Review: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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From its opening motif of a man nitpicking the arrangement of reindeer in a shop window, Miracle on 34th Street skates away on a delightful journey that evokes both fanciful whimsy and a liberal amount of holiday sentimentality. However, it’s also one of the finest examples and greatest purveyors of holiday cheer ever and that’s in spite of an original theatrical release that Daryl Zanuck slated for the summer of 1947.

Still, all of this aside, the major heartbeat and the effervescence of the picture falls on the shoulders of that precocious gentleman Edmund Gwenn in the most iconic performance of his career. No matter your leanings, be it a sentimentalist or a pragmatic realist, at the very least, he makes you want to believe in Santa Claus. And what’s striking is how he embodies such a man.

Because we could get into a debate on whether he is the real thing or if he truly is delusional and thus, we would have to be alarmed by this entire ordeal. Yet the results speak for themselves as do the fruits of his labor which help to uplift an entire city.

It’s true that he lays down a trail of hints from the outset at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade about his origins. If you’re paying attention and know the score they are easy enough to notice. However, he’s never pompous in proclaiming his exploits.

What draws everyone to him is this genial charm that cannot be fabricated. It’s all him.  There is no shred of an egomaniac or a mentally disturbed person. In fact, he feels the complete antithesis of many of the adjectives we might toss out to describe the commercialized Christmas so prevalent today (and even back then).

Alfred, the young janitor, and a personal favorite expresses the sentiment aptly. “It’s all about, Make a buck. Make a buck. There are a lot of bad “isms” to choose from but arguably the worst is commercialism.”  And it’s Kris who helps to rail against that holiday status quo when he finds himself working as Macy’s floor Santa.  In fact, it almost feels like a necessity that all these things come to pass because not only are people forgetting about him but more importantly, they are forgetting the core tenets of the season.

There are several scenes in particular that put a heartbeat to a little bit of the magic that courses through this picture — a picture that director George Seaton dearly wanted to make as did John Payne. Because it exudes something so remarkable that has proved timeless in years since. Even Maureen O’Hara, though initially skeptical of returning to Hollywood from her oasis in Ireland, relented because she was taken by the story.

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As someone always interested in the periphery, one of my favorite moments involves Thelma Ritter. It’s only a small sequence but she plays a harried mother who wants to go home and soak her feet after struggling to find her son a toy fire engine. The joy is watching Santa put the color back into her face when he incredulously evokes the spirit of giving. She’s flabbergasted by this unprecedented piece of goodwill. It’s the calling card of a true Santa.

Then there’s the little Dutch girl who pleads with her foster mother to see Santa. And it’s pure magic, again, because they form a connection when Santa breaks out into her mother tongue and they’re able to sing a Christmas song together. There’s so much underlying context made beautiful by the fact that we have to read deeper to extract the meaning. Surely viewers knew this girl was a casualty of WWII but beyond that, the fact that Santa is able to cross this perceived language divide is in itself a near miracle.

As someone who does not speak Dutch, I’m not privy to the precise conversation but it’s easy to empathize because here Santa Claus has made someone on the outside feel known and loved. It’s telling these precise events strike a chord with young Susan (Natalie Wood) also.

Certainly, it’s about time to fill in the story’s nucleus and of course, sandwiched in between this broader narrative, involving so many people, is a very personal one. It really is a case study and it’s noted as such by Kris Kringle and his devoted follower Fred (John Payne). They fight a two-front war to work on the most obdurate, rational minds in New York, Doris (O’Hara) and her pragmatic little girl Susan (Wood) who has been trained up by the best.

Ironically, Kris’s war on commercialism very much subverts the longheld spirit of capitalism as we watch the foremost toy companies, namely Macy’s and Gimbel’s pitted against each other looking to outdo one another in the realms of helpfulness and good cheer.  It’s simultaneously hilarious and downright uplifting.

But there must be more because goodness very rarely moves forward wholly unimpeded. The antagonist in this scenario is a curmudgeon, insignificant company psychologist named Sawyer (Porter Hall in a particularly testy role) whose own misgivings about holiday cheer cause him to suggest Kris be put in a mental institution. The case of the holiday season begins when Santa is put on trial.

There is a logical conclusion with a respected judge (the character journeyman Gene Lockhart) presiding but don’t expect it because this is a story about miracles and a film about intangibles and a jolly old man spinning his spellbinding magic for the good of mankind.

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To the last knowing wink, it tests our faith in the man but even today it never seems like a picture to outright shirk reality. Instead, it’s more founded on cultivating all that is good and life-giving when you tone down the hard-edged pragmatics that leave no room for imagination or faith of any kind.

Because oftentimes, when those reservoirs are sucked completely dry, you are left with people who lack joy, contentment, charity, and goodwill for their fellow man. From such wastelands come the Mr. Sawyers. If you close yourself off completely to this season or this film, you might just feel yourself left a little empty inside.

More than anything else, Miracle on 34th Street is a story of childlike faith as this is much of what the season is supposed to be indicative of. The ultimate gifts of love, joy, and peace require an openness in order to receive them fully.

All there is left to do is to close with an excerpt of prose far more learned and impassioned than my own, penned to an inquisitive girl named Virginia. Because this film very well could be the proof behind the words:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished…Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

5/5 Stars

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