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

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

KCConfidential.jpgSaying that Phil Karlson has a penchant for gritty crime dramas is a gross understatement. And yet here again is one of those real tough-guy numbers he was known for, where all you have to do is follow the trail of cigarette smoke and every punch is palpable–coming right off the screen and practically walloping you across the face.

Like all heist films, there must be a point of inception, however, Kansas City Confidential finds its story after the crime has been committed and the perpetrators have split up without a hitch. The man who takes the heat, their fall guy and the unsuspecting stooge is Joe Rolfe (John Payne who is adept at playing such roles) a nobody truck driver and a convict once upon a time.

It seems like the perfect crime as the three hired hands all wore masks and had no connection to each other, except for the stocky and demonstrative Mr. Big, the mastermind behind the whole operation and the one calling the shots. He sends each man off with enough money to tide themselves over until he contacts them to reconvene for their big payoff. Whether or not he will actually cough up the 300,000 clams he owes each of them is quite another story.

Still, each man heads his own way and Joe is getting grilled by the cops day after day in the hopes that he will crack. Finally, he is released, but with no prospects and no job, he sits in a bar stewing in his anger. The story takes it’s next big turn when he follows a lead down to Mexico to tail one of the hoods in on the job Peter Harris (Jack Elam). And although Joe is going in blind, he soon catches wind of the impending rendezvous in Barados and decides he’ll just show up as well, to get to the bottom of the entire mess.

It’s there where he first crosses paths with two other leering hoods, the beady-eyed Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and the silently brooding Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). However, while keeping tabs on these cronies, he keeps company with a budding lawyer Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), who has come to call upon her protective father, the former policeman Tim Foster. If this set up isn’t plain enough already, it certainly becomes increasingly interesting as the gears continue to turn towards the story’s inevitable climax.

Most certainly Kansas City Confidential boasts jarring close-ups, low budget facades and perpetually sweaty faces that accentuate its unsentimental noirish qualities. However, Coleen Gray acts as a more enlightened noir heroine, who does not grovel for her man or weep incessantly at the thought of danger. Instead, she’s training to be a lawyer, and rational but still unequivocally kind. Despite not having a proper meet cute, the chemistry between Gray and Payne still works surprisingly well.

What makes the film inherently more interesting is how the crime is embroiled with family issues. Because, as an audience, we know Mr. Big’s identity: a corrupted cop who got a bum steer and now is going to reap the benefits of setting up some real losers. Still, that doesn’t excuse what he did and Joe got dealt a similarly sorry hand. The fact that Foster’s daughter is involved sheds him in a more humane light and in the same instance makes Joe a more likable figure. In many ways, she brings out the best qualities of both these characters. It’s the darker recesses that lurk behind their characters. Those are made more evident by the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam and Neville Brand, a real rogues gallery of baddies if there ever was one.

4/5 Stars

99 River Street (1953)

99river4This is a Sam Fuller type crime film that’s not pretty, it’s full of gritty realism, and it ends up being an unassuming little gem that is a great joy. However, instead, this film comes from director Phil Karlson pairing him with John Payne. In film-noir, boxers always seem to take a center stage and it is never (or hardly ever) the champs. It’s the near misses or the bums. Ernie Driscoll (Payne) falls into this category as well.

After his big fight and an unfortunate conclusion to the bout, Driscoll is all washed up and he and his wife know it. He relives the moment in agony and dejectedly takes a job as a taxi driver, while he tries to figure out a future without boxing. You can tell his wife is fed up with this way of life, and she’s getting awfully snappy. Driscoll is unhappy, with his marriage going down the tubes, so his only encouragement comes down at the coffee counter with his buddy Stan and the bubbly actress Linda.

Things get worse when Ernie sees his wife with another man who also happens to be a real thug. Ernie is humiliated and looking for revenge, but on Linda’s bidding, he follows her to the theater because she is in desperate trouble. He obliges and yet again he feels like he’s been made a fool of. He cannot even seem to trust her.

Ernie wants desperately to get back into the ring, against the better judgment of his former manager. But he still is caught up in the whole mess with the cunning tough guy Victor Rawlins who stole Driscoll’s wife. The man shows how little the girl meant to him in comparison to the money and after getting a payoff for a fat load of diamonds, he waits for a freighter to take him away.

Linda wants to help Ernie after what happened on the stage, but she cannot stop Rawlins. It’s up to Ernie to duke it out on the docks, and it turns into a real brawl where he struggles not to get his bell completely rung after a gunshot to the chest. It’s the biggest fight of his career and somehow he wins. Really 99 River Street sounds like a run-of-the-mill noir, but Payne’s performance is rather good. It feels rather like Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street where no one seems to be on his side. However, he does ultimately have two solid allies in the faithful dispatcher Stan and the always vibrant Linda. Ernie finally follows Stan’s earlier advice and whispers sweet nothings into the ear of his love. It’s a happy ending for a noir.

The cast is rounded out nicely by a wonderful group of character actors including Brad Dexter, Jack Lambert, and Jay Adler who all work as the scum of the earth-dwelling in New York. The contrast of the bubbly Evelyn Keyes with the more aloof Peggie Castle was also very effective in the film. Now I need to see Kansas City Confidential as well.

4/5 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

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Starring Edmund Gwen, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and Natalie Wood, the film tells the heartwarming story of an old man who acts as Santa Claus for the Macy department store in New York. However, Kris who is a very warm person (Gwen), truly does believe he is Santa and he is constantly being kind to others. Despite his popularity, a sour psychologist claims Kris is crazy and the case goes to court to decide once and for all if he is Santa. Although the case seems bleak, Kris is enlightened by the fact that his test case family (O’Hara and Wood) finally believe in him. Through a series of extraordinary events his lawyer friend (Payne) is able to win the case right before Christmas. Pretty soon Kris seems to prove that he really is who he said he was. This is one of the great cheering Christmas classics of cinema.

5/5 Stars

Merry Christmas everyone!

 

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

06cc8-razors_edgeAdapted from the novel by Somerset Maugham, this drama films stars Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, and Herbert Marshall. The film opens after WW I with an air force vet who is engaged to a young socialite. They are in love and yet he wants to discover the meaning of life before he settles down. She reluctantly lets him go to Paris while she remains in the states. While Larry lives in Paris and travels to the Himalayas their childhood friend Sophie gets in a car accident which kills her husband and baby. Isabel had tried one last time to win Larry back but with that not working she decides to marry the affluent Grey instead. Soon we learn that Grey lost everything in the Crash and he had a nervous breakdown. In Paris Maugham meets his old acquaintances and Larry helps Grey with his problem. They then encounter a drunken Sophie in a Parisian night club. Larry also helps her and decides to marry her. Isabel will have none of it and she leads Sophie back into alcoholism only for us to find out later that she was murdered later on. With Elliot on his deathbed Larry also does him a favor and afterward he correctly ascertains that Isabel led Sophie to drink. He moves on content and she can only be consoled by Maugham. Some interesting questions were brought up but it doesn’t seem that Larry figured everything out completely.

4/5 Stars