A Miracle in 34th Street (1947)
Starring: Edmun Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood and Harry Antrim
Directed by: George Seaton
Released by: 20th Century Fox
Synopsis: When the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa Claus shows up drunk, kind Kris Kringle (Edmun Gwenn) volunteers to do the job. He does it so well that Macy’s employee Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) hires him to play Santa at the Macy’s store on 34th Street. But little does anyone suspect that the man may or may not be the real Santa Claus. This turn of events takes everyone to court as they begin to question the old man and wonder if he is being honest or is he stark raving mad.
Review: I confess that as much as I love Christmas movies (even some of the very bad ones like “Jingle All the Way”), Miracle on 34th Street was a movie I completely missed. I had seen the 1994 version with no idea that it was a remake of an older film. And thus, springtime be damned, I decided to watch this movie and fell in love with it. Miracle on 34th Street joins the ranks of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” as one of the best Holiday films ever made. This is all thanks to a very simple but highly enjoyable storyline acted out by some amazing performers.
First and foremost is Edmun Gwenn as Kris Kringle. From the minute you see this man you will believe that he is truly Santa Claus, not because of his looks but because of his mannerisms and actions. Unlike other film Santas, Edmun Gwenn plays the role like a kind, sweet gentleman that earnestly tries to win the affections of others. Never does he become too wacky or over the top. He takes the job seriously but never does he overact it. Such effective is his portrayal that when the rest of the characters begin to question his sanity it is them that end up looking bad in the end. In my honest opinion, such a great performance can’t be topped.
Maureen O’Hara as Doris Walker does a great job rooting the plot down to reality. Regardless of her role as the stereotypical hard working woman who is too busy to believe in childish nonsense she is very likable and doesn’t take the role to extremes. Even when she herself begins to wonder about Kris Kringle’s life portrayal allows is so that she can understand the reality of the situation and learn from it. She may have a cold heart at times, but never do you grow to despise her. You understand that above all she is a human, and humans in general have the tendency of questioning the unquestionable.
Then there’s her daughter Susan, played by Natalie Wood. She is a six-year old child who is wise beyond her years. But the beauty of her character is that while she is smart thanks to the teachings of her working mother there is a lot of innocence in her, making her a quickly likable character. Her performance is also quite honest, rarely overacted or extremely rehearsed (a common curse many child actors face). Her relationship with Kris Kringle is vital to the development of the plot, and the film delivers in this regard.
Finally there’s John Payne as Fred Gailey, the attorney that decides to defend Kris Kringle in court. It should be noted that while he does take Kris Kringle’s side, the performance is presented in such as way that Fred Gailey doesn’t quite believe Kris is really Santa Claus, but understands that the man is neither crazy nor violent. This brings a fun little mystery to the film regarding who Kris Kringle really is. Unlike other Christmas movies dealing with the figure of Santa Claus this Santa Claus is underplayed as a magical figure and more as a kind old man that loves the Holiday a little too much, but you still accept it anyway. Both Fred Gailey’s train of thought as well as the film’s conclusion leaves it open so that film viewers can decide by themselves who Kris Kringle really was. And this is all accomplished thanks to both a great performance as well as a very tightly written script.
Heck, the movie even avoids making its antagonists very grand stereotypes (a common occurrence seen in movies such as “It’s A Wonderful Life”). Yes, there are some characters that you’ll quickly grow to hate due to how unfairly they judge Kris Kringle, as well as try to manipulate the court system just so they get the desired sentence. But it’s all played in a believable manner. You will see that these men are confused and don’t know exactly what to do with this predicament. Again, the film firmly establishes that these men are to be despised for their actions against the main characters, but hardly do you feel as if they are stereotypical villains ripped out of other works of fiction.
On the technical side of things, despite the film being fairly simple in terms of story and setting it does a really wonderful job of making it all feel authentic. The movie does take places in a real Macy’s store, and seeing the movie made me nostalgic for all the holiday shopping at the grand stores. The Thanksgiving Day Parade, despite how brief it is, is a delight to see, especially if you are a fan of the parade like myself. Even the staged scenes such as the trial are brilliant in their execution. So despite the lack of fancy cinematography and special effects A Miracle on 34th Street dazzles in its very convincing world.
Believe it or not, the film has very little to no flaws. As I just explained, the characters are excellently written despite being archetypes we have grown to know over the ages, and the plot is very basic to follow but does invite people to question all of the character’s ulterior motives. The only flaw to be said against the film is a minor technicality. The film spends most of its time in places that lack the warmth of the holidays, save for the Macy’s store as well as the Thanksgiving Day Parade. By the time the movie does get to a grand holiday gathering the story is over. But again this is a very minor detailed that hardly ruins the film.
A Miracle on 34th Street is a holiday classic that should never be missed. It might not be as magical as over Christmas themed movies, but what it lacks on typical holiday schmaltz makes it up in fantastically written characters, authentic locales and a story that will make you wonder if there is such a thing as Santa Claus.
Rating: 5 filmstrips out of 5