Miracle on 34th Street (1947, George Seaton)

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A fond memory: being forced to watch this in a colorized print in elementary school around 1993. Blasphemy, yes, but that was infinitely preferable to being forced to screen the truly awful John Hughes-propagated remake a few years later — unforced sweetness, even when severely compromised, was more affecting than demographically driven modern “family” cinema with carefully calculated moments of mawkish pathos and lazily choreographed slapstick. That always stuck with me and probably influenced my future conception of how the conventional wisdom of classic-era studio cinema being churned out in assembly line is not borne out by reality in comparison to the haphazard commercialism of Hollywood today. The story of a man claiming to be Santa Claus and forced to defend it on trial as a remarriage story fumbles into fruition in his orbit was just so captivating and magic then, at a time when I was already a bit past believing in Santa. The revision with wide-eyed, overbearing Mara Wilson in place of subtle, sharp Natalie Wood was so clearly puerile, market-tested kitsch even to me as a kid. I insisted several times around Christmas that my mom bring this home, in black & white, from the library and it was one of a couple of films — the other being Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, strangely — that always “felt” like Christmas to me as a pre-teen.

Of course, years change us even if they don’t change the material reality of the movies we watch. It’s usually trite to talk about viewing habits in the body of a formal film review — though I do it more than I should because I find it interesting — but in the case of the various American Christmas staples, the matter is inescapable. The original Miracle on 34th Street now strikes me as more pedestrian than it did when I was a kid, which alas is also true of B&TB — but not It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s film has grown immeasurably in my estimation over the years, though even now I believe I’ve seen it approiximately half as many times as I have Miracle. I’m somewhat glad that I did not revisit the film in my early to mid-twenties (a rough estimate is that I last saw it around 1997, which crucially would be slightly before I began trying to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas every year), because its underlying message of belief versus skepticism in a painstakingly secular context would’ve bristled me during the Bush years when this stuff bothered me a lot more.

Truthfully, though, it still kind of bugs me. In the early part of the film, an actual real independent single mother (in 1947!) played exceptionally by Maureen O’Hara copes with the ample stress of being in charge of spinning the intricate plates of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Wood is masterful — we talk so much about her sad fate and almost never about how strong and crafty an actress she was, even this young — as her daughter Susan, who is what the War on Christmas-addled audience of The O’Reilly Factor would probably call “brainwashed” by her passionately liberal and rationally-minded (and vaguely agnostic) mom; she resists the idea of Santa Claus and in general is disinterested in the manufactured holiday spirit as decried by her Macy’s-employed parent. In case you don’t remember, in this specific sense the viewpoint of mother and daughter is directly reminiscent to that espoused by Charlie Brown in the brilliant Peanuts special made just under two decades later, a fixture as defiantly religious and anticommercial as this film resists being. The sole difference is that O’Hara’s Doris Walker doesn’t seem to be a churchgoer, just a woman who is raising a bright kid in her own loving way — indeed, raising a young girl to become as independent as she is.

Lest you forget, this is Hollywood in the late ’40s, when the U.S. was heading starkly toward McCarthyism, so the task of this big location-heavy 20th Century Fox production is to find these two inspiring, perfectly warm and good-hearted characters and, well, deprogram them. That task is given (of course!) to proto-mansplainer John Payne, who is here to inform the moviegoing audience that believin’ in stuff is, aw shucks, just the decent thing to do! To her credit, Doris doesn’t ever really budge except in the sense that she eventually aligns a bit with the movie’s thesis that you should let kids be kids for a while and believe in magic and such. The only problem here is that writer-director George Seaton seems no more convinced than Doris or we the viewers are. When we meet young Susan, she’s bright and happy and precocious, and it’s hard to get behind any sort of idea that she needs to be “fixed.” On some level, I would honestly prefer all this badgering nonsense about “faith” and whatnot to be tied to a film that actually had the courage to be openly religious. I’d still disagree with its conclusions, but I could more readily admire it as a movie. Because as it is, there’s something deeply cynical about applying the deep philosophical lessons of what we believe and why to the money-making institution of gifting and regifting, to ultimately a film that decries the idea of questioning pie-in-the-sky authority, at least when a handsome lawyer preaches it.

All that said, Miracle appeals to children and families still because its basic story is really quite touching. We meet Edmund Gween as a long-bearded bloke who appears objectively to be some kind of a crank, although objectivity is instantly discarded when confronted with an actor as magnificently gregarious as Gwenn. This film became — and remains — his great legacy, and his presence is the entire reason to see it in cinematic terms. Gwenn had in fact made considerable business of playing sinister, lost-soul characters quite brilliantly, like the retired hitman in Foreign Correspondent and the wealthy crank Hornblower in two versions of John Galsworthy’s The Skin Game, but his reputation began to be made in Hollywood when he took on kindly older-gent roles like Mr. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, and his career exploded after he was cast here. It’s easy to see why — portly, gentle and calm but whimsical, he seems almost the comforting figment of a child’s imagination. We know from his other films that he was a great talent with considerable range, but he falls so willingly into the weight and responsibility of this role that it’s perfectly understandable how it has overshadowed all else in his filmography (and netted him an Oscar).

The genius of Gwenn here both enhances the film and points up one of its central flaws. This skilled and passionate store Santa calling himself Kris Kringle is, to the film’s credit, never exactly proven or directly posited by the movie itself to be the actual Santa Claus (which I had misremembered all these years, or maybe misread as a child). It hints around but doesn’t move decisively in either direction; if much of the audience is in the glow of sympathy for Doris and her daughter, as I imagine most modern viewers will be, their natural thinking would be one that neatly coalesces with the narrative: yes, this guy is batshit, but he’s harming no one, and there is perhaps little consequence to believing in something frivolous and magic, to embracing the doubt therein. That’s human nature, and I’d find it a more profound point if there weren’t so much insistence on assigning useless pages upon pages of dialogue to whether or not it’s “right” to believe in something obviously unreal. It would seem better to me if it were simply accepted that in the world of this film, Santa Claus can possibly be real; as in a fantasy or sci-fi picture, that would require no suspension of disbelief because it would simply be the reality of the picture. To make a perhaps strange analogy, I cannot help recalling my violent reaction to Robert Wise’s The Haunting, which instead of simply being a movie about ghosts spent half its screen time using talky non-actors arguing to convince the viewer that it was okay to believe in ghosts for the duration of the film, and deriding anyone who didn’t as some sort of common idiot in the process.

Yet I believe the film would have been better still if it had run with its ambiguity and allowed the lion’s share of audience members to really trust that Kringle was probably Santa Claus. It would have then been much more decisively a film for kids, but it would also have been potentially more profound and beautiful, divorced from the deadening realities of romantic-comedy convention. (As it is, the plot is just a couple of steps above a typical example of one of those Harlequins in which the central character meets a great man, probably a handsome lawyer, probably not named Fred, who treats her kid right, only with no sex. Let me state clearly that I don’t look down on romance novels and loathe that sort of elite behavior, but my point is that this is cookie-cutter wish fulfillment in many respects.) An obvious example of the beautiful film this could potentially have been comes in the sequence when Susan — the decks stacked highly since she not only doesn’t believe this guy is Santa but doesn’t believe Santa exists at all — witnesses Kringle fluently speaking Dutch to a terrified orphan immigrant girl. It’s a powerful but understated moment, and Susan’s level-headed conversation about it later with her mom is an example of the simple believability and chemistry between them that could’ve been immeasurably enhanced with the John Payne character sidelined or excised. (Maybe Doris herself could have been Santa’s defense team.)

My disappointment seems to be coloring my response here. I maintain still that Miracle on 34th Street is a basically strong film with some very funny moments — and it will enjoy a lifetime of my goodwill for having introduced Thelma Ritter to the world — but now my favorite aspects of it beyond the lovely performances of Wood, Gwenn and O’Hara is how it convincingly captures a surprising amount of New York flavor. The early scenes at the parade and those later on in the shops have a sense of wondrous holiday urgency, which in my secular upbringing was really — along with family gatherings and such — the essence of Christmas. The chronic busyness of November and December in the retail world, while I recognize it can be indicative of some deep and troubling problems, has always perversely appealed to me (even when I worked in the middle of it) perhaps just because of childhood associations, and this seems to call forth that feeling more than other Christmas films I’ve seen. Most of this enjoyable energy is palpable in the first half, though the later courtroom sequences obviously have greater direct story thrust.

As an adult, this all feels different. A tradition in my home for years now has been to watch the Twilight Zone episode “Night of the Meek” on Christmas day. That show has Art Carney as a drunken, depressed man who is called up to perform for an evening as Santa Claus. It brings forth tears, real tears, every single time. Though Rod Serling’s script owes a lot to the idea and general attitude of Miracle, it’s easy to see immediately why one is so much more prescient and beautiful than the other — the very first thing Edmund Gwenn does in this film is basically berate and yell at a drunk Santa, the very character Serling found interesting and human enough to write about a decade and a half later. And the half-hour TV show’s message about looking after the disenfranchised and finding fulfillment in charity just speaks to me infinitely more than a parable about “faith.”

Seaton believed deeply in the film, arguably compromising the remainder of his career — putting himself forever at the mercy of Fox’s Darryl Zanuck — to get it made on a tiny budget. Aside from the Oscar-collecting but now forgotten The Country Girl in 1954, he would falter into obscurity hereafter until the monster hit Airport in 1970, which is today known primarily for being the film Airplane! mocks, for therefore being the subject of a parody far more people have seen than its inspiration. There’s a sense that this sentimental staple exists as a fixture divorced from the standard Hollywood we know; given how much Seaton makes of Santa attempting to subvert his corporate sponsorship then having that somehow turned into a commercial coup, his heart was evidently both more cynical and more naive than the status quo in the film industry then. Knowing how hard Seaton fought for this film, you want to love it even if you just can’t. I must admit it depresses me that I’ve grown up too much to love it any longer (it’s only the second film, after Shawshank, that I have had to retire as a named favorite since starting this blog). But I guess I’m now finally on Team IAWL.

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