As we prepare to gather around with our friends and loved ones this Christmas, the easiest way to unite everyone (and get them to shut up) is offer them a movie to watch. George Seaton’s Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street, remains a timeless tale of faith and love surrounded around our non-denominational representative of the holiday. With one of the best child performances of all time in the young Natalie Wood, and an Oscar-winning role for Edmund Gwenn, you can’t do better than this Christmas miracle.
Eight-year-old Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) has been told by her mother Doris (Maureen O’Hara) that there is no such thing as Santa Claus. When Doris hires a strange man to fill in for Santa during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade it turns into a permanent position, but the man (Edmund Gwenn) says he truly is Kris Kringle. When a smarmy psychiatrist (Porter Hall) wants Santa committed, an idealistic attorney named Fred Gailey (John Payne), decides to take on the case and prove Macy’s Santa is the real deal!
This is a gem! Unlike the 1994 remake, Miracle on 34th Street takes the time to explore a pre-WWII landscape. In the midst of the baby boom, commercialism ran rampant, leading to the rise of suburbia and materialism that would come to exemplify the 1950s. As people scurry from store to store in search of the best gifts for their loved ones, Seaton’s film says that Christmas is a time of faith, whether in Jesus Christ or Santa Claus.
For Gwenn’s Kris Kringle, all he wants to do is get two cynics, Susan and her mother Doris, to believe in him because if they can change their ideology, anyone can, there is still magic in the world and believing doesn’t have to be limited to children and a man in a jolly red suit. Gwenn, appropriately, won an Oscar for this role and plays the role of Kris Kringle with heart, warmth, and a fun whimsy that can’t be recreated (Richard Attenborough is a worthy successor). He has amazing chemistry with the various children he’s working opposite, the precocious Wood in particular. Gwenn’s frivolity and general good-cheer left Wood believing he truly was Santa Claus, and by the end you’ll believe it too.
Seaton, director and screenwriter, peppers his frame with a host of characters all in need of Christmas cheer. Doris and Susan are the most obvious recipients, but the film enjoys spotlighting minor characters suffering from Christmas malaise. Character actress Thelma Ritter turns up as a harried mother happy that a store is willing to put the customer ahead of the all-mighty dollar; Gene Lockhart, hilariously, feels his grandchildren’s wrath as he puts Kris on trial; and pre-I Love Lucy William Frawley plays a scheming political consultant constantly sucking on a stogie. The one in most need of cheer is Porter Hall as the nervous villain Granville Sawyer. He’s flustered for reasons we’re never privy to, and uses Kris as his outlet for control. By the end, even though there’s obviously a more complicated history, you’re ready for him to receive his “Christmas gift.”
Wood steals the show as Susan. Wood isn’t an automaton devoid of all emotion, but a child unable to believe in childish things. When she describes watching the children play zoo, unable to pretend she’s an animal, it breaks your heart. She’s only able to accept things as they literally are. Much like an adult unable to retain the joy of Christmas because they’re no longer children, Susan has that mentality as a seven-year-old. And the saddest realization is this has happened through her mother’s good intentions. Maureen O’Hara also plays a character who doesn’t believe in magic because she’s coping with her divorce, a growing issue in post-WWII. Doris attempts to mask her vulnerability and stay strong for her child. By the same token she wants her daughter to be strong, and a simple belief in Santa could derail all that.
Miracle on 34th Street’s biggest flaw is sidelining Wood and O’Hara for the second act (then again, the 1994 remake showed why that was a bad idea). John Payne, in his first of four films with O’Hara, takes center stage as Kris’s loyal lawyer Fred Gailey. He’s best described as James Stewart-lite, and not just because he has to prove in court that Kris is the real deal. The court room scene is fun, espousing on elements the movie has been harping for before – faith, Christmas, etc. The final resolution on how Kris is proven to be Santa is especially creative.
TCM and Fathom Events close out 2016 with this Christmas classic, and it was wonderful seeing on the big screen. If you haven’t watched this before I urge everyone to check it out, in black and white (sorry, AMC, but that colorized version is swill). Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!