Saturday, December 20, 2008

MIracle on 34th Street (20th Century-Fox, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I got home early enough last night to run a movie, and we decided on the 1947 feature-film version of Miracle on 34th Street even though the only copy I had of it was a colorized VHS release from Fox Home Video in the early 1990’s (evidently before Rupert Murdoch bought the company, because the logo does not have “A News Corporation Company” across the bottom) and the colorization, though not as offensively bad as some of them from this period, bathes the movie in dreary browns — at times it looks like it was shot in sepia and then highlighted in the manner of the “tinting and toning” processes used extensively in the silent era but pretty much abandoned when sound came in.

Charles and I were both curious about this movie because we’d just watched a quite effective 1955 TV abridgment of it shot for a 20th Century-Fox TV anthology series (they launched a TV show to promote their movies in 1955, the same year MGM and Warners did) and this piqued our curiosity about seeing the whole thing again. Miracle on 34th Street was produced and directed by George Seaton, who’s not one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded auteurs but who made some engagingly quirky and envelope-bending films — including the 1946 comedy The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, a major feminist movie at a time when most of Hollywood (and most of the mainstream media generally) were telling women, “Hey, girls, the war’s over, time to get back into the kitchen and let your husbands take back the jobs.” Miracle was a personal project for Seaton — according to the “trivia” section on, he had to promise Darryl F. Zanuck to make three studio assignments sight-unseen to do it (and Zanuck insisted on releasing the film in May because he thought a Christmas movie would be dead on arrival at the box office, so even though the plot of the film centers around the existence of Santa Claus the ads carefully avoided any hint that it was a Christmas-themed movie at all).

Miracle on 34th Street involved quite a lot of location shooting — the scenes taking place in the Macy’s department store in New York City were actually filmed there (though the movie company had to bring their own generator because Macy’s power supply couldn’t handle the amount of current needed to run film equipment) — and in order to depict the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the filmmakers not only shot the actual 1946 parade (with multiple cameras to make sure they got everything they needed since retakes were impossible) but arranged for Edmund Gwenn, hired to play Santa Claus in the film, to appear as such in the parade and fill all the normal duties of the actor playing Santa in the parade — including officially opening the Macy’s toy department for Christmas shoppers.

Miracle on 34th Street is a marvelous movie, clearly derived from Frank Capra — the overall sweetness, the charm, the use of faith as a story driver and even the finale, a trial in which the nice young man who’s courting the heroine has to go to court to prove that his friend and confederate is not insane, are all clearly derived from Capra’s great films of the late 1930’s. So is the vaguely anti-capitalist message — including the idea that by recommending that his customers shop at other stores if they want an item Macy’s doesn’t have in stock, Macy’s will make itself more money in the long run as well as earning valuable public goodwill. (This is a quite venerable plot device that even turns up in modern movies; we’d just seen it in the “All Heart” campaign Jason Bateman’s character futilely tries to sell to at least two corporate boards in Hancock.)

Maureen O’Hara plays the lead role, Doris Walker, a woman who went through a divorce (kudos to Seaton and Valentine Davies, who wrote the original story, for not taking the easy way out for 1947 and having had her husband killed in the war!) and was stuck raising their daughter Susan (Natalie Wood, seven years old, in a star-making performance that’s one of the best pieces of acting ever done by a child and miles ahead of the cloying sweetness Shirley Temple established as the norm for pre-pubescent performers in films) while working in the toy department at Macy’s and running the annual Thanksgiving Day parade. When the Santa Claus she’s hired for the parade (Percy Helton) turns up drunk — “Well, it’s cold outside. A man’s gotta do something to keep warm,” the man explains — she latches onto a passing stranger, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), and impresses him into service as the parade Santa — at which he’s so convincing that she also drafts him to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s toy department.

There’s only one hitch: Kris Kringle insists that he really is Santa Claus — and when Doris traces him to the old-folks’ home he was living at before, its director, Dr. Pearce (James Seay), confesses that he knew of the man’s delusion but thought it was harmless because it didn’t make him a danger to himself or others — it just gave him a compulsion to walk around doing good for people. Doris, clearly embittered by her divorce (though Seaton is a subtle enough writer not to hammer that into our faces the way a modern scribe probably would), has trained Susan to be a hard-core rationalist, carefully keeping her away from fairy tales (when she’s told the story of Jack and the beanstalk she’s surprised because she’s never heard it before!) and training her to acknowledge that Santa Claus does not exist. (When you work in a department store and have the power to hire and fire Santa Clauses, that’s easier than it is for most parents.)

The overall plot of the film is the breaking down of both Walkers’ resistance to faith, belief and Santa Claus by the pincer movement of Kringle and the male romantic lead, attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne — and did George Seaton have to give him such a “queer” last name?), who lives in the same apartment building as the Walkers and is wooing Mrs. Walker by befriending her daughter Susan. There’s also a veiled Gay subtext in the character of Alfred (Alvin Greenman), the nellie 17-year-old overweight janitor at Macy’s whom Kringle befriends against the pressure from Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall), who runs the personnel department’s aptitude testing program and fancies himself a psychologist — who gives the poor boy a lot of nonsense about guilt complexes and hating his father (“I didn’t know I hated my father until Dr. Sawyer told me so”), and says that he has to give up playing Santa at the old-folks’ home even though, being overweight and constantly teased about it, playing Santa every Christmas is the one joy in his life. (This isn’t spelled out as a Gay metaphor — in 1947 under the Production Code it couldn’t have been — but it’s not hard to figure out!)

The whole thing gets resolved when Kringle strikes Sawyer on the head with his cane while defending Alfred in an argument, and Sawyer has Kringle committed to Bellevue and draws up the papers to institutionalize him. Gailey agrees to represent Kringle in the legal system and demands a competency hearing, presided over by Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart), who in yet another Capraesque touch in a film full of them is really controlled by political boss Charlie Halloran (William Frawley) — who, stopped from coming into court with a lit cigar, refuses to throw it away and instead merely pinches the burning end with his fingers (ouch!), thereby putting it out. The marvelous character actor Jerome Cowan is the prosecuting attorney, Thomas Mara, who thinks he has the case won when he puts Kringle on the stand and gets him to say out loud, in so many words, that he is really Santa Claus.

Gailey demands the right to present the case that there is in fact a Santa Claus, and that Kringle is he — and to prove the first he puts Mara’s son (Robert Hyatt) on the stand. Thomas Mara, Jr. testifies that he knows there’s a Santa Claus because “my daddy told me so, and my daddy wouldn’t lie to me.” Judge Harper says he’ll consult “a higher authority” before ruling on whether Santa Claus exists or not, and of course the “higher authority” is Halloran, who points out that if he rules that there is no Santa Claus there’ll be such hostility from voters that it will sink their whole ticket in the next election. Accordingly, Harper rules that there is a Santa Claus but that Gailey must still prove that Kris Kringle is he — and he gets a break when two overworked clerks at the New York post office (one of them played by a very young and almost unrecognizable Jack Albertson!) decide not only to deliver the letter Susan Walker wrote to Kris Kringle at the New York courthouse but all the Santa Claus letters to him — and Gailey brings all 21 bags of these letters to court and says, “Your Honor, every one of these letters is addressed to Santa Claus. The Post Office has delivered them. Therefore the Post Office Department, a branch of the Federal Government, recognizes this man Kris Kringle to be the one and only Santa Claus.” There’s a happy ending in which Susan Walker finally gets the house in the suburbs she’d asked Santa Claus for — and she also gets a new daddy in the person of Fred Gailey, who in a film that has otherwise totally avoided the subject of sex finally gets to kiss Doris Walker at the fade-out.

Miracle on 34th Street holds up as a very charming movie, a bittersweet but ultimately uplifting film, and since Charles and I had just watched the surprisingly impressive TV adaptation from eight years later comparisons were inevitable, especially involving the cast. Maureen O’Hara (despite the colorizers’ inability to decide on the color of her hair — in some scenes it’s russet-brown, in others flaming-red) brings a kind of hurt dignity to her role —but Teresa Wright plays it similarly and equally well on the TV adaptation, and though Edmund Gwenn’s Kringle won him the Academy Award and became legendary (and indeed it’s amazing that Gwenn could be equally effective as Katharine Hepburn’s scapegrace father in Sylvia Scarlett and as Santa Claus here!), Thomas Mitchell turns in just as good a job in the TV show (and, apropos of the long-running “in” joke between Charles and I, both of them sound the “t” when they say the word “often”).

Where the TV show cast suffered in comparison with the film is in the male lead — McDonald Carey is good in certain types of roles but he’s so unpersonable one really doesn’t want the heroine to get stuck with him. John Payne isn’t that much better — the role really cried out for James Stewart, but the budget for this film couldn’t have afforded him — but he’s at least young and likable — and the child. Sandy Descher is a perfectly competent child actor but she can’t hold a candle to the incandescent young Natalie Wood — even though I had to laugh out loud when I saw Wood early on turn her face into a pout and realized she had used that expression in different contexts throughout her career! Also, as I’d expected, Philip Tonge, the virtually unknown character actor playing Mr. Shellhammer (Doris’s immediate supervisor in the Macy’s toy department), can’t hold a candle to Hans Conried’s marvelously twitchy performance in the TV version — and the TV script, though heavily cut and eliminating the marvelous subplot involving Alfred, has a more effective way for Kringle to get in trouble with Sawyer (he challenges him when Sawyer is lecturing on the dangers of superstition at a “Progressive Association” forum) — which was the version Charles remembered from a book based on the film story that he read as a child.