Miracle on 34th Street, 1947.
Written and Directed by George Seaton.
Starring Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn, Porter Hall and Gene Lockhart.
A department store Father Christmas turns out to be the real deal, and is taken to court over it.
“Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind.”
This is the problem Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) identifies early on in Miracle on 34th Street. Something has been lost in years past. People aren’t embracing the Christmas spirit as much. They don’t seem to believe anymore.
It’s quite difficult to listen to him say that, so sincerely and with a magical glint in his eyes, whilst bashing the head of a chocolate replica of his likeness on the corner of a bowl. Thornton’s make their edible Santas far too hard, and there’s no other way to do it. I apologise, Kris, but I’ve decided to embrace gluttony today. Like you said, it’s a frame of mind.
To combat this loss of faith, Kris Kringle mingles with the folk of New York. Upon finding the actor playing Father Christmas in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade soaked with whiskey, he swiftly accepts to be the replacement. He’s the best Santa the folk over at Macy’s department store have ever had. Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) promptly employs him as their resident St. Nick over the festive period.
Doris, however, is a sceptic. Her husband left her when their daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), was born eight years ago. She’s raised Susan with the same mentality – to not believe in myths, that Father Christmas isn’t real, that the children playing ‘zoo’ downstairs are silly and that you can’t just sit around and wait for Prince Charming to suddenly appear and sweep you off your…she looks down, momentarily realising from where her scepticism might have come.
Kringle sees the mother and daughter pair as the perfect case study for his experiment, to see if the spirit of Christmas can still be teased from even the most cynical of hearts. He moves in with the fellow next door, a lawyer called Fred Gailey (John Payne), and visits the two regularly. Fred welcomes the kind old man with long whiskers, happy for a reason to become better acquainted with Doris.
One day, Fred takes Susan to meet Doris from Macy’s. He sees Kringle entertaining a long queue of children and takes Susan to sit on his lap. She doesn’t see the point in it, the old guy is only pretending. Sure, his beard isn’t held up by string around his ears like some of those fake Santas, and his costume looks very realistic, but he’s only a kind old man with long whiskers.
She says as much to him when it’s her turn. Kringle takes the scepticism with a warm smile on his face and maintains that he is indeed the real Father Christmas. Susan walks away unimpressed.
The next girl in the queue, however, is a young Dutch girl. She can’t speak a word of English, but when she saw Kris Kringle on the news, during the Thanksgiving Day parade, she just had to come down and meet him face-to-face. It’s been tough for her, you see. She’s only just been recently adopted because her parents were…well, that’s better left unsaid. Again, the dialogue conveys more than it ever could by breaking off mid-sentence.
Kris Kringle picks her up, with the same warm smile and magic twinkle in his eyes, and proceeds to talk to her in fluent Dutch. The young girl is ecstatic, the broad grin breaking across her face revealing two missing front teeth. An orphan missing two front teeth? Try to find something more sympathetic.
But your mind ignores the calls of “Cliché! Cliché!” You’re far too wrapped up in what the two are saying to each other. Of course, you can’t understand a thing they say, unless you speak Dutch too, but the expression on the girl’s face is universal. And all the while, Susan watches this from the side of the stage. She decided not to leave after her turn, still curious about the kind old man with long whiskers claiming to be Father Christmas. The scene with the Kris Kringle and the Dutch girl alone is sentimental enough, but showing Susan watching from the wings elevates it to something more. The film cuts between the two parties using the Kuleshov effect – a shot of someone looking, followed by a shot of the subject of their gaze. And each time it cuts back to Susan, there’s a little less scepticism, and a bit more belief in her eyes. Maybe Father Christmas does exist.
For a film this unabashedly festive, it’s surprising how cynical Miracle on 34th Street is of other matters. The first half lampoons competitive Capitalism. Kris Kringle, an employee of Macy’s, had been honest with the children he sees, telling shoppers that they’ll get a better deal on a particular toy down the road at Gimble’s. He keeps up with the trade prices of toys, you see. He is Father Christmas after all.
The second half of the film shifts to the courtroom, as Kris Kringle has to prove his identity in court. Fred, naturally, represents him. A new character, Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart), is introduced. He’s a man intending to run for office next year. Ruling that Santa Claus does not exist, on Christmas Eve no less, would look terrible in the polls.
Unfortunately, this second half looses some of the magic of the first. The film prioritises the court case over the far more endearing relationship between Susan and Kringle. Whenever the two are onscreen together, there is an intangible wonder in their glances at each other. The film sags a little when the two are absent, and a few of the supporting characters appear to be there solely for underwritten exposition.
Yet that doesn’t matter. Miracle on 34th Street is so enchanting that its shortcomings are party of its nostalgic charm. Perhaps I’ve watched Elf too much at Christmas (note: there is actually no such condition as ‘having watched Elf too much at Christmas’), and watching a story of Santa Claus feels refreshingly different.
But you know what? For more than a few moments there, I thought Edmund Gwenn was the real deal.
365 Days, 100 Films