In accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Kris Kringle, Edmund Gwenn committed a cardinal sin as far as his pint-sized co-star in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street was concerned; showing up to the ceremony in a tuxedo sans Kris Kringley’s whiskers and thanking ‘the real’ Santa Claus for his great success. To Natalie Wood – and millions like her then and ever since – Gwenn was the embodiment of this benevolent and iconic holiday touchstone. Never mind North America’s appreciation for the perpetually jolly ‘fat man in the red suit’ derives from Haddon Sundblom’s phenomenally effective 1931 holiday marketing campaign for Coca-Cola – a trademark soon to become a tradition; ‘the real’ St. Nick (on which the modern mythology of Santa Claus was superficially begun) bears a more striking resemblance to one of the apostles from the Bible. But no - the man with the bag and the reindeer are, alas, a sham – a clever one at that, with Gwenn typifying its manufactured legend and legacy just a scan sixteen years after it was first established, merely to sell more carbonated beverages during the month of December.
In an ironic twist of fate, the English-born and West End accomplished Gwenn, an actor far greater than this singular stint as the joyously genuine merry-maker of mistletoe and holly, has since been ensconced as a surrogate for this classic figure. And why not? Who can resist Gwenn, then age seventy, when he musters a devious little twinkle in his eye, correcting a harried window dresser about the placement of his reindeer in a holiday display, catching an equally frazzled Macy’s Day Parade coordinator, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) off guard after she has already learned the man she hired to ‘play’ Santa is a drunk; befuddling department store psychiatrist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) by ever so gingerly taking over the examination and asking the questions, and finally, astutely rifling the uber-clever District Attorney, Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) with equally as slick replies to his sly inquiries under oath and cross-examination. “What is your name?” Mara insists. “Kris Kringle,” Gwenn’s ebullient gentlemen answers. “Where do you live?” Mara sternly inquires, rolling his eyes in anticipation of the expected response. “That is what this hearing will decide,” Kringle soundly and unexpectedly suggests.
By now, Miracle on 34th Street ought to be required viewing for every living soul on this planet between the ages of five and one hundred; its sentimental genuine and premise, putting a man on trial and threatening him with commitment to a sanitarium simply because he suffers from the milk of human kindness, seems all too plausible in a world increasingly gone mad and long ago turned commercial simply to make a buck. Yet, in the Spring of 1947, New York film critic, Bosley Crowthers, not generally known for his plaudits, positively gushed in his review of this film, concluding, “Let us heartily proclaim that it is the freshest little picture in a long time, and maybe even the best comedy of this year.” But perhaps the greatest miracle of all achieved by director, George Seaton was his cleverly concocted and featherweight Christmas offering had survived 2oth Century-Fox mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck’s incongruous executive decision to release a holiday-themed movie in the middle of May; the obvious disconnect mercifully unable to dissuade audiences from flocking to see the picture. In an industry where most movies play for maybe a week or two in first-run movie houses, Miracle on 34th Street would buck this trend and live on for more than half a year.
And yet, Fox’s PR department had a hell of a time orchestrating publicity for it. As example: virtually none of the poster art depicts Edmund Gwenn in full Santa Claus regalia. The movie’s tagline ‘meet the man who made the miracle’, about as cryptic as any ever concocted to sell tickets; the coming attractions trailer even more obtuse, featuring a fake studio mogul, proclaiming no movie could be romantic, funny, an intimate drama and a family feature all rolled into one, before screening mere snippets from the rough edit, only to declare that ‘yes’…one film could encapsulate all of the above’ (and a bag of chips!). In the wake of Edmund Gwenn’s superb characterization, many reviews gently overlooked the more sublime contributions put forth by stars, Maureen O’Hara and John Payne (cast as her love interest, defense attorney, Fred Gailey); also, nine year old Natalie Wood (as Doris’ daughter, Susan) – an exquisite foil whose practicality dissolves when she discovers the true spirit of Christmas in her abiding faith in Kris over her mother’s more cynical ‘common sense’. The kernel of an idea for Miracle on 34th Street came from screen scenarist, Valentine Davies’ last minute Christmas shopping experiences in 1944; beleaguered by all the overcrowded fussing and frayed nerves during this, the supposed ‘most wonderful time of the year’. In re-envisioning and expanding upon Davies’ initial treatment, Seaton would have to overcome his own set of obstacles – not the least of which was photographing more than half his picture on location during the heady 1946 Christmas season inside Manhattan’s flagship Macy’s Department Store; a second unit doing stock shots both in and outside, covering the Thanksgiving Day parade by day; the film’s stars and Seaton working like mad afterhours once Macy’s had closed its doors to the paying public.
In hindsight, Miracle on 34th Street is a blessed offering, infused with immeasurable charm, wit and heartwarming Hollywood-ized sentimentality. Remarkably, it never veers into predictable saccharine. The trick and even the joy to be gleaned from the exercise can be summed up in two words – or rather, one name: Edmund Gwenn. Alas, this did not dissuade the late, John Hughes from challenging the original’s endurance with a wholly lackluster remake in 1994; the usually keen Hughes, going on record as stating he simply could not understand why Miracle on 34th Street had endured these many years; in hindsight, a grotesquely inane and ridiculously foolhardy comment. For even with color and stereo to its benefit, Hughes’ remake is a joyless excursion, incapable of holding even the faintest flicker of a candle to Seaton’s B&W masterwork. Miracle of 34th Street not only defied Hollywood convention in its own time, it went on to become one of Fox’s biggest and brightest money makers of 1947, with uninterrupted, sold-out engagements from mid-summer right on through to December 30th.
However, it is a shay premature to praise Darryl Zanuck for the wherewithal and instincts that contributed to its’ success; particularly since the old-time mogul was in minor panic mode for a slam-bang hit to pull Fox from its recent financial doldrums. But even Zanuck could not have anticipated the tidal wave of critical plaudits and overwhelming public response to this picture. Yet, in hindsight it all seems so perfectly predictable. How could it miss? Easily, as Valentine Davies high concept for this holiday movie repeatedly fell on deaf ears over the next three years; his pitch to directors and executives infrequently dashed and/or overlooked. But Seaton was a gambling man – a trait Zanuck admired. Moreover, Seaton loved Davies’ idea. So, Zanuck green lit the project as a B-unit programmer – perhaps, on ‘faith alone; then, bumped the budget to A-list levels after early rushes looked promising. Fox, one of the first studios to go ‘on location’, was to inadvertently preserve another institution in the process.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – a tradition begun in 1924 – had seen its popularity slide between 1940 and ’46. At one point, Macy’s even contemplated disbanding its sponsorship of the event; a move that would have sealed its fate. But after Miracle on 34th Street’s triumphant premiere, Manhattan streets were once again lined to maximum capacity with spectators. New Yorkers and tourists alike have been crowding the curbs with giddy anticipation for the floats, marching bands, and, the arrival of Kris Kringle ever since. As the custodians of this grand affair, Macy’s willingly opened its doors, as well as their hearts to Seaton’s production; allowing the director unprecedented access to activities on their floor as well as the behind-the-scenes hustle and bustle inside their upstairs offices, during and after peak hours of operation. For consistency’s sake, Seaton’s artistic license created a fictional R.H. Macy (played in the movie by Harry Antrim) when in actuality, the company was no longer owed by the Macy family in 1947, and the real Rowland Hussey (R.H.) Macy had died all the way back in 1877 from Bright’s Disease. Seaton would also create a fictional ‘friendly’ rivalry between Macy’s and Gimbel’s (a facsimile of Mr. Gimbel, played by Herbert Heyes, substituting for the Gimbel brothers, who had cofounded this legendary department store).
It goes without saying Miracle on 34th Street’s cast make an indelible impression; Maureen O’Hara’s vivacious marketing executive, John Payne’s agreeable attorney at law, and, Natalie Wood’s plucky and occasionally pert, prepubescent nonbeliever all strike a sincere chord. Even the supporting cast excels. Who can forget Porter Hall’s Granville Sawyer, a fidgety fussbudget who compounds the mad frenzy of this holiday season by setting into motion a plot to have Santa Claus tried for lunacy? Or Philip Tonge’s officious marketing exec’ Julian Shellhammer, quietly spiking his wife’s martinis to get her drunk and compliant with his enterprising notion to have Kris come live with them (a plan thwarted when Fred Gailey instead coaxes Kris to occupy his apartment; thus, nearer to Doris and Susan); William Frawley’s behind the scenes political muckraker, pulling the puppet string on Gene Lockhart’s playfully frazzled Judge Louis Harper. In reviewing Miracle on 34th Street today, one is immediately dumbstruck by the instant identity even drawn from the cameos: Alvin Greenman’s sad-eyed and pudgy custodian, Alfred, and, Thelma Ritter’s harried shopper adding subtle jabs of pleasure to this warm-hearted milieu.
Enough cannot be said of Natalie Wood’s old soul: a superbly aged persimmon well versed beyond her nine years. Wood’s interactions with Gwenn are charming - period. More than that – they speaks to the child in us all, our innate desire to believe in miracles – great or small – satisfying our wish fulfillment by discovering the unlikeliest truth wrapped in the enigma of a fairytale, and made whole as a matter of record by blind faith…even when common sense suggests otherwise. For those not yet acquainted with the magic of this timeless tale: the plot concerns a kindly old man, Kris (Gwenn) who firmly believes he is the one and only jolly fat man in the red suit. Kris is accidentally discovered by Macy’s parade coordinator Doris Walker, after the man (Percy Helton) she has hired to play Santa in the Thanksgiving Day Parade is discovered to be severely intoxicated. Replacing the drunken Santa at a moment’s notice, Kris is beguiling and immediately put on full salary at Macy’s where Toy exec, Julian Shellhammer is certain he will become a ‘born salesman’. But Kris confounds the sensibilities of Doris’ precocious and bright-eyed daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood) after he manages to sing and speak to a little Dutch refugee (Marlene Lyden) in her native tongue. “Susan, I speak French but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc!” Doris attempts to reason. Nevertheless, Susan’s certainty in grounded logic has been ever so slightly shaken. It will only continue to erode from here.
In hindsight, Miracle on 34th Street is rather progressive in its portrait of the single mother; herein exemplified by Maureen O’Hara’s elegant matriarch who manages to balance work and home while falling hopelessly in love with attorney, Fred Gailey, who just happens to live in the apartment unit across the hall. Coming to realize Kris actually believes he is Santa Claus, Doris worries about the safety of having a delusional old man interacting with impressionable children. Kris’ attempts to anesthetize her apprehensions fall short; particularly when he suggests “You see, Mrs. Walker, this is quite an opportunity for me. For the past fifty years or so I've been getting more and more worried about Christmas. Seems we're all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle. You see Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind – and that’s what’s been changing. And you and Suzie are the whole thing in miniature. If I can’t win you over then I’m through. But I warn you – I don’t give up easily!” This leads into one of ‘Miracle’s’ most amusing vignettes; Doris suggesting Kris take ‘an examination’ administered by the store’s doctor, Granville Sawyer, before being hired; Kris, astutely confronting her, adding “A mental examination? Oh, I’ve taken dozens. Know them by heart.” As a demonstration of his own mental acuity, Kris begins to ask and answer the scripted questions that are a part of the standardized sanity quiz: “How many days in a week? Seven. How many fingers am I holding up? Four. Who was the first president of the United States? George Washington.” Kris’ verve for knowledge and the swiftness with which he dispatches all the right answers reaches its self-evasive crescendo when he deviates to add, “Who was the Vice President under John Quincy Adams…Daniel D. Tompkins, and I’ll bet your Mr. Sawyer doesn’t know that!”
Doris’ fears are compounded by Sawyer’s bitter snap analysis, that Kris is apt to become violent if confronted in his delusion. Her concerns are quelled by the more kindly Dr. Pierce (James Seay) a geriatric specialist working at the Brook’s Home for Old People in Great Neck where Kris has been a resident for some time. Pierce suggests someone in town rent Kris a room for the holidays while he is employed at Macy’s. Doris hopes Julian will oblige. And although he does indeed convince his wife (Lela Bliss) – after a few triple strength martinis – to rent Kris their son’s spare room, the offer is intercepted by Fred who has decided Kris should move in with him. Fred’s invitation is hardly philanthropic. Having admired Doris from afar, it is Fred’s hope Doris’ daily interactions with Kris will soften her wounded ‘matter of fact’ outlooks on life and romance. Indeed, Doris shields her heart from a messy divorce and lingering resentments towards all men with a seemingly impervious and glacial façade; determined to deny herself the opportunity to fall in love again.
Unfortunately, Kris comes into conflict over Sawyer’s mean-spirited psychoanalysis of Alfred – an impressionable custodian whom Sawyer suggests is suffering from a guilt complex. Kris confronts Sawyer with his balderdash, threatening to go to R.H. Macy and report him as a malicious and contemptible fraud. Instead, Sawyer lies to Julian after Kris gives him a bump on the noggin with his walking stick; the two plotting to have Kris committed to the state asylum. Believing Doris was complicit in their decision Kris gives up all hope and deliberately fails his psychiatric exam. His case comes before Judge Henry Harper. Meanwhile, Kris’ defense is launched by Fred. Much to Doris’ dismay, Fred quits a successful firm to take Kris’ case pro bono after his law partners threaten sanctions. Now Fred is determined to go it alone. “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to,” Fred tries to explain to his lover, “Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.” Barring Doris’ utter lack of faith in him, Fred lowers the boom. “Look Doris, someday you're going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn't work. And when you do, don't overlook those lovely intangibles. You'll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.” Now Fred shares something of Kris’ intangible goodness and desire to be kind to people. But it isn’t going to be easy. After all, what authoritative proof can he offer the court in support of his claim Kris is Santa Claus? Even as R.H. Macy is inspired to testify on Kris’ behalf, partly to shield his store from a public scandal, but equally – genuinely – accepting of Kris as the real McCoy, it isn’t enough to sway a judge.
The District Attorney, Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) is confident he has an airtight case against Kris. Worse, Judge Harper is cornered by political shill, Charlie Halloran, urged to reconsider the merits of the case; both pro and con. Ruling in favor of Kris will make Harper a laughing stock, virtually unelectable to the bench. But officially declaring there is no such person as Santa Claus will have even more devastating repercussions for Harper’s political future. As Halloran points out in his private consultations with Harper, “All right, you go back and tell them the New York State Supreme Court rules there's no Santa Claus. It's all over the papers. The kids read it and they don't hang up their stockings. Now what happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings? Nobody buys them. The toy manufacturers are going to like that. So they have to lay off a lot of their employees - union employees. Now you got the CIO and the AF of L against you and they're going to adore you for it and they're going to say it with votes. Oh, and the department stores are going to love you too - and the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. Ho-ho, Henry; you're going to be an awfully popular fella. And what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santy Claus on every corner, and they take in a fortune. But you go ahead Henry, you do it your way. You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there is no Santy Claus. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes: your own, and, that district attorney's out there!”
It all seems rather hopeless. But in a gracious whim of fate, a New York postal employee (Jack Albertson) decides to redirect all the dead letters sent by children in the five boroughs to Santa Claus to the County Court House instead. Since misdirecting mail deliberately is a federal offense, Fred uses the arrival of these bags and bags of mail as irrefutable proof the Federal Government has certified Kris as the one and only Santa Claus. The case against him dismissed, Kris invites Doris, Fred and Susan to the Brook’s Home for Christmas dinner. Susan races to the tree in search of a gift she hopes Kris has managed to arrange for her. Earlier, Susan had shown Kris a picture of a house from the real estate pages, declaring her greatest wish would be to leave Manhattan for a ‘real home’ in the suburbs with a front porch and a backyard swing. But there is no indication at the party Kris has managed to fulfill this wish. Wounded by what she perceives as Kris’s betrayal of her faith in him, Susan’s disappointment is quelled by Doris who explains sometimes everyone must believe in people and things even when common sense denies them their expectations.
Afterward, Kris sketches out the details of a ‘faster’ route home for Fred and Doris who have become slightly estranged in their relationship since before the trial. While driving back to Manhattan, Susan suddenly sees the home from the picture she gave Kris, ordering Uncle Fred to stop the car. Racing into the empty house, its front door unlocked and a ‘for sale’ sign firmly planted in the lawn out front, Susan is at first disciplined by Doris. But the child’s abiding conviction in miracles has been restored. No amount of cajoling or explaining will dissuade her from believing in Kris now. And it almost makes sense she should so implicitly trust him – especially after Fred and Doris eye Kris’s walking stick – the one he always carries – propped up against a wall near the fireplace. Did he simply arrange for their arrival, or did he really get Suzie the dream house she wished for? We are never entirely certain and it is probably just as well. Our faith in Edmund Gwenn’s kindly old gent with the quaintly slick ability to make us all believe in miracles has remained intact ever since.
There is no getting around it. Miracle on 34th Street is a perfect film – period. Beyond being a certified holiday classic, it remains one of the most heart-warming romantic comedies ever conceived. Over the years, others have tried to recapture its magic without success. John Hughes’ totally charm-free clunker, co-starring Richard Attenborough as Kris and the sickeningly sweet Mara Wilson as Susan, is perhaps the most egregious transgressor of the lot, but it really does not matter. So long as Seaton’s original endures – and, in all likelihood it will for many years yet to come – the legacy of Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus will forever be joined at the hip to Edmund Gwenn’s iconic performance as the man with the bag. All marketing coyness aside: Gwenn’s Kringle is the real deal. With American Thanksgiving right around the corner, it is once again time to revisit this perennial holiday favorite, sit back, and simply bask in its simplicity and charm.
Fox Home Video has reissued Miracle on 34th Street to Blu-ray several times, but I am afraid with the same flawed 1080p transfer. For one thing, the image herein is much too dark, and adjusting one’s contrast merely bleaches black levels to an unflattering level. The image is also periodically marred by obvious and distracting edge effects. Consider there are no true whites represented here; merely variations of tonal gray. If viewed in a completely darkened room, it is possible to marginally enjoy this transfer. But fine details have been artificially boosted to compensate for this excessively dark presentation. Badly done! Fox could have – and should have – corrected these anomalies for their Blu-ray reissue last year. Rumors are the studio is planning a ‘remastered’ reissue for next year. Until then…well, we have this hi-def offering to contend with. I will put forth the notion that movies like Miracle on 34th Street are art. As art, but also as cultural artifacts, they provide a photographic testament to our evolution as a culture. Thus, they deserve no less consideration than say, the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper, and very much more are in desperate need of some quality preservation/restoration efforts applied to ensure their longevity. Fox has far too much work ahead of them to ready their extensive back catalog for future generations to appreciate and study in a manner befitting the craftsmanship that went into the creation of these cultural touchstones back in the day.
But they had better pick up the baton and soon, while archival elements are still salvageable. At this late stage in the hi-def mastering game no one should be pleased with, or willing to accept, such shoddiness as par for the course: aliasing, edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details: all digital anomalies that ought to have been eradicated by now and could have been easily corrected if just a little more time and care had been applied to this release. New cover art is nice, folks. But it doesn’t excuse poor Blu-ray authoring. It never will. The audio is mono as originally intended and quite acceptable. Extras on the Blu-ray are direct imports from the previously issued DVD and include an episode of Hollywood Back Story on the making of the film – rather scant on detail but containing some good interviews with surviving cast members. There is also a featurette on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The late Maureen O'Hara's reflections have also been preserved in an audio commentary – an exceptionally fine listening experience from a very gracious lady. Bottom line: Miracle on 34th Street is a movie of immense charm and immeasurable delights. It will surely endure as long as the spirit of Christmas does. We need a new transfer, though – and soon. My hair is rapidly turning to Kris Kringle white as you read this.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)