Looking Back At MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (1947) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (1947)

Tony believes in miracles.

You have to be very careful if you set out to write stories or make movies aiming to encapsulate the spirit of Christmas. You have to be especially careful if you’re going to bring it home to your here and now, rather than taking the road long travelled and going Victorian, where Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens have already done some of the preparatory work for you.


The difficulty is to pitch your tale so that it does the necessary heartwarming, Christmas spirit-surging thing without tipping over into schmaltz and easy sentimentality, with the over-sweetened taste of mass-produced sugar cookies. 


This is by no means an easy feat. It’s A Wonderful Life has its Zuzu Bailey and her frankly nauseating “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” White Christmas comes perilously close to overbalancing the whole thing with its refrain of “We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go…” Even Dickens himself couldn’t resist using a frail ‘crippled’ child as his ultimate heartbreaker, with a “God bless us, every one!” to really seal the deal.


Then there’s Miracle on 34th Street. 


Miracle On 34th Street is a masterpiece of staggering genius. If you’re dead-set against that contention, you may not have much fun for the next handful of heartbeats.


First of all, original story writer Valentine Davies and screenwriter George Seaton do the difficult thing. They bring their miracle of Christmas right home to the here and now of their age – 1947. What’s more, in the best tradition of subsequent urban fantasy, they set it among real places. Identifiable, well known places to many people, either directly or through the likes of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 


In fact, bar a curtesy – but never schmaltzy – beginning in which a man who calls himself Kris Kringle helps a store manager ‘correctly’ arrange the reindeer in a Santa Claus display in their window, it’s at that parade that the story of Miracle On 34th Street begins.


But it begins with a drunk. A Santa Claus, paid to ride the Christmas float that traditionally closes the Thanksgiving Day parade – and so heralds in the start of the Christmas season. He’s intoxicated in charge of his reindeer, and Kris Kringle, a portly old gentleman with a natty hat, a stiff cane, and a very familiar beard, reprimands him strongly. In fact, so strong is his outrage at this affront to the legend of Santa Claus, he immediately seeks out the parade manager (OK, Karen Kringle), the elegantly anti-magical Doris Walker, played by Maureen O’Hara with an American accent that just occasionally slips and lets her original Irish playfully peep through.


Kringle (played by the now mostly unknown Edmund Gwenn) is such a natural hit that Macy’s store takes him on as its official Santa Claus for the season. So far, so wholesomely capitalistic a story. But Miracle On 34th Street is out to do something rather bolder than that. 


In an era when war had just decimated Europe and given America access to new markets, conspicuous consumption was becoming a thing more open to the masses across the United States, and then, as now, the spectre of commercialism was seen as a threat to the pure-hearted spirit of things like Christmas. 


Kringle, when he takes up the post of store Santa at Macy’s, entirely ignores best business practice, refusing to push the toys his corporate masters want him to push in a bid to reduce stock, but instead engaging children in a real conversation, refusing to talk down to them, understanding their true desires. Not for nothing, but if you want to go down the “miracle” route, he’s perhaps the most Christ-like figure most of the people at Macy’s have ever seen in real life. “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” and all that.


Meanwhile, Doris Walker has a problem. In fact, she has several problems. Her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood in an early starring role) wants to believe in magic, in miracles, in happy ever afters, and especially that Kris Kringle is the real Santa Claus. Doris, scarred by the false promises of men (particularly Susan’s father) is not exactly an out and proud atheist, but is very concerned that her daughter doesn’t grow up with the tradition of magical thinking in case she falls prey to men who will break her heart. 


Remember, this is in a film released in the United States. In 1947. Warnings against the dangers of magical thinking, both in terms of mytho-religious figures and the promises of men! And a Santa Claus children the gifts they really want, instead of serving capitalistic needs.


People are so used to the Christmassy miracle of Miracle on 34th Street, they tend to forget the boldness of some of the things it achieves. 


Susan meanwhile is also getting chummy with the newish neighbour, Fred Gailey (John Payne). He’s a fan of the miraculous elements of Christmas, the magic, the twinkle in the eye, and as such, he’s the audience’s voice of sadness at Doris’ hardcore anti-magic stance.


Where the whole things starts getting really interesting is when Kris, far from just playing Santa Claus, starts claiming that he is Santa Claus. And that it’s important for him, and for the future of Christmas everywhere, not only to convince Susan of that, but also to get the skeptical Doris to believe. If he can convince both of them, he feels, Christmas will have a future. If not, he might as well just retire. 


All of what follows is the true miracle of Miracle On 34th Street. Firstly, Kris begins promoting children’s happiness over Macy’s store profit. He sends parents away from Macy’s, to find the presents their children really want elsewhere if they’re available, or available more cheaply, in a different location.


It should be economic suicide, but Valentine and Seaton do a remarkable thing. Just as Pay It Forward, decades later, would take an unlikely proposition of kindness with no reward and turn it into a revolutionary idea, right here in Miracle On 34th Street, that same revolution is shown happening as a result of market forces. Customers, thrilled by the honesty of Kris’ policy, become dedicated Macy’s shoppers – except when Kris tells them they can get what they need elsewhere. The policy is rolled out across the store, because it’s an unstoppable public smash. And, afraid of letting Macy’s steal all the ethical glory, the other big department stores follow suit. It’s a new kind of ethical capitalism, the virtuous circle of telling the truth lifting all boats – and all because a department store Santa started telling the truth. It’s the sort of story you desperately want to be based on a real instance, because it lifts your heart and make you point at the screen, yelling “See?! This is what could happen if we were just nice to each other more!” While blinking through the tears, obviously.


But Miracle’s by no means done with your feelgood buttons yet, oh dear me, no. There’s the little Dutch girl to get through yet.


An orphaned Dutch girl is brought to see him. She’s only recently been adopted by an American couple, and has yet to speak since her parents died. Kris speaks to her gently, and in her own tongue, and the little Dutch girl’s face lights up. He is the real Santa Claus! He must be! Because, as Doris more or less tells an impressionable Susan when the girl recounts the story, no mere human being would speak Dutch like that. 


It’s to Maureen O’Hara’s credit that she plays Doris with a sense of loving care for her daughter’s feelings and the future of her heart without coming off as a cruel, magic-squishing harpy. Nevertheless, her refusal to allow an imaginative element into her daughter’s life (no fairy tales, either – obviously) begins to drive a wedge between Doris and Fred. Their blossoming relationship doesn’t exactly keel over dead, but it is somewhat strained by Doris’ hardcore no-magic policy.


As the move rolls into its third and last movement, two huge new plot drivers come into play.


In the first place, beset by the forces of scientific rationalism, in both the form of Doris’ resistance to his identity and the machinations of a patently pop psychologist who gives IQ tests to Macy’s staff, Kris loses his temper on behalf of a friend, and bops the psychologist on the head with his cane.


Fury! Apoplexy! But more than that, questions follow. The one thing mythic and historical figures can’t withstand is the probing of their stories, and it emerges that Kris Kringle has lived in an old people’s home for a while before hitting the city, and that he’s under the fixed delusion that he is the actual Santa Claus. Despite all the heartwarming Christmas vibes, what we have here is apparently a mentally unstable old gentleman, being freely allowed to interact with the nation’s children. Can you imagine the furore if that were discovered today?


You mostly don’t have to – Miracle On 34th Street keeps it at least real-adjacent. But to make sure he can still keep his job at Macy’s, Kris embarks on a legal battle to prove he is the real Santa Claus, with Fred taking his case. 


Meanwhile, Susan lays a challenge on him. If he’s really Santa Claus, she wants a house with a garden for Christmas. No pressure!


It would be spoilerific to tell you how the rest of the movie goes, and you really need to keep a couple of moments intact, especially if you haven’t watched it before. But the important thing is that there’s never any actual magic involved. No ghosts of any Christmas to change hardened hearts. No angels to show how the world without Kris would look. The battle to establish Kris Kringle as the one and only real Santa Claus in a New York court of law depends on human nature, political self-interest, Kris’ performance on the witness stand and one particular ‘competent authority.’ No magic, just human beings, working in the way they work, make the miracle.


If there’s one moment, one tiny, tiny moment that pushes Miracle At 34th Street into pure fantasy territory, it’s the very last scene, when one prop in a particular location suggests magical shenanigans, but even this is played so low that it doesn’t overwhelm the human-centred work of the rest of the movie. 


Ultimately, where the likes of A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life are wonderful, and show the impact Christmas can have on the heart of one person, we’re going to say something controversial here. Miracle On 34th Street is the better – and we’d say, the best – Christmas movie ever made. Because rather than opening up one closed heart to the joy of Christmas, it shows how bringing an open Christmas heart to a situation can change the world. A little faith in people can help people find love, children find joy, can change the way that business is conducted and give the world a better vision to strive towards. That’s the message of Miracle On 34th Street. It’s a copper-bottomed Christmas joyfest, and it’s been bringing happy tears to the world for seven decades. If you have yet to experience it, stop being mean to yourself. Try it right now – it’s the movie you absolutely need to get you through.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad