Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

I showed The Flower this 1947 black-and-white film a few years back and it instantly became one of her favorites. We both agreed that the best decision the filmmakers made when casting this was to get the real Santa to play himself. Oh, the studios covered it up well, arrange an Oscar for stalwart actor Edmund Gwenn, who would go on to have notable roles in The Trouble With Harry and Them! but whether St. Nick filled in physically for him here (a body switch not noticed because of certain similarities between the two) or whether some Christmas magic invested the spirit of said right jolly old elf into the character actor’s physical form, this film is definitive proof that there is, indeed, a Santa Claus.

Poor Natalie Wood.
And can do a pretty good “monkey”.

George Seaton (who directed the first Airport film in 1970) directs from a screenplay he wrote based on a story by Valentine Davies (The Glen Miller StoryThe Benny Goodman Story) and this is the first time it occurred to me while watching that there isn’t a single miracle (in the traditional sense) in the movie. Literally nothing that happens lacks a “logical” explanation, except for Kris speaking Dutch to the young girl at Macy’s, which is remarkable but hardly inexplicable—it’s just not explained. Even at the end, where he seemingly engineers a family and home (on Long Island!) for little Natalie Wood, every thing that happens has a perfectly reasonable explanation you can make for it.

Even the marriage of Fred (John Payne) and Doris, because who in their right mind wouldn’t want to marry Maureen O’Hara?

The Christmas cards alone would be breathtaking.
I mean, just look at her.

But this is just rationalization. And the movie is full of rationalizations as to how a man could be found to actually be Santa in a court of law. And while there are plenty of cynical excuses one could make—lazy postal workers, cowardly politicians, etc.—the movie makes them all with a wink and a nod. Because we know the truth.

And one of the truths we all know—or should know, anyway—is that the real miracle is consideration: The point of view we take on things in the world which imbues the ordinary with magic. The real miracle, of course, is taking a broken-hearted woman who has fallen into a materialistic, joyless mindset, and getting her to believe. Because the good things happen when you believe in good things and then act on those beliefs.

As simple as it is, we forget it to the point of sheer stupidity, and get trapped in our glamorous Manhattan careers throwing parades and the like, and just mechanically move through life.

Dammit.
Next to our ridiculously handsome neighbors with impossibly good views.

And that’s my holiday rant. Which, even if you don’t buy into, doesn’t change the fact that this grainy black-and-white film is one of the best. Funny. Touching but not schmaltzy, in a way very much in the style of Thurber or Preston Sturges, that hadn’t yet given way to gritty ’50s cynicism. Natalie Wood’s journey of faith is pretty brutal, at face value: She demands something akin to absolute proof before being willing to believe. And even Santa balks at such a tall order, while merrily presenting himself to the court to be vetted, after a mean, little psychiatrist plays up a well-deserved clonk on the head.

When Santa clonks you on the head, you have it coming.

Truth.
Coal is too subtle for some people.

The other journeys of faith are also good and fun. Doris believes, ultimately, because she must: she can’t let little Susan (Wood) grow up in such a joyless world. Meanwhile, Fred’s belief is entirely tongue-in-cheek—at first. There’s a fine line, he discovers, between pretending to believe and believing, but by the end, we’ve reason to believe even he’s won over in heart.

The camerawork is fine, and gets better as the movie progresses. The acting is top notch. Even the smaller roles, like Thelma Ritter as the beleaguered mother and a pre-Lucy William Frawley as a “campaign consultant” all sing. Perfect score by Cyril Mockridge (The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe Ox-Bow Incident) with musical director Alfred Newman.

This is one of those Christmas movies that makes you remember why they keep trying to make Christmas movies, over and over again. A must-see. The Boy, who had not seen it before, loved it. The Flower and I loved it all over again.

 

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