Special Review: “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) – A Gradual Epiphany
Produced by: William Perlberg
Written by: George Seaton (screenplay)
Cinematography by: Lloyd Ahem, Charles G. Clarke
Editing by: Robert L. Simpson
Music by: Cyril Mockridge
Starring: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn, Porter Hall, Gene Lockhart
I have never believed in Santa Claus. My parents were pretty much of the same opinion regarding Santa as Maureen O’Hara’s character, Doris Walker, is in this film: Why lie? My younger sister, too, never believed, though it was more through my own efforts to “ruin” things for her as the older brother than any discouragement on my parents’ part. (I also ruined the Easter Bunny and Toothfairy for her, which makes her interest in the film Rise of the Guardians somewhat ironic, if not a result of some deep-seated resentment for having never believed in fairy tales — though I may be over-analyzing here.) So we basically grew up only understanding these figures as mythical characters, understanding that many other kids believed in these myths and that we shouldn’t ruin it for them, but never comprehending exactly how someone could.
This essentially made Miracle on 34th Street very frustrating for me, as I was always finding myself on the side of the mother, who was always having to ask people to not patronize her daughter by putting silly ideas about Santa Claus in her head. The conclusion of the film, in which the Macy’s store Santa is declared, legally, to be the actual Santa, never quite registered the same emotional resonance with me as it seemed to with other people — including my own mother, who, in reality, would pretty much be in agreement with her regarding the whole Santa situation. Perhaps this is why I never was very fond of Miracle on 34th Street, a film which initially felt like it was asking me to accept a quaint ideal about a fictional character that I honestly had very little affection for, even as a symbol of Christmas.
A funny thing happens sometimes, however, the more you challenge yourself to watch a movie. Being an annual film that we watch in our household, even if it’s not necessarily a favorite, it has grown on me somewhat, if only because I gradually came to understand the point of the film. I don’t consider myself a cynic when it comes to movies, and I’ve never been against fanciful films that encourage imagination. I try my best to at least try to understand the appeal of any movie, and it wasn’t until just this past Thanksgiving weekend that I came to terms with a way of viewing Miracle on 34th Street that made my experience with it a little more enjoyable than previous times.
The story follows a kindly old man who winds up in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade after he discovers that their man in the red suit is unsuitably hammered. Identifying himself as Kris Kringle, the old man is so good in the role that Macy’s hires him on to play the role in store, where kids line up with their tired parents waiting to tell Santa what they want for Christmas. As Kris’ popularity with shoppers rises (primarily due to his brilliant new “marketing scheme” wherein he spreads holiday cheer and recommends rival store Gimbels when Macy’s doesn’t have what they need), so, too, does he become more entangled in the lives of Doris Walker, the Macy’s event coordinator, and her daughter, Susan, a precocious little girl who, like me, was never led to believe that Santa ever existed, but it isn’t long before Kris begins to sew the seeds of doubt in the mind of not just the little girl, but also her strong-headed mother and their slightly more receptive downstairs neighbor, Frederick Gailey, a lawyer who has had his eye on Doris for some time.
Things become a bit more complicated when Kris is accused of assaulting the store psychologist (apparently stores had those that back then), a man who has had it out for Kris ever since he was first hired on. Kris is committed to a mental hospital for this offense, but Frederick fights tooth and nail for Kris’ rights and gains him a formal trial in the New York Supreme Court, while also getting publicity out regarding Santa Claus being put on trial — a headline that causes many headaches for the Scrooges who wanted to put Kris in a straightjacket for good, but who now risk losing not only their careers and reputations from this apparent outrage, but also the affection of their children, as well.
The whole case regarding Kris’ sanity is a rather tricky one to wrap my mind around, as the very idea of the entire country reacting so strongly regarding a trial that questions the sanity of a man who claims to be Santa Claus seems pretty loony in and of itself. But it wasn’t until I began thinking of the film as more of an analogy for Christmas spirit, rather than a more straightforward Christmas film about the existence or non-existence of Santa Claus, that the film finally began to click for me. I don’t know why it didn’t come to me so long before, but I guess that sometimes it’s easy to take for granted that older films are seemingly more simple than they sometimes actually are. Miracle on 34th Street isn’t a supremely complex film, by any means, but I think my point is best summarized by one other doctor in the film, who points out that many delusional people live perfectly happy, respected, and even charitable lives while posing no threat to others.
It’s an odd point to pull meaning from the film, perhaps, but I think that this best exemplifies the message of the film itself: Whether or not Kris truly is delusional or not is beside the point. Even though the concluding scenes seem to take a definite stance on his true nature, it’s entirely possible that Kris is just a rich eccentric with a generous heart, if not a right mind. The giving spirit within him is actually what is at stake in this trial, and not just where the old man will spend the rest of his life, nor the existence of a mythological figure. Santa is a generous symbol, giving toys to boys and girls across the globe, and that symbol is what endures and is the image that Kris is living out, to the community’s benefit and even betterment. When Kris suggests that shoppers go elsewhere for their gift buying, it’s the generosity that catches on with shoppers and endears them to the man, and, in turn, he provides them the gift of exemplifying true holiday spirit. By putting him on trial, the psychologist and politicians are also putting generosity on trial.
I’m not entirely certain as to why this didn’t click with me earlier. Perhaps by thinking of the film as being more simple than it was, I was proving myself to be far simpler than I had realized. I can’t say that my liking of the film has changed too much, despite this epiphany, however. Despite some very good performances, particularly from Edmund Gwenn as Kris and a young Natalie Wood as the precocious (but not annoying) Susan, the general saccharinicity of the tone chosen for the still irks me in a way that just does not allow me to say in truth that I wholly enjoy the film. Still, I now recognize that its message of generosity, combined with those strong performances and some good old fashioned Christmas cheer, is what has helped the film endure all this time, remaining the preferred and most cherished version of the story, despite two later remakes. And, who knows? — maybe my family’s continued viewings of it over the years will result in me actually coming around to actually become a true fan? In the meantime, however, I can still recognize the film for being much deeper than I had initially taken it for, and I can say with all honesty that it remains a true Thanksgiving and Christmas classic, even if your heart is lukewarm, like my own.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5