Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Director: George Seaton


It is a holiday classic for the ages, having become one of the season’s most popular feel good movies. Many American practice the tradition of yearly viewing to chime in the holiday season. Yes, it’s a silly story. Yes, it’s a picture that pries the audience’s nostalgia. Yes, it’s a film that promotes one the nation’s largest department stores during a heavily commercialized time of year. But it’s Miracle on 34th Street, a film that finds roots childlike fantasy and  imagination while still enduringly mature enough to tug at the heartstrings of parents who watch their children grow through the annual festive season.  Most of all it is a movie about faith and love, manifested within the jolly old elf known as Santa Claus.

Miracle on 34th Street is a holiday drama/comedy about a department store Santa Claus who believes he is the genuine article. The joyful and whiskered older gentleman who claims to go by the name of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is hired as the newest Santa Claus for the flagship department store of Macy’s in downtown Manhattan, quickly becoming a sensation for the store and the city. His no-nonsense boss, single mother businesswoman Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), begins to question Kris’ sanity as he claims to be the real Santa Claus. It is when Doris’ daughter Susan (Natalie Wood), who inherited Doris’s non-fantastical look at the world, begins to believe in Kris is the genuine Santa Claus, that Doris too begins to see the magic in the man’s kind, festive demeanor.

However, Kris finds himself in trouble, committed to an asylum for his claims, finding his greatest ally in attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne), Doris’ neighbor and love interest, who sinserly believes in the power of Kris’ holiday kindness as a good thing for all. Fred defends his case in what turns out to be a high prfile hearing for the city on how Kris can be seen as the true Saint Nick. With the aid of faith from millions of children and a little help from a surprise provision from the United States Post Office of letters address to Santa Claus being delivered to Kris during the trial, the case is dismissed. The film concludes with one final sentimental beat as Susan appears to get the gift she wished from Kris, while Fred proposes to Doris, beginning their new lives together as a family with a hint that Santa was their possible matchmaker.

The picture has nearly every ingredient of an ideal Christmas classic. It’s fantasy story of a real Santa Claus interrupting the everyday world of with his spirit of the season, set to the backdrop of New York City. The story is bookended by the ever popular Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade, the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season, and concluded with the big day itself. Its charm, heartwarming story, and ability to still leave enough room for the thinking viewer to question the character of Kris Kringle’s validity as a sane gentleman while still winning you over compassionate spirit hits various audience on different levels.

The plot of the picture spawn from the idea of story creator Valentine Davies’ thoughts on what the real Santa Claus would think about the modern American Christmas, which following World War II was more commercialized than ever. The story was handed off to director/screenwriter George Seaton whose script brought set the story within the pageantry of season in New York City beginning with the Thanksgiving Parade that ushered in the highly lucrative Christmas shopping season.Tied into the story was the presence of Macy’s, the organizer of the parade and home of the story’s Santa, and even its major competitor Gimbels. Both entities were not sponsors in any way to the picture, but would allow for their appearance in the film upon viewing a rough cut of the picture that displayed both organizations in positive lights.

The film swayed actress Maureen O’Hara to return from her native Ireland back to Hollywood. Following a series of recent frustrating projects O’Hara retreated to her homeland, but found the script for this picture to contain a special heart to it, inspiring her to return to work for her contracted studio. Playing her romantic co-star was second tiered Fox actor John Payne coming off recent success of The Razor’s Edge and hoping to become a regular leading man. Both performances were admirable, but are overshadowed by other, more heart filled performances in the picture.

The ever important role of Santa Claus, or Kris Kringle, is portrayed by the lovable English character actor Edmund Gwenn, whose natural demeanor won over the hearts of the cast, crew, as well as audiences. Gwenn’s ability to be so kindhearted on set as the lovable figure for Christmas would even convince the child actors that he was the genuine Santa Claus, that is until the wrap party when they saw him in his street clothes and no beard. Gwenn’s performance proved so well enjoyed that he was awarded that year’s Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, accepting it with the words of “now I know there’s a Santa Claus.”

Wrapping up the primary cast would be eight year-old child actress Natalie Wood as Susan, whose character embodies how any audience may have come into this picture for the first time. That is to say at first not willing to believe in such a fantastic idea of Santa, but allows the childlike wonder and imagination to take over and believe in the good of the man and the season. Wood’s career would only be beginning, becoming one of the most successful child actors of her day.

The film premiered in June of 1947 with the idea from Fox that believed more audiences go to the movies in the summer than the cold of the winter. To effectively release the picture all promotional materials lacked any ties to Christmas and its plot revolving around a Santa Claus, focusing on the love story between O’Hara and Payne’s characters. It was not until much later, after the film became a holiday classic that the promotional material featured dominantly the images of Gwenn as Santa and the adorable Natalie Wood.

Critics gave the feature general positive reviews and aiding in resolving some of the cynicism in American culture following the war. It delivered a sense of nostalgia for audiences that looked back on the carefree days of the years prior along with the newly free flowing and strong economy America was blossoming into. The strongest moral objection towards the picture was the portrayal of O’Hara as a single mother divorcee, which was looked down by that pesky Catholic Legion of Decency.

Miracle on 34th Street would discover its greatest legacy in the form of television, becoming a common holiday staple with Thanksgiving airings on NBC. With that scores of American homes became accustomed to the motion picture, ingraining it into the culture around the holiday season helping it to become one of the greatest cherished pictures in American cinema set during the holiday season.

Its classic status and portrayed of the typically colorful season made the feature the prime subject as one of the first black and white films put through the controversial colorization process in the mid-1980s. It reintroduced the movie to television audiences in a new form, with the intention that the colorization process would reinvigorate the picture with the color that was not afforded by filmmakers at that time. Many filmmakers and cinema purists feel this process goes against the intended form of the original product, for if the filmmakers wanted it to be in color it would have been, and the films would have been shot differently if otherwise. In either case the picture remains in circulation with both versions readily available.

Today Miracle on 34th Street remains a staple of the season, inspiring its fair share of knock off Christmas movies and a well received remake in 1994 with Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle retelling the tale for a new generation. The 1947 continues to receive admiration with every Christmas season despite the relative inundation of newer holiday material flooding the market in recent years, manifesting just how much this picture left its mark on American holiday consciousness.

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