Type the keyword “Christmas” into the Internet Movie Database, and you’ll get a listing of more than 3,000 film and TV titles stretching back to 1897. Certainly no other holiday comes close to the number of times some aspect of the 25th of December has been depicted on the big screen. Sometimes it’s a fleeting scene or two (The Thin Man, The Greatest Story Ever Told), sometimes it’s a key part of the plot (The Man Who Came to Dinner, Die Hard), and sometimes it’s a picture’s entire raison d’être (Christmas in Connecticut, Scrooged).
Yes, the Yuletide season has been the driving force for movies ranging from the sublime (White Christmas) to the ridiculous (Santa Claus Conquers the Martians), but what’s the one “Fa-la-la” flick that stands above all its holly-bedecked brethren as the definitive cinematic Christmas statement? Elsewhere on this site, my esteemed colleague Irv Slifkin has presented his case for director Frank Capra’s 1946 paean to Americana and small-town values, It’s a Wonderful Life. I would now like to offer my arguments–20 of them, in fact (I was hoping for an appropriate 34; I trust some of you readers out there will be able to help me.)–in favor of the 1947 20th Century-Fox film Miracle on 34th Street.
1.Let’s start with Miracle’s opening scenes, as Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) walks briskly down a Manhattan street on Thanksgiving morning, shortly before the start of the annual Macy’s department store parade that used to signal the arrival of the holiday shopping season. For those people who bemoan modern-day retailers setting up their Christmas merchandise and displays in early October, this is a welcome reminder of a time when such wasn’t the case. In a statement that seems even more timely now, Kris tells Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the Macy’s executive who hires him to “play” Santa, “For the past 50 years or so I’ve been getting more and more worried about Christmas. Seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.”
2. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of product placement in movies, you’d be hard-pressed to find any modern example that matches Miracle, which essentially is a 96-minute commercial for Macy’s. Of course, the store wasn’t quite the nationwide chain it is now, and in 1947 its flagship Herald Square building at 34th and Broadway (“The World’s Largest Store”) was a must-see destination for Big Apple sightseers. Thus, the picture–which shot on location at the store–offered moviegoers across America a rare glimpse at Macy’s and its famed Santaland display.
3. Raspy-voiced character actor Percy Helton (who played another Yuletide-related role as put-upon bank clerk Homer Cratchit on The Beverly Hillbillies) is the drunken would-be Santa Claus that Gwenn chases off the parade float and winds up replacing, at the behest of event organizer O’Hara. Is it possible that Helton’s besotted St. Nick could have helped inspire Billy Bob Thornton’s performance, several decades later, in 2003′s marvelously un-sentimental Yuletide comedy Bad Santa?
4. If the footage of Gwenn dressed as Santa atop the Macy’s float looks authentic, that’s because it was shot during the actual 1946 parade (Fox had cameras stationed at several locations along the parade route). Gwenn not only rode the float, but also spoke to the crowd at the Herald Square store marquee (Santa’s traditional final stop along the way) and helped unveil the mechanical Christmas display windows. Since the parade was not televised until the following year, Miracle on 34th Street was the first chance millions of Americans got to see it.
5. The film’s writers were sticklers for parade details, too. In 1946 the Harold the Clown balloon was indeed transformed into Harold the Baseball Player, just as little Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), Doris’ daughter, tells neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne). By the way, silent cartoon star Felix the Cat was the first character thus immortalized, but do you know who the only real people were to appear in balloon form? No, not Bart Simpson; it was the Marx Brothers and Eddie Cantor in the 1930s.
6. Everyone knows how exasperating trying to survive Black Friday shopping can be nowadays. The same was apparently true–albeit on a somewhat lesser scale–in 1947, as the weary housewife who is stunned when Gwenn’s Kris Kringle tells her she can find the sold-out fire engine toy her son wants at another store would no doubt testify. That memorable mini-performance, which was expanded after studio head Darryl F. Zanuck saw early footage of the actress, marked the screen debut of beloved scene stealer Thelma Ritter, who would go on to a 21-year career and garner no less than six Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations, for parts in such films as All About Eve, Pillow Talk and Birdman of Alcatraz.
7. When his goodwill policy of putting the kids’ wishes first is soon made in Macy’s store policy, and eventually spreads to nearby competitor Gimbels, Kris is able to negotiate a Yuletide peace between the arch-rivals. The real-life Macy’s heads weren’t quite as philanthropic, but the New York store did shut down (for a half-day) when Miracle opened in 1947 and treat all 12,000 store employees to a free screening at the city’s famed Roxy theater.
8. The global appeal of Santa Claus, meanwhile, was demonstrated in the scene where a war orphan from Holland is brought to Kris, who (naturally) speaks to the girl in fluent Dutch. For those of you who don’t speak Dutch and were always wondering what they said, “Sinterklaas” asks the girl what she would like for Christmas, and she happily replies that she already got a gift when she was adopted.
9. Miracle on 34th Street was the fifth film role for a then-8-year-old Natalie Wood. As the precocious but imagination-deprived Susan, who learns the fun of pretending and the value of believing courtesy of Kris Kringle, the young Natalie delivers a wonderfully heartfelt and non-cloying performance that ranks as one of the finest in the actress’s all-too-short Hollywood tenure. It’s Wood’s “I believe. I believe. It’s silly, but I believe.” line near the end of the film that becomes a wonderful summation of Miracle’s premise.
10. In fact–and not to get into a lengthy “secular Christmas” debate–Miracle is, despite a lack of religious elements, perhaps the most faith-based of holiday pictures. As Payne tells O’Hara when Gwenn is sent to Bellevue and must attend a competency hearing over his claim that he is the real St. Nick, “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial. It’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.” It’s Santa Claus being talked about here, but one could just as easily substitute the Nativity story and see the importance to many of all those “intangibles.”
11. Speaking of religion, the fact that Susan’s parents are divorced (for unspecified reasons, although from Maureen O’Hara’s dialogue it seems as though her ex wasn’t the most faithful of spouses) is something that–unfortunately–a lot more kids can relate to today than could 64 years ago. In fact, O’Hara’s character’s martial status earned Miracle a “B” (morally objectionable in part) rating from the Catholic Church-backed Legion of Decency watchdog group.
12. Another societal trend reflected in Miracle comes when Susan, as a test to see if Kris is truly who he says he is or just “a nice old man with whiskers,” asks for a home for herself and her mother. At the start of the movie, the Walker women are living in a fashionable West Side Manhattan apartment that in today’s market would probably go for a cool 2-3 million dollars, but Susan is eager to give up big-city life for a modest home in the suburbs (Nassau Country, Long Island, to be precise). Thus Natalie Wood’s Christmas dream in the film is one shared by millions of folks in post-WWII America and the decades since.
13. This is the movie that finally answered, as John Payne puts it, “a question that’s puzzled the world for centuries; Does Santa Claus sleep with his whiskers outside or in” the bed covers? Gwynn’s response: “Always sleep with them out. Cold air makes them grow.”
14. With all due respect to Tim Allen, Ed Asner, Richard Attenborough, John Call, Art Carney, Paul Giamatti, David Huddleston, José Elias Moreno, Ferdinand Munier, Mickey Rooney, and the dozens of other film and TV St. Nicks over the last century, Edmund Gwenn’s portrayal of the jolly old elf–twinkly eyes, real whiskers and all–still remains the definitive screen Santa to most people.
15. The most amazing thing about Gwenn’s Oscar-winning performance may well have been that he wasn’t even 20th Century-Fox’s first choice for the role. The studio originally wanted another well-known character actor, South African-born Cecil Kellaway, to play Kris Kringle. Kellaway turned the part down, though, and it went to Gwenn…who just happened to be Cecil’s cousin. Talk about a nice family Christmas present!
16. It’s hardly the best gauge of two movies’ relative merits, but It’s a Wonderful Life went 0-for-5 at the Academy Awards in 1947. The following year, Miracle on 34th Street took home a trio of Oscars (a pair of Best Writing awards and Gwenn’s Best Supporting Actor statue), along with a best Picture nomination.
17. Oh, and one of the most glaring problems with It’s a Wonderful Life is that, apparently, “scurvy little spider” of a banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) gets away with pocketing the $8,000 that absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) lost before depositing it. At least in Miracle on 34th Street Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), the nasty store “psychiatrist” who tries to have Kris committed, receives his comeuppance on-screen when, during Kris’s competency hearing, Mr. Macy fires him. Also, when Clarence (Henry Travers) the angel gets into a scrape in It’s a Wonderful Life, he has to call out for divine intervention to spririt him away. When Sawyer insults Kris and his young protégé Alfred, he gets a good rap on the noggin from an umbrella.
18. While Miracle on 34th Street did inspire a trio of made-for-TV versions (with Kris Kringle played by Thomas Mitchell in 1955, Ed Wynn in 1959, and Sebastian Cabot in 1973) and producer John Hughes’ 1994 big-screen remake starring Richard Attenborough, that pales in comparison to the endless “someone sees what would have happened if they’d never been born” rehashes (It Happened One Christmas with Marlo Thomas, Bill Pullman in Merry Christmas, George Bailey), homages (the bridge scene in Elf), parodies (every TV show from Mork and Mindy to The Facts of Life to Beavis and Butt-head’s had a go at it), and spin-offs (1990′s Clarence, anyone?) that we’ve been subjected to since It’s a Wonderful Life debuted. After all, no character in a Woody Allen movie ever referenced Miracle as “that movie they cram down your throat at Christmas,” like Boris (Larry David) does It’s a Wonderful Life in Whatever Works.
19. When all is said and done, was Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? The movie does leave it up to each viewer to believe or not as a matter of faith…just like the holiday itself.
And, finally, number 20. Take a look back at the top of this article, at the film’s original 1947 theatrical poster. Does it seem odd that Edmund Gwenn’s picture is so small compared to his two adult co-stars’ images? That’s because 20th Century-Fox actually downplayed the Santa Claus aspect of the picture when it was first released. In fact, Darryl Zanuck had little confidence in the project and decided that, since more people went to the movies in the summertime, the time to debut it would be in May of 1947, rather than November or December. Well, the joke turned out to be on Zanuck, because not only was Miracle on 34th Street one of the studio’s most successful releases of the year, but it was still playing in theaters throughout America by the time the holiday season rolled around. If that’s not a Christmas miracle, I don’t know what is.
Once you’ve read the arguments for both It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street being chosen the top Christmas movie of all time, we invite you to head over to our Movie FanFare poll: Which is the Best Christmas Movie and let your voice be heard.