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

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

the-devil-and-ms-jones-1Its title suggests that this film might be something like Lubitsch’s Heaven can Wait but The Devil and Miss Jones could easily hold the title as the original version of  Undercover Boss. Although its main function is on the romantic and comic planes, it also has a bit of a social message behind it that signals for change.

Setting the stage, the wonderfully memorable Charles Coburn is none other than the 6th richest man in the world and he is also a hopelessly cranky curmudgeon. A comic Mr. Potter if you will. He’s also a finicky eater only indulging in graham crackers and constantly calling upon his longsuffering servant (S.Z. Sakall). He’s always got something to gripe about.

At the moment, the workers at the department store franchise he holds ownership of are decrying his policies and the benefits he gives workers. They’re pretty bad but he really doesn’t care. All he cares about is that his name is being slandered and he’s looking to hire a detective to find the conspirators. However, not finding a suitable candidate, he resolves to join the floor staff in the shoe department himself so he can act as a mole and undermine any plans they have against him. He’ll beat them out his own game. He’s “a real Benedict Arnold in Sheep’s Clothing” as they say.

Soon he is befriended by the kindly Ms. Ellis who swears by her tuna fish popovers and it takes a moment but he is disarmed by her generosity. The plucky Ms. Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) also takes him under her wing in a way, looking out for him amidst the cruel world of customer service. He isn’t much good at it anyway — selling slippers that is. Edmund Gwenn in a rather subdued role as the snooty store manager tells him as much.

And it’s Mary who unwittingly introduces him to the inner workings of all things store-related. Including the fact that her beau is the infamous Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) a recently fired store employee who is working his hardest to rage against the accepted order by organizing a labor union to protect his fellow working class friends.

But it’s not all serious, hardly. Among other things, the foursome takes a lively day trip. One can only imagine Coney Island or some such hot spot with crowded beaches that look more like sardine tins and bustling avenues with kids running hither and thither. In these moments it becomes obvious that there’s a bit of a comical culture war being waged, perfectly summated by the moment some of his new colleagues dilute his fine wine with soda pop to kill the peculiar taste. And despite, their simple ways, they grow on Mr. Merrick, while at the same time his naivete about real life, gains their sympathy. He seems fairly helpless without them. A rambunctious trip to the police station ensues because he gets lost like a little kid.

Of course, there’s the expected turn of events. It must happen. Mr. Merrick is slowly becoming redeemed, falling for Ms. Ellis and gaining the trust of both Mary and Joe. But Mary happens across something that puts everything in jeopardy. And it could be melodramatic but Arthur knows how to adeptly play the comedy even in these moments. Most notably, when she’s summing up the courage to clock her deceptive colleague over the head with a hay maker courtesy of the season’s latest model of footwear.

The final crusade for unionization leads to utter bedlam with the higher ups and it has a trickle-down effect on everyone else. Mary and Joe lead the charge emphatically but with this inside look at the corrupt inner workings of his leadership, Mr. Merrick is aghast and willfully joins the rebellion. It’s comic absurdity and all the main players do the film justice making their happy ending all the more deserved. Sam Wood might not be noted as a director of raging comedies (true, he worked with the Marx Brothers) but he does well enough with The Devil and Ms. Jones to make it a delightful trifle even now. Thanks be that Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn were paired once more in More the Merrier. They’re gold together.

4/5 Stars

The Bigamist (1953)

the-bigamist-1I despise you and I pity you. ~ Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Jordan

The Bigamist is at first a delightful noir — in one aspect unassuming and yet groundbreaking when put in a broader context. Ida Lupino is not simply a good female director. She is a good director, period.   She left a body of work both behind and in front of the camera that speaks for itself. Even the small ones like The Hitchhiker and The Bigamist have a certain strength about them.

In this case, the film’s title flashes with the superficial tinges of a sordid drama but when you actually get into the thick of it all, there’s a great deal of tenderness and certain heartbreak there.

In some ways, Edmund Gwenn becomes our main character’s father confessor as the protagonist explains how it all began through flashback: The plotting is simple. Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien) found himself living a double life. But it’s not just that. He loves his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine). They genuinely care for each other deeply and now they share together in business but he spends a great deal of his time on the road. They’re even planning to adopt a child together since Eve cannot have a child of her own. Obviously, during his frequent bouts on the road, Harry gets lonely and we’ve undoubtedly heard that excuse countless times and it’s been the calling card for a great deal of infidelity.

the-bigamist-2Except at first what Harry does, does not seem like infidelity. In one integral scene Harry takes one of those bus tours to see the stars because, after all, Beverly Hills is that land of movie stars and their extravagant lifestyles. Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny, Oscar Levant, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jane Wyman are all given a nod. There are even a few playful in-jokes to the always genial Edmund Gwenn who turns up as the adoption agent. All of this is essentially fluff but it’s on that same ride where he meets someone — a woman named Phyllis Martin (Ida Lupino).

It’s true that they’re both looking for a friend and they gravitate towards each other. It’s nothing more than that and Phyllis invites her newfound friend to a restaurant made in the popular mode of Early American Chinese. It’s where she works. But he hardly cares. He sees her more and the most astounding thing is that he tells his wife about it almost in jest saying he met a brunette in California. The reason he cites: she wasn’t beautiful but she was nice.

And right in that moment, you can see what’s particularly striking about The Bigamist. It’s a frank, open, and honest film in an often prim and proper era of certain sensibilities. The Bigamist looks to be a film to trod all over those social mores and yet extraordinarily enough it doesn’t. Yes, in certain ways it dissects them but it does it with great care and a tenderness for all parties involved.

It’s not so much a dark brooding noir but a film of interpersonal tragedy rather like earlier such examples as Pitfall or They Live by Night where bits of darkness pervades the home and relationships which are admittedly fragile because of the humans involved. Topics of divorce, infidelity, and pregnancy further complicate matters.  But not in some lurid exploitive way to sell tickets.

It’s oddly ironic on multiple levels. Of course, we know as an audience that he is seeing another woman but that’s only the beginning. In a major fit of situational irony, it works exactly contrary to what we might expect. Edmund O’Brien’s lead is a good and decent man. His wife is not a holy terror but played by one of the sympathetic heroines of the 40s and 50s, Joan Fontaine. Furthermore, Ida Lupino is not some sleazy femme fatale. In fact, she’s the one who initially rejects his advances and shows reluctance to marry him.

the-bigamist-3It strikes me how it’s often the small, tiny, unassuming pictures that impact me the most and this film did wrench my heart over the course of only a very few minutes. The final court sequence sums up the reasons quite well because it ends the film on a moral note setting up a rather convicting paradigm.

We see both women there. We see the accused sitting in front of the judge and jury willingly admitting his guilt. His is a society that winks an eye at a married fellow with a mistress and yet he, a man who genuinely loved two women, is found at fault under the law. The defense attorney on his behalf calls for punishment tempered by mercy.

When those two women walk out of the courtroom as the proceedings end, it does not mean that any of it can ever go back to normal. Will either of them even take him back? We can make an educated assumption but that’s not really for us to know. However, on a universal level, the words of the attorney reverberate in my ears. Each one of us has aspects of our character that are undoubtedly despicable but also elicit pity. It only makes sense that each of us deserves a certain amount of punishment but also a measure of mercy. It’s up to us to extend that to others. Because the reality is that we might not be that much better than the eponymous bigamist. Judging by his character we might actually be far worse.

3.5/5 Stars

Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

TheKeysoftheKingdomvideocover.jpg“Heathens are not always low just as Christians are not always high.” – Gregory Peck as Father Chilsum

Tales of humble priests are more fit for the likes of a Bresson or Rossellini, but Hollywood proves it too can offer up a film with resonance along similar lines. It’s a more melodramatic tale, a  historical and religious epic of sorts, carved out of the studio era mold, but its facets are auspicious and abundant. The script comes from veterans Nunnally Johnson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

It’s also hard to believe that it was this role as Father Chilsum that truly galvanized Gregory Peck’s career early on. Because if you look at him, he’s an imposing figure, kind-faced and calm. Still, there’s an unwritten maturity that seems to dwell beyond those eyes of his like he’s been doing this for a long, long time. It makes his playing an old man not all that unbelievable, in spite of any amount of makeup.

Keys of the Kingdom is also blessed by the studio system with the likes of Thomas Mitchell, Edmund Gwen, Vincent Price and a surprisingly adequate array of Asian performers including Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, and Benson Fong in an especially notable turn as the Father’s faithful right-hand man Joseph.

Despite having a loving family, Francis came from humble roots and tough beginnings illustrated by the long-held divide between Catholics and Protestants. Even as he resolved to join the clergy, his heart struggles with love and assignments that feel unfulfilling to his heart.

That is until he asks to be assigned as a missionary in a province of China. In the ensuing decades, he works to leave his mark of goodwill on a community, and he’s an upright man not looking for so-called “Rice Christians,” believing such bartering is a forgery for God. As his track record reflects, he’s a rather unorthodox as far as priests go, but he makes up for it with sincerity. His best friend is an atheist, a doctor from back home, and he’s not just concerned about the spiritual well-being his flock but their physical health too–all too soon becoming a trusted healer of the town, despite having little to no official medical training.

And although his gains are humble, he garners the respect of most everyone he meets. His fellow helper Joseph, the initially curt Reverend Mother (Rose Stradner) and even a republic soldier Major Shen (Richard Loo), who is amazed by the religious man’s resolve. True, his congregation is hardly a boon of religious conversions, but he begins an orphanage, taking in discarded children and nurturing them on the mission grounds. Many years later the Father Chilsum is to be sent back home for the sake of his health. It’s a bittersweet goodbye to this place he called home for so many years.

However, there’s a peaceful contentment to his character that Peck reflects so seamlessly. This was a man who came here to this foreign land with a vision that went beyond conversion rates. First and foremost, he cared about loving people well, and everything else was added to him.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Miracle of 34th Street (1947)

703c5-miracleon34thChristmas movies do not get much better than this. What a concept! Here’s a film about a man who really is Kris Kringle aka Santa Claus. He gets picked up by Macy’s department store to be their Santa Claus, and he winds up facing a hearing to decide whether he is legitimate or not. His pet project is to make an unsentimental little girl (Natalie Wood), and her practical mother (Maureen O’Hara) believe in him. He finds an ally in a young lawyer (John Payne) who believes in his holiday cheer and is also smitten with the girl’s mother.

Some people would undoubtedly say it’s a bunch a hogwash to make a movie about such a topic. Maybe it is only holiday tripe, but I find it is very hard to refute this “Miracle” of a Christmas classic. The characters portrayed are so spot on and heartfelt it is so easy to get pulled into their story. At the same time, it’s difficult not to like a film where department stores help each other, the hustle and bustle is toned down, and for once mankind has faith in each other for awhile.

As an audience, we gravitate towards Edmund Gwen because he represents the Santa we all wish to know. He is kind, thoughtful, generous, and above all a magical gift giver. Maureen O’Hara goes through a character progression that mirrors that of her daughter, except it is perhaps a little more poignant in her case due to her maturity. It would seemingly be easy to dislike her and yet thanks to O’Hara we cannot help but feel for her. She is also extremely beautiful, even in black and white. Although young, Wood proves to be a memorable little girl in this one, and she was just getting started. Payne is a good addition in his own right — a highly underrated actor.

The film is rounded out by a wonderful array of characters in the Macy’s store like magnate R.H. Macy (Harry Atrim), well-meaning Mr. Shellhammer (Philip Tonge) and friendly young janitor Alfred (Alvin Greeman). Shoppers such as the one and only Thelma Ritter in an early role, and civil servants like Judge Harper  (Gene Lockhart) round out New York’s population with generally decent people who we can relate to. The one exception is Dr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), the company psychologist, and greatest villain of the film, who is the antithesis of Kris and his Christmas spirit.

My hope is that this one never pales, never loses its cheer, and maintains its timelessness for many Christmases to come. Until the next Macy’s Thanksgiving parade comes along have yourself a merry little Christmas and remember all psychologists are not evil jerks looking to ruin the holidays!

5/5 Stars