Saturday, November 19, 2011

Movie – Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

I have always planned to write about Miracle on 34th Street as the movie for the number 34.  When I started this endeavor I didn’t think about the timing.  It seems fitting that I am writing about this film only a few days before the American Thanksgiving holiday, which includes the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that is such a key part of this movie.  In the area of more bizarre timing, news reports are coming out about police re-opening the investigation into the thirty year old death of Natalie Wood, who played the little girl in Miracle on 34th Street.

When I saw this movie I knew nothing about it other than that it was about Christmas.  One of the first surprises I got was recognizing the 8 year old Natalie Wood, who played Susan.  I had only seen her in adult roles like West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962), and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), and was not aware that she had been a child actress.  I was surprised how much she looked like her adult self.  Some people change remarkably between childhood and adulthood, but she did not.

Playing Susan’s mother Doris is Maureen O’Hara.  She originally did not want to take the role, but when she read the script she changed her mind.  Doris is the event director for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  For those people not familiar with what this is, it takes place on the American Thanksgiving Day and is a large parade, filled with marching bands, floats, and large balloons in the shape of various famous characters.  The last float of the parade each year is Macy’s float with Santa Claus on it.  This symbolizes the transition from the Thanksgiving holiday to the Christmas holiday season.

In the movie Doris has a man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) come to her to complain that the man hired to play Santa Claus for the parade is drunk and is not worthy of representing Santa.  Doris agrees and hires this man to take his place.  Things go so well, that she hires him to play Santa in the Macy’s store itself all the way through Christmas.

He does an excellent job.  He always seems to know what the kids want.  They all love him.  He can even speak to them in their native languages.  Rather than always do what he is supposed to – direct parents to the various departments in Macy’s to buy gifts for their children – he tells one mother (Thelma Ritter in her screen debut) that she can find the toy her son wants in another store because Macy’s does not carry it.  He later directs someone else to Macy’s bitter rival Gimbels. 

Macy’s finds out about this from people praising them for getting into the Christmas spirit.  They find themselves compelled to expand on this program, having other departments sometimes refer customers to rivals.  Gimbels, in order to compete, has to start to do the same thing.  The unheard of happens: Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel meet and shake hands in the spirit of Christmas.  (Both Macy’s and Gimbels agreed to being used in the movie, after seeing the completed film.)

Not everything is well, though.  Doris is a no nonsense person.  She doesn’t have time for the frivolity of Christmas and she has raised her daughter to be the same.  Doris’ neighbor Fred (John Payne) is babysitting Susan one day and decides to take her to see Santa at Macy’s.  Susan is captivated by him and when Doris finds out she is concerned.  She asks Kris to tell her daughter that he is not really Santa Claus.  He declines and says that he is.

Doris is concerned that he is delusional and might hurt someone.  Kris passes a psychological exam, though, and Macy’s keeps him in place.  He does antagonize the doctor who examined him, who then starts spreading a rumor that Kris really is mentally ill.  When Kris learns of this he raps the doctor on the head with his umbrella.  Because he has now shown himself to “be violent” he ends up getting committed to a mental hospital. 

Kris is despondent about this turn of events and deliberately fails a second exam.  Fred, who is a lawyer, tells Kris not to lose hope.  He is going to go to court and get him out of the hospital.  He is going to argue that Kris is not mentally ill because he really is Santa Claus.  What follows are Fred’s attempts to do this, and its impact on him, Doris, and Susan. 

The movie is really heartwarming, especially the ending.  The American Film Institute put this film in their Top 10 Most Inspiring Movies list.

It was interesting for me to see that even in 1947 people had a cynical attitude about Christmas and the “bother” of the holiday season.  It’s funny because almost universally people remember the Christmas holidays of the past to be more innocent than the current ones, regardless of what decade they are looking back on.  The 1960’s Peanuts Christmas special also talked about the commercialization and cynicism of Christmas.

In another example that there’s nothing new under the sun, when this movie came out it was condemned by the Legion of Decency because Maureen O’Hara’s character was a divorcee.  Replace “Legion of Decency” with whichever organization is currently screaming the loudest to make a name for themselves, and replace “divorcee” with “unmarried”, and that’s what is happening today when it comes to condemning movies as being unfit for children.

Edmund Gwenn had been a character actor for most of his career.  This role as Kris Kringle is the one that really made him a star.  He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  This movie also won two other Oscars for its writing, although it did lose to Gentlemen’s Agreement for Best Picture.

One piece of trivia:  The footage of the parade shown in the movie was from the real 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Edmund Gwenn actually played the Santa that appeared at the end of that parade and even performed the other duties of the role that day.  The filmmakers had cameras stationed at various points along the parade route to get the shots that they wanted.  This was a gamble because there was no way that they would have ever been able to do re-shoots.

If you have never seen this Christmas movie, then you owe it to yourself to do so.  If you have seen it before, then why not see it again?  Unless you hate Christmas I recommend you give this movie a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

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  1. This is one of my favorite movies. I just love it.

  2. @msmariah - I kind of kicked myself after I finally saw it because I had waited so long. I don't know why I never happened to see it until about 8 years ago. I think I had seen most other Christmas movies long before that.

  3. One of the best Christmas movies ever!

  4. @Lesya Hearst - I agree. Thanks for commenting.