starring Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart
screenplay by George Seaton, based on the story by Valentine Davies
directed by George Seaton
by Alex Jackson George Seaton's Miracle on 34th Street isn't my Christmas movie of choice. My most potent movie memory of Christmas is actually watching the Star Wars trilogy when it was broadcast on the USA network however many years ago. Accordingly, I make it a point of marking the holiday by watching some kind of Star Wars-like "deep reality" science-fiction or fantasy film, such as The Lord of the Rings, or Blade Runner. A couple years back, I watched The Passion of the Christ. But I digress. Of all the major Christmas movie cults--including those surrounding A Christmas Story, It's a Wonderful Life, Elf, and 1951's A Christmas Carol--the Miracle on 34th Street cult is the one with which I'd most want to spend the holidays. The film manages to be irreverent without becoming sacrilegious and sentimental without becoming saccharine. It's a pretty silly film, but I guess you could say that it's serious about being silly. It values silliness for its restorative, therapeutic quality.
Miracle on 34th Street's moral centre is none other than Santa Claus himself, who goes by the name Kris Kringle and is played by Edmund Gwenn. Kringle gets a job as Macy's Santa and is appalled when his supervisor hands him a list of overstocked merchandise, expecting him to recommend one of these items if a child can't decide what he or she would like for Christmas. The holiday is too commercialized, Kringle announces. It should be about giving children the gifts they want instead of the gifts we want them to want. That's a pretty dumb definition of commercialization. What do kids know about what they really want? Are they immune to peer pressure and advertising in developing their Christmas wishes? Of course not, so how is a gift recommendation from Santa that much different? More to the point, Kringle is describing happiness in material terms--a great Christmas is apparently contingent on whether or not the child receives the present they want. For all intents and purposes, that is the very definition of the commercialization of Christmas.
Ah, but wouldn't you know, that hippy-dippy bug up my ass died during Miracle on 34th Street. Or, at least, he was paralyzed for a good hour-and-a-half. I've come to realize that the message of Miracle on 34th Street isn't evil or morally bankrupt. Rather, it's blissfully, albeit deceptively, idealistic. In an ideal world, all it would take for us to feel content, complete, and at peace with ourselves is the right toy. Or the right car. Or the right house. Before spinning Miracle on 34th Street earlier this week, I was going through a fairly significant bout of the holiday blues. Christmas shopping in particular was getting me down. I couldn't afford to do it until the last minute, the time crunch (not to mention the financial burden) was stressing me out, and naturally I had doubts that I got the right things for the people on my list. And if they reject my gifts, that means they're rejecting me! Miracle on 34th Street is part of the problem, obviously, yet it seems to be part of the solution as well. Methadone for the soul, perhaps? I sensed this movie was telling me to pour myself a glass of eggnog and unwind. That if the pleasures in life aren't simple, they aren't worth pursuing. I should invest in these uncomplicated creature comforts and not worry about being accepted or rejected.
None of this holds up to any scrutiny as a system of moral thought, although believing in it for a short while raised my spirits. It bears fruit, in that regard, to view Miracle on 34th Street as a parallel to a vigilante picture (James Wan's Death Sentence, say), where the hero avenges the death of his loved ones by killing off everybody responsible. We know, technically, that eye-for-an-eye justice is morally wrong--that it leaves everyone blind, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying. But it's a comfort to think that every action is reciprocated by an equal oppositional reaction. Simple philosophies like that are a relief to escape into, because they remove ambiguity and doubt. They get results, and we never have to worry about not knowing what's going to happen. Compared to the moral principle of vigilantism, the materialism of Miracle on 34th Street is every bit as simplistic, every bit as corrupt, and every bit as uplifting. We should realize that Miracle on 34th Street is a dirty high, but a high just the same.
The film's premise--that Santa Claus would take a job as a department store Santa and eventually go on trial to prove he's not crazy in believing himself to be the real St. Nick--may have been inspired by the famed "Lewis's trilemma," published in book form as Mere Christianity in 1952 but formulated well before then. Therein, the theologian C.S. Lewis argues that Christ was either a liar, a madman, or actually God. Of the three possibilities, the idea that Christ was God proves the most sound, since it's unlikely that a liar or a madman would say and do the things he said and did or, moreover, that a liar or a madman would be able to persuade his followers to do things like volunteer to be crucified upside-down. Despite the film's refrain of faith meaning believing in something even when common sense tells you not to, I don't believe the Santa Claus of Miracle on 34th Street is intended as a sanitized, "politically correct" stand in for Jesus Christ or God. Let me put it this way: The film isn't trying to feed us Christianity or theism by sugar-coating it as secular pop. No, I believe that Santa Claus is supposed to completely substitute God here. It's a religious, genuinely spiritual film born of a superficial, childishly hedonistic civilization. The people inhabiting the picture don't have any use for Christianity because they have Santa Claus. For all intents and purposes, Santa Claus is their God.
This idea is brilliantly elaborated upon by the film's metaphysical implications. The first few shots of Miracle on 34th Street, depicting Kris Kringle walking the streets of New York, have a strange appeal. Never again will we be made so aware of the incongruence of these two disparate elements, fairytales and the real world. (Though it came out in Production Code era 1947, the film is considerably more effective than either 2003's Elf or 2007's Enchanted, wherein fairytale characters similarly appear on the streets of New York. This is almost exclusively because Miracle on 34th Street gives us two serious hardcore atheistic doubters in the Macy's event director (Maureen O'Hara) and her daughter (Natalie Wood). We're shocked into reality because we don't expect relatively sympathetic characters like these to hold such beliefs.) Kringle isn't upset by the existence of other Santas. On the contrary, he is delighted by them, provided they don't disgrace the uniform by doing something like drink on the job. He thinks it's a great thing when people dress up like him and invite children to sit on their lap. And the film doesn't suggest that Santa brings children their presents on Christmas Eve. One mother chastises Kringle for promising her son a fire truck she can't find anywhere in Macy's. Kringle tells her the name of another department store carrying the truck, implying that the mother is still going to have to purchase it. In this parallel universe, just as the God concept had to adapt itself to rational scientific explanations for rainbows and the like, so went the Santa Claus myth. The film argues that Christmas is a feeling or a state of mind that has essentially manifested itself in human form with Kris Kringle. Kringle isn't the guy who brings kids presents in the middle of the night; he's nothing less than a personification of an otherwise abstract concept.
Lewis's trilemma is probably untranslatable to film, given that most moviegoers are conditioned to accept a great deal of irrationality as part of the cost of admission. We take it for granted that movie characters are dumber or crazier than we are. That hardly anyone questioned the plausibility of a film like Fight Club suggests that, at the movies at least, we accept that many people would be willing to follow a liar or a madman off a cliff. Fittingly, then, Miracle on 34th Street falls apart in its third act, when Kringle is put on trial and the film attempts to convince us, through sheer reason and rhetoric, that there is a Santa Claus and Kris Kringle is him. Kringle's lawyer calls the prosecuting attorney's son to the stand and gets him to say that his daddy told him there was a Santa Claus and his daddy isn't a liar. This is a cheap trick on the part of the defense and makes for uncomfortable viewing. It's a cheat besides, unduly forcing the attorney to admit, in front of his son, that there is indeed a Santa Claus. The break in the trial happens thanks to the post office redirecting the Santa Claus letters from their dead-letter office to Kris Kringle. Kringle's lawyer upholds this as proof that the federal government officially recognizes Kris Kringle as Santa Claus. Yet we see that this decision to redirect the letters was made by two low-level postal employees. Once it comes out that they influenced the trial by overstepping their authority as civil servants, I suspect they will be out of a job. Again, it's cheating.
I have issues with the film's ending, too. It's definitively proven to the characters that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus because he procures a house for little Natalie Wood and then leaves his cane next to the fireplace. As miracles go, this is profoundly underwhelming, akin to turning Pepsi into Coke. To be fair, though, this is organic to the film's overall worldview and value system, and maybe that's why it's so unsatisfying. We had to see the final outcome to understand why we can't look to Miracle on 34th Street as a text by which to live our lives. It's implied that the lawyer will marry the mother and they'll all live happily ever after, but, importantly, Wood never asked for a father. The only thing she desired was a house. Say what you will about wanting a father, that it's shamelessly sentimental or that it arrogantly upholds the ideal of the traditional nuclear family structure--I still say it's a better fantasy than wanting a house.
Fox's two-platter, 2006 DVD release of Miracle on 34th Street presents the film colorized on Disc 1, relegating the original black-and-white version to the second disc along with the extras. (Each option preserves the picture's original fullscreen aspect ratio.) The colorizing is professionally done, if predictably drab and murky. While colorization of any calibre is an automatic failure in my book, I guess I'm relieved that only the Christmas classics seem to be getting the Crayola treatment these days. The black-and-white transfer isn't especially refined, but it does have a nice, pulpy texture; defects are minimal and organic to celluloid. Free of noise or distortion, the DD 5.1 remix is essentially the mono track (also on board, in DD 2.0) opened up a bit for the parade sequence. A fairly useless audio commentary by Maureen O'Hara adorns both incarnations of the film. O'Hara's gauzy recollections of Miracle on 34th Street were excerpted from an interview conducted in August of 2006, leaving the track rife with dead air that's cannily rationalized by an onscreen disclaimer.
A 22-minute episode of AMC's "Backstory" (rechristened "Hollywood Backstory") briskly reviews the film's production and history and earns a lot of points from me simply for being so succinct. "Fox Movietone News Footage: Hollywood Spotlight" (2 mins.) shows footage from the 1948 Oscars; aside from Edmund Gwenn's acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, which was already excerpted in "Backstory", the clips prioritize Best Picture winner Gentlemen's Agreement. "Promotional Short" (5 mins.) is Miracle on 34th Street's bizarre theatrical trailer, which goes to great lengths to hide the fact that this is a Christmas movie. (The picture was released in May to capitalize on the summer season's increased theatre attendance.) "Macy's Thanksgiving Parade: Floating in History" (16 mins.) offers strangely little information about the eponymous parade and heaps more unneeded praise on Miracle on 34th Street itself.
"The 20th Century Fox Hour of Stars: Miracle on 34th Street" (45 mins.) is a 1955 remake of the film for television notable mainly for containing a few scenes not in its big-screen progenitor and for featuring an extremely angry Kris Kringle (Thomas Mitchell) who looks like he may very well be insane. At 45 minutes, alas, the story is boiled down to a skeleton--it's difficult to really engage with the thing. The film condensation is an invention that has gone the way of the icebox. Rounding out the package is a poster gallery. Originally published: December 8, 2009.