Usually Christmas movies are meant to be innocent fun celebrating the joys of decorations, carols, shopping malls and the -ism behind consumerism. There’s the odd exception that comes in the form of a horror or action picture, but for the most part you can guarantee that a Christmas movie is going to revolve around family gatherings and such, but really they’re all about the gift.
The original Miracle on 34th Street from George Seaton is a different kind of beast. It takes consumerism and actually condemns it in a meaningful and thought-provoking way. Maybe I’m just a cynic, but I assumed that all films made during the economic rebound following WWII had to be about buying, buying and more buying. Although it revolves largely around a mall Santa and Macy’s department store, Miracle on 34th Street is a sly and heart-warming commentary that gets to the heart of what Christmas has become in its most innocent, secular sense – a magical time of year for dreaming and believing that humanity isn’t all that rotten after all.
With the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade mere moments away, an elderly gent with a white beard and pudgy tummy going by the name of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) stumbles across the parade Santa in a drunken stupor. With no other options, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the parade’s organizer and an up-and-comer within the department store, hires Kringle on the spot to replace him. Following the parade, Kringle moves inside to the store itself and fields questions from hundreds of children and sets off a strange chain of events. When a child asks for a gift that Macy’s doesn’t carry, rather than try to convince the parent on a substandard alternative, he sends her over to a rival store. Customers start bombarding management with grateful thanks for putting the customer first, and thus by sending business away Macy’s built loyal consumers. Kringle brings plenty of good cheer to the department store and those close to him. There’s just one catch – he claims to be the Santa Claus.
Miracle on 34th Street is framed around a trial that has the jolly guy up for claims of insanity. It just doesn’t make any sense that Santa would choose New York of all places to be a semi-permanent stop leading up to the big day. Some people can’t believe it, while others show great hope in the magical possibility that they are in fact in the presence of a true legend.
Although director Seaton puts Santa on trial, he’s really putting the modern interpretation of Christmas up for discussion. Although Doris is a caring and loving person, she’s all business. Fantasy and imagination have no place in her home and she has rubbed the attitude off on her young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). So while they both like the company of Kringle, they themselves are skeptical of his origins. Much the same, society on a whole is wrapped up in the spending and other commercial pursuits of the holidays, they don’t have the time left over to stop and reflect on the magic and love that surrounds it or the humanity it has a foundation in. The Macy’s suits are concerned about the store’s image and profits, they fail to see the benefits of Kringle’s philosophy other than from a bottom-line perspective. Doris doesn’t believe the hype and others are willing to take Santa to court on account of sanity.
Miracle on 34th Street asks you to believe in the nice things that happen around Christmas and that people can make a difference in others’ lives. No matter what you’re take on the season is, it’s hard not to be enchanted by the magic of the film. Gwenn is perfectly cast as the man in the red suit (at least I assume it’s red since it’s really a shade of gray with the original black and white print), bringing a grandfatherly warmth and genuineness to the role. I also really enjoyed the refreshing challenges Seaton and Valentine Davies brought forth with their script. Not overly preachy, it helped me reflect on how I view Christmas, all the while remaining entertaining.
Miracle on 34th Street Gallery