Friday Film Review: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”
I had resisted watching this movie until now due to what I feared would be a schmaltz fest of gooey, sugary pulling of heartstrings. But when another movie I had tentatively selected as a possible one-day-post-Thanksgiving day feature was a bomb, I frantically began to Google alternatives. Thinking this was just a Christmas film, I was surprised to learn it starts on Thanksgiving Day. With a what-the-heck shrug, I decided to try the B&W version. After all, it couldn’t be worse than the one I already tried.
Harried Macy’s PR person Doris Walker (Maureen O”Hara) is behind the scenes trying to give last minute instructions to the parade workers when a kindly older gentleman (Edmund Gwenn) complains to her about the inebriated man due to ride “Santa’s” sleigh. Knowing she can’t have a tipsy “Santa” lolling around on the float, she begs the gentleman to take his place which he kindly agrees to do. He’s such a hit that Mr. Shelhammer (Philip Tonge), Doris’s coworker and person in charge of the “visit with Santa” feature at Macy’s, begs Doris to hire him.
Doris arrives home to discover that her young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) is in the apartment of handsome lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) for a front row view of the parade. Fred is startled to learn that Doris has brought Susan up not believing in any fairy tales or such nonsense as “Santa Claus.” Doris, as a PR person, has seen first hand how things and people get manipulated at Macy’s to make a buck and doesn’t want Susan’s faith in honesty and the truth to be distorted even at her age. Still, Fred doesn’t think the day a total loss as he finally gets to meet and know lovely Doris.
The next day “Kris Kringle” shows up for work and proceeds to turn the event on its head by urging parents to go to other local department stores for items Macy’s might not carry. Doris agrees with Shellhammer that, despite all the customer appreciation for what they think Macy’s is doing for them, Kris has to go before Mr. Macy finds out. Only they’re already too late. Macy has found out but to their surprise, he embraces the idea as a wonderful way to increase consumer loyalty and – let’s all be honest about this – make more money for the store. Shellhammer is frantic when Doris breaks the news to him that she’s just fired Kris because his address and next of kin listed on his employment card makes her think he’s nuts. Adroitly back stepping, Doris rehires Kris but first asks him to visit Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall) the staff psychologist as a way to cover Macy’s butt in case things go wrong.
Sawyer immediately rubs Kris the wrong way but Kris shrugs it off until learning of how Sawyer is messing with the head of a young employee named Alfred (Alvin Greenman) whom Kris has been quizzing about the joy Alfred takes in the season. Confronting Sawyer, an angry Kris resorts to bopping him on the head with an umbrella. Incensed and filled with I-told-you-so, Sawyer tries to get Kris committed to Bellevue but Fred takes up the cause of proving this kindly man isn’t crazy when he says he’s Kris Kringle. Can Kris get Doris and Susan to finally believe in faith? Are his matchmaking skills enough to engineer a happy ending between Fred and Doris? And can Fred prove in a New York court of law that Kris is Santa Claus?
Alright, I expected to be in a diabetic coma by the time this film finished but amazingly I quickly realized this wasn’t going to happen. With that worry out of the way, I could enjoy the movie. And what I got is as star Maureen O’Hara says a “wonderful, sentimental, gorgeous story.” Yes, it is sentimental but then Gailey is trying to prove that Santa Claus exists – which he does – and Kris is trying to discover if the commercialism of modern Christmas (just imagine what he’d think of today’s seasonal store displays that start in early October) has ruined the holiday for good – it hadn’t as of then. When both questions are answered, I expected the studio heads would try and pull out the tear stops but my feelings at those points were happy smiles.
But let me tell you what got me. There’s an early scene of Kris being Santa Claus in Macy’s and listening to the children tell him what they want. Susan Walker, brought down to the store by Fred Gailey, has politely but coolly informed Santa that she doesn’t believe in him and doesn’t want to wish for anything since her mother will get things for her if they’re practical and not too expensive. An invitation to pull on his beard (it’s real!) begins to plant the smallest seed of belief in her mind but it’s what happens a moment later that makes her really start to think. The line moves forward and the saddest little girl stands there. The woman with her tells Kris that the girl is a Dutch orphan who speaks only Dutch. From what the woman skims over in her explanation, it’s obvious that this girl has gone through and lost a lot in her short life. Her adoption mother goes on to tell Kris that the girl saw him yesterday during the parade and knew Santa would be able to talk to her but that she tried to tell the girl this might not be the case. Kris turns to her and begins to speak in Dutch. As the little girl’s face lit up with joy that she’d found Sinterklass and that he could talk with her, I will admit to reaching for a hankie. For a moment, I believed again.
“Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind.”
I like that the movie tackles the issue of why some people do or don’t believe in Santa Claus head on. Doris is skepticism and common sense. Susan – a tough nut to crack – is rational explanations and intellectual doubt. Alfred is the joy of the season and of giving to others. Fred is faith in the good things and people of life. The store owners are clearly out to make a buck but at least for this year are joining together to see to the customers’ wants. The judge is worried about his upcoming reelection and the Post Office just wants to get rid of the letters filling up space. The film also takes a swipe at the newfangled, shiny toy of Selznick movie productions – psychoanalysis. In the end, everyone gets what they want out of the season and – with the exception of sour-faced Sawyer – no one really loses. The viewer can join in or sit back with a skeptical eyebrow raised.
“Miracle” is filled with the joy of the actors working on it. O’Hara says that during the filming in NYC, she and fellow actors Payne and Gwenn would walk around window shopping and when she and Natalie had breaks during the night time shooting that actually took place at Macy’s, they’d both wander through all the departments, trying on things and having a ball.They were also given their split second instructions for the shots filmed during the actual 1946 Macy’s parade. But even without knowing that, it just looks like these people are having fun. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an actor’s eyes twinkle like Gwenn’s and Natalie clearly shows the immense talent that won even her adult coworkers’ praise. As a harried mother searching for an elusive toy for her son, look for Thelma Ritter in her first movie roll and check out future “I Love Lucy” star William Frawley who gives the judge some pointed advice on what not to do if the judge wants to get reelected.
This might have started life as a B movie released in June because the studio head thought tickets would sell better at that time regardless of it it had a holiday theme. But now that I’ve seen it, I can understand why it’s become a classic. It’s a miracle of having faith in “whatever.” As Susan Walker says, “I believe. I believe. It’s silly, but I believe.” B+