a heart-breaking journey through George's life as he sacrifices every opportunity he has for happiness for the sake of others, to the point where Bailey stands on a bridge contemplating suicide. Only the presence of his guardian angel prevents tragic and the film ends with possibly the most joyous scenes ever filmed. I adore it and will treasure it always.
Of course, not everyone wants misery at Christmas - normally, I don't but this year has proven quite testing. The aforementioned Home Alone always put a smile on my face, even if the Christmas message is lost in a blizzard of paint cans, molten hot door knobs and Micro Machines. Charles Dickens' classic Christmas novel is given an unusual twist in The Muppets Christmas Carol with Michael Caine putting in a surprisingly decent performance as Scrooge in a film that is a lot of childish fun. Speaking of Scrooge, Hollywood's favourite curmudgeon Bill Murray is a deeply cynical TV executive who discovers the error of his ways in Scrooged. And of course, if you're looking for a film that embodies the true spirit of Christmas, you can't really go wrong with Die Hard.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox