Every Christmas as a child, you would lay out your cookies and milk in front of the fireplace, tuck yourselves into bed, and wait for sleigh bells to pass over your roof, meaning that jolly old Saint Nicholas has left toys in your stockings. After opening your gifts from the old man and your loved ones, you would rush toward the television set, waiting to watch Christmas classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Miracle on 34th Street. As you watch these old icons of the holiday, you notice a drastic contrast between the over-commercialization of a holiday with Christian roots, and the ability to sustain childlike faith as you go through the season of giving.
That is why Miracle on 34th Street stands out among the classics after seven decades; it compares the imaginative disbelief of a little girl with the greatly whored sales industry of a Marxist post-WWII era corporation. There is a definite line of preachiness in its attack on the self-seeking nature of Christmas, but the aura of joy to be felt in this feature is even more relevant today than it was in 1947.
The kindly old man with a warm smile perked up by his white whiskers appears to be the father of Christmas himself, but is he really? Right from our first meeting of him he peers over the reindeer display of a knick-knack shop, correcting the owner’s arrangement based on their antler shapes. Right here, you would know instantly that the man is the true Santa Claus. No further evidence is needed—you just know.
Yet that reasoning does not come off easy in the faithless city of New York. His last-minute placement in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade after the original Santa actor falls drunk leads to him sitting on the Macy’s throne as their official Santa; the frontrunner of directing children and their parents to the newest toy sales. But instead of utilizing this cheeky sales tactic, old Kris Kringle has the buyer in mind, and sends them straight to Gimbel’s for the cheaper prices on what they desire.
His claim to be the real Santa drives the others around him, from the Macy’s staff to the NYC Supreme Court, into insanity, declaring him as delusional. This is where the genius of this film lies, it pulls out the drama in the unusual, and makes the most seemingly crazy person the only one who knows what he’s doing.
The richness of each of the players in this production enables the plot’s ease to follow beat-by-beat, despite how strange it gets as it goes along. Edmund Gwenn puts on the hat and boots as the jolly old mascot, and glows with an irresistible charm that appears like anyone’s earliest imaginations of his presence. He always speaks the truth and nothing but the truth, turning another’s foolish words against him with sheer simplicity.
The particular family that Mr. Kringle is most focused on is the family of two: Macy’s Parade Manager Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) and her stubborn daughter Susan. Doris is a workaholic sort of mother who spends little-to-no time with her family, encouraging the belief that fairy tales are nonsense. Keeping Susan company is a close family friend, Fred Gailey (John Payne), the ideal father figure who fits what the family is missing. Doris also has a female “slave” joyfully working in her small apartment, which is neither necessary to the plot nor portrayed reasonably for our present-day perspective.
Yet looking at the small-scale world of this story opens up a new realm of the imagination we never thought we could access at an old age. The feel of being a child is captured through the simplicity of witty one-liners and Chris’s remarkable methods of connecting with children. If a twinkle-eyed old man can’t win your child’s heart by speaking the same language as a Dutch native, I don’t know what will. Everything in the first and second acts brims with a new, spiritual level of faith and imagination, but the third act, I hate to admit, is strange enough to diminish any feelings of sorrow or hope.
What we have ended up with here is an ideal family picture for the Christmas season; even if the black-and-white flatness would be a shut-off for younger children. Not to mention the additions of business talks, courtroom hearings, and dated cultural values would mark this as more suitable for the older viewers. Perhaps it would be best this holiday season if your youngest kids were first introduced to the 1994 remake as you older folks enjoy the original.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!