December 6, 2012

Why “Miracle on 34th Street” is the best Christmas movie ever

As was the case with my top 12 political movies, this isn’t strictly a TV post; yet for most of us, our exposure to Miracle on 34th Street comes from our television sets, either through reruns on local stations or NBC, or via DVD.

Now, it’s interesting that when Miracle on 34th Street was initially released in theaters in 1947, it came out not in December, but in May, when supposedly more people went to the movies. The movie’s trailer contains not a hint of the Yuletide season; promos for the film play up the stars of the movie, the lovely Maureen O’Hara and the terrific John Payne.  Santa, on the other hand, is never seen.

The movie was a smash, both commercially and critically. It won three Ocsars, including a richly deserved Supporting Actor award for Edmund Gwynn as Kris Kringle, and was nominated for Best Picture. Since then it’s gone on to become a well-loved staple of the Christmas season. But what, in my opinion, makes it not just great, but the best Christmas movie ever? Better than It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, White Christmas, or the plethora of made-for-TV dreck on Lifetime and Hallmark?

1. Strong story 
For starters, Miracle on 34th Street is well written and tightly plotted. Even though it’s classified as a fantasy, there are no major gaps in the plot, no illogical leaps, no unreasonable suspensions of belief.* Particularly in the climactic courtroom scene, Fred Gailey acts in a completely realistic manner, appealing to the logic of the law rather than the heart. True, he’s motivated by idealism, or rather, a refusal to sacrifice the beliefs of what makes life worth living, but he knows that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee in a court of law – and nothing else. The whole movie is like this – little wonder that two of its three Oscars were for Story (Valentine Davies) and Screenplay (director George Seaton).

*Contrast this with Rudolph, to name one example. As James Lileks pointed out many years ago, why does King Moonracer need Rudolph to tell Santa about the Island of Misfit Toys? After all, he flies around the world collecting them all – why doesn't he just fly to the North Pole himself?

2. Satire, not sentimentality 
People who haven't seen Miracle on 34th Street, or who are familiar with the story from its several remakes, may well expect a sweetly sentimental story, all hearts and violins - and they'd be wrong.  What I like best about Miracle is the movie’s smart, sly, satirical take on everything from commercialism to Freudian psychology – the very opposite of the saccharine, cloying sentimentality that clings to most Christmas movies (and almost all the contemporary ones). For today’s viewers, Miracle hearkens back to a simpler, more inviting time, one that we recall fondly. But it’s important to keep context in mind – that nostalgic era we look back to is the very time in which this movie was made. In other words, for those who saw it in 1947 it was a contemporary piece, not a period one. And so it’s useful to see that even in the 1940s, there was a sense that things were changing rapidly, that they aren't what they used to be – and that this change isn't all for the good.* In one scene Kris mentions to Alfred, the young stock boy with whom he’s become friends, that he’s been fighting for years against the way Christmas has been commercialized, to which Alfred responds, “There's a lot of bad 'isms' floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn, it's the same. Don't care what Christmas stands for. Just make a buck.” The more things change, hmm?

*Even in the movie’s most charming moments, we’re reminded that this isn’t a perfect world. For example, in the famous scene with the little orphan Dutch girl on Kris’ lap, and her adopted mother talks about how the orphaned girl "has been living in Rotterdam ever since..." - well, in 1947 you didn't need to ask what the rest of the sentence was. And when Fred speaks of the need for people to have someone like Kris to believe in, he’s talking about a war-scarred world, with Korea on the horizon, and the Cold War hanging like a cloud a short distance away.

But this is probably putting too fine a point on the movie’s realism. Better to focus on its sharply cynical outlook on the pop psychology of the day, which Davies and Seaton ruthlessly, if humorously, ridicule. For example, Doris (O’Hara), the divorced mother and prototypical professional woman whose life was changed by a Prince Charming that turned out to be a heel, is adamant that her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) not be exposed to the fantasies of life, such as fairy tales and belief in Santa. “We should be realistic and completely truthful with our children,” she tells next-door neighbor Fred (Payne), a man much more likely to appreciate the inherent whimsies of life. This attitude has caused a barrier to be built around Doris – an icy, detached realism that doesn't leave room for much else.

John Payne, Maureen O'Hara,
Wood and Gwynn
Early on, we’re presented with the movie’s central dilemma – is Kris Kringle actually the real Santa Claus, as he claims, or his he simply crazy? Sawyer, the armchair Freudian disciple who conducts psychological examinations of Macy's employees, sees Kris’ belief as part of a neurotic delusion that makes him potentially dangerous. But Shellhammer, manager of the store’s toy department, isn't so sure. “Maybe he's only a little crazy, like painters or composers - or some of those men in Washington."   Later on, Sawyer diagnoses Alfred with the same neurosis because he enjoys playing Santa at the local Y. According to Sawyer, Alfred does it as compensation for unresolved guilt over something he did when he was a child. The outraged Kris asks him what else Sawyer has told him. “Oh, just that I hate my father,” Alfred replies in a wonderful throwaway line. “I didn't know it, but he says I do.”

Shellhammer’s remark above spotlights another target of Davies and Seaton – politicians. One of the best supporting turns goes to William Frawley as Halloran, campaign manager for Judge Henry X. Harper*, who will decide the issue of Kris’ sanity. Halloran urges the upright Harper (“I’m a responsible judge. I've taken an oath.”) to recuse himself from this no-win situation. Suppose he rules there’s no Santa Claus, Halloran points out:

“The kids 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 C.I.O. and the A.F. of L. against you. And they're gonna adore you for it. And they're gonna say it with votes. And the department stores will love you, too, and the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. . . . And what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santa 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's no Santa Claus. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes: your own and that district attorney's out there."  

To which Harper, shaking his head sadly, replies, “The District Attorney’s a Republican.”

*Gene Lockhart, who played Bob Cratchit in the Reginald Owen version of A Christmas Carol. He’s also the father of June Lockhart, star of Lassie and Lost in Space.

Miracle on 34th Street is not slapstick comedy full of belly laughs. It’s better than that: intelligent, literate, subtly humorous, with a definite edge to it. And it makes its points much more effectively than louder movies, such as Christmas Vacation and Scrooged.

3. Characters you like and root for 
Perhaps I’m just being hypercritical, but there’s always been something about characters like the ever-so-slightly dim George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Rosie Clooney’s neurotic Betty Haynes (White Christmas) that’s really gotten on my nerves. I admit that Wonderful Life has never been a favorite of mine. I mean, sometimes you just want to grab George by the shoulders and slap him: “Don’t you get it? Clarence is an Angel! When he tells you this is a world in which you never existed, believe him!”* Now, it’s true that Doris is a little uptight – I think Fred is much more likable. But Doris isn't dense or cruel or anything; she’s just a woman who needs a man around the house, one who can loosen her up (if you know what I mean).

*One of my favorite Onion headlines: “George Bailey indicted in Savings and Loan scandal.”

And then there’s Gwynn’s Kris Kringle. You can’t really say enough about his performance – it’s charming, elegant, sophisticated, and dryly humorous. After you've seen it, it seems not just right but perfectly obvious that Santa should have a British accent. Gwynn never succumbs to the temptation to ham it up, to play the role broadly. It’s a thoughtful presentation of a man who may or may not be Santa Claus, and the fact that you believe he just might be telling the truth is due entirely to Gwynn. Finally, Natalie Wood. She avoids all the clichés of the child actor here; her performance as the little girl who doesn't believe in Santa is devoid of the mannerisms and precociousness that mar most roles like this. She doesn't hint at the sex symbol she’ll eventually become, but you can still tell she’s going to break a few hearts along the way.

OK, so there are a couple of plot holes. In one early scene, Kris mimics the questions he’s answered in past sanity tests, one of which is “Who was the vice president under John Quincy Adams,” to which Kris responds Daniel D. Tompkins, but it’s actually John C. Calhoun.* Another was suggested by the authors of the book Reel Justice, who felt Harper could have dismissed the case without worrying about the political implications, simply by ruling that the prosecution had failed to prove that Kris was a menace to society, which is the actual crux of a sanity hearing. However, as the always accurate Wikipedia points out, “this high standard for involuntary commitment was not instituted until 1975 with the U.S. Supreme Courts’ decision O’Connor v. Donaldson.” So I think we can give them a pass on this one.

*Well, what can you expect – after all, they didn't have the Internet yet.

There are other things as well that make this the perfect Christmas movie, from the supporting cast to the rich detail (filmed after hours in the actual Macy’s store during the 1946 Christmas season), but in the end the unbeatable combination I've listed above makes Miracle on 34th Street the best Christmas movie ever. You’re welcome to disagree, but you’ll be wrong.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more. What I really love about this film is the completely believable way in which Kris makes good things happen. He doesn't live at the North Pole making toys with elves or fly around on a sleigh ... but, amongst other things, he tells the frazzled mom where to buy the toy fire engine, arranges for an x-ray machine and locates the perfect house for Doris, Fred and Susie. It is a wonderfully grown-up depiction of the magic of Christmas.

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