Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
On Thanksgiving, my family usually keeps the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on, with my dad yelling for all of us to see a float or something now and then. My mom has always enjoys watching the Rockettes and gets a kick out of their kicking. But nowadays my siblings and I usually wander off and play RockBand and come shuffling in when dad yells that Santa’s on the TV. There was always a part of me that dreaded Santa Claus in his sleigh at the end of the parade waving in the Christmas season. I was never one for holiday spirit, Christmas cheer or holly jollies. I was that cynical kid who realized Santa was just a lie told to little kids to guilt their parents into buying them gifts at the end of the year to keep our American capitalism rolling. Today, I realize why I never understood Christmas: I had never seen Miracle on 34th Street.
Gasp! Shock! I know; Somehow my anti-Christmas spirit would put on some horror or sci-fi movie instead. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was about as jolly as I could get without puking candy canes. But now, at the nearly-too-late-for-Christmas-wonder age of 25, I’ve finally seen Miracle on 34th Street and realize that Christmas can be magical if you just set your cynicism aside for a while.
The film starts on Thanksgiving, when Kris (Edmund Gwenn), a kind old man who looks like Santa Claus, stumbles upon a drunk man about to play St. Nick in the Macy’s parade. He brings the appalling situation to Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the parade’s director, and she asks if he can play Santa. Kris does such a wonderful job that he is asked to be Santa in Macy’s store. He helps parents find the toys their child asks for, even if Macy’s doesn’t carry it. At first, this enrages the executives at Macy’s, but once they realize that the honesty will bring the customers back, they make it their policy to be most helpful.
Unfortunately, Doris makes an odd discovery concerning their sweet, helpful Santa. His employment card reads Kris Kringle, his address is listed as the North Pole, and his next of kin are eight reindeer. She’s suddenly very concerned, thinking that the old man is crazy and believes he really is Santa Claus. Macy’s decides to give the man a few tests to see if he is stable and he passes wonderfully. But one slip up puts Kris in an institution, and soon there’s a competency hearing that becomes a trial to prove or disprove whether he is who he says he is.
No-nonsense Doris has a young daughter following in her footsteps. Little Susan (Natalie Wood) is a very serious girl who does not like to play pretend with the other children and has no belief in Santa, partially because her mother believes in telling her daughter the truth, rather than having her believe in fairy tales.
When Susan meets Kris, he starts to convince her that he is the real Santa. Susan witnesses a magical moment where he speaks to a little Dutch girl in her own language and even knows a Dutch Christmas song. When Susan is still not entirely convinced she tells Kris what she wants for Christmas, but it’s a tall order, even for Santa.
This film is just wonderful. It’s filled with Christmas spirit and sweet moments that feel like magic. All these moments, from Kris telling the man setting up a display that he has the reindeer in the wrong order to the big happy ending, are just perfect. There’s just the right amount of awe that pulls at your heart but it never gets to sweet or too cute.
I believe that this film is so likable simply due to Edmund Gwenn‘s performance as Kris. He plays such a kind, sweet and genuine old man, never overselling the fact that he is Santa Claus. There’s a hint of mystery he keeps about his real identity, which I remember wanting in lesser Christmas films as a child. When faced with Susan’s scrutiny he naturally turns it around, shows her the importance of an imagination and even gives her lessons on pretending. It’s the simplest moments, where he seems to just casually breeze into enlightening moments with the other characters, that are most heartwarming and magical. He made me believe he could really be Santa. Anyone that can make me believe in Christmas has got to deserve his acting Oscar.
The whole film just feels like it is naturally full of wonder. I love that we only see Kris as a sweet old man in New York. The only time he dons the red-and-white suit is when he is playing Santa in the parade or in the store. We’re never taken to a silly-looking toy shop in the North Pole or shown reindeer flying or elves in ridiculous costumes running around. We are simply shown realistic images of the Christmas spirit, not the children’s myth. The best part about this is that if you have one of those cynical kids who can poke holes in every other Christmas movie (Those reindeer aren’t really flying!), they can’t do that in Miracle on 34th Street. Santa is already on trial here, with grownups and children alike hanging on a verdict to see if he is real. No snarky eight-year-old can find a loophole in the logic. Just try it on your little Scrooge and see.
“Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind… and that’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do something about it.”
And now, get in on the magic of Miracle on 34th Street with the original theatrical trailer from 1947:
With a life long love of film and writing, Alyson Krier has decided to watch and review all the Best Picture nominees throughout the history of the Academy Awards on her ever expanding blog, The Best Picture Project.