- Written and Directed by George Seaton
- May 2, 1947
An elderly gentleman convinced that he is Santa Claus is institutionalized and now a young lawyer must prove he is indeed Kris Kringle in this holiday classic.
The fantastic Maureen O’Hara stars as Doris Walker, a divorced event director for the annual parade who yanks a kindly stranger (Edmund Gwenn) passing by to play Santa when her original choice (Percy Helton) is found seriously hammered. Doris is a jaded soul that has closed herself off to the magic of life and has worked hard to make her daughter Susan (a very young Natalie Wood) feel the same way. Her neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne) is quite the opposite and finds himself drawn to Doris and works to break down her walls.
O’Hara is a personal favorite of mine. She is one of my favorite Old Hollywood stars. She was a talent on the screen and a strong individual off camera and uses that to craft the character of Doris.
Doris does not come off as an empty shell of a character that bends to the charms of her male counterpart. Instead she is an emotionally wounded mother still smarting from the betrayal that lead to her divorce. More importantly her character is not a secretary or a low-level office drone. She is the one in charge of things and that is a refreshing change for many lighter films of the time. It perhaps recognizes changing post war sensibilities as during WWII women had been in the workforce in greater numbers than ever before and in positions of authority. Or that O’Hara was a feminist in her day.
Miracle on 34th Street was only Wood’s sixth film role and I dare say it put her firmly in the public consciousness given the enduring power of this film. She was just so good as a young girl trying to be a hardened adult. Her reaction when yanking on Gwenn’s beard was genuine because until that point she believed it was fake and assumed it would come off when she pulled. It is even said she began to believe he was the REAL Santa.
The character of Fred Gailey fills the child role here. Not in any negative way but rather in his take on life and Kris and just his general faith in things. He is filled with wonder and playfulness. In comparison to Doris and Suzie, he embraces life and its magic. He is willing to use his imagination to have fun and believe in things that the evidence at hand cannot necessarily prove.
If there is a genuine villain to be had in this film then it is Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall) who is some type of HR drone that administers intelligence tests to various employees. In what can be best viewed as an act of revenge for Kringle correctly reading him and his issues, Sawyer hypes up an incident between he and the supposed Father Christmas which leads to the climactic courtroom battle where Fred must defend Kris’s claim.
William Frawley shows up in this film as a political operative who is counseling Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) who unwisely decides to preside over the case. It is election time and it is a political minefield which is humorously demonstrated once Santa is in the nuthouse.
Kris is clearly portrayed throughout most of this film as a kindly old man who has bought into a harmless delusion. He is shown as believing he is Santa Claus but given the information presented during the course of the story it appears clear he is not. He comes off as just a good observer and quite charming and people find this magical. He can read them and offer insights. Only at the end when you see the cane leaning against the wall in the final scene do you think maybe-just maybe-he is actually Saint Nicholas.
And I like that. We do not need every movie where the individual claiming to be Santa Claus or some other legendary figure to actually be that figure clearly from the beginning. Sometimes it is okay to simply believe because he inspired others to believe. A little mystery is good. He certainly has a magical effect on people and isn’t that enough for the purposes of the story?
They have remade Miracle on 34th Street at least twice for TV and once for a theatrical release in 1994 and none of those versions have been quite as successful or as enduring as this. The original is still the best. (A fact star O’Hara was rather proud of). That says something about the quality of the film and the effort they put in here. This was not an effort to ride on the glory of a previous work. This was an effort to create something good. George Seaton reportedly believed firmly in this project and it shows.
They do not overdress the story. They keep it simple and to the point. Is this man Santa Claus? Or is he some deluded gentleman? Will Fred win over Doris? There are no extraneous subplots that muddle the themes. It is a trimmed down and focused story and that’s part of the reason it endures. This keeps the story moving smoothly along.
Another reason this film works so well is because it has a simple message. Faith is necessary. Susie is a child that has been turned into a miniature adult by her divorced mother. She does not know how to play or believe in childish things as children should at one point in their lives. Doris has closed herself off to fun and life because of what happened with her ex-husband and seeks to protect her daughter by making her the same way.
Miracle on 34th Street is a sweet story with many fine performances. The film does not take itself too seriously and become exceedingly downbeat. It is meant to be heartwarming and fun and it is. It is a romantic film as much as it is a Christmas film. They get in some good humor here.
What is weird is that not only did this film premiere in May but the original marketing material totally ignored that this was a Christmas film. Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck felt more people went to the movies in the summer and insisted on this. I get that thinking on movies NOT built around a holiday, but it is rather illogical to do so for any seasonally themed entry. Also the Catholic Legion of Decency, a now defunct religiously oriented rating group, gave the movie a “B” which meant a film was “morally objectionable” in some way to them. In this case it was largely because the character of Doris was a divorcée.
Miracle on 34th Street is a classic Christmas film that has yet to be remade as good as the original. It is a heartwarming tale about faith and embracing the inner child as well as the magic of Christmas. Watch it!