Friday, September 30, 2016

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

And now we come to an entry in the collection that I’d expect most people have already seen, due to its perennial yuletide airings on TV. Miracle on 34th Street, of course, is the beloved tale about an elderly man who claims he’s Santa Claus, and even upon its 1947 release, it enjoyed immense popularity and praise (unlike other holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, which took years of cult-gestation to attain their veneration). I’ll just say right off the bat that it not only earns those stripes, but still holds up remarkable well for a pre-postmodern entertainment, owing primarily to a sharp-witted script (they were good at those back then) and a beguiling central conceit that will never age so long as children of all ages believe in jolly ol’ St. Nick.

Edmund Gwen is the elder gent here, enlisted to play Santa for the Macy’s parade when he notices that their Santa is drunk. The parade manager, Doris Walker, takes credit for the replacement, and also gets high praise for the new Santa’s goodwill policy of directing customers to other stores to get what they really want for Christmas. But when the man claims to be the real Kris Kringle, she begins to doubt his sanity, suspicions exacerbated even more by the store’s nefarious “quack” psychiatrist who has it out for the red-bearded one.

Meanwhile, Doris’s home life is turned upside-down too; Kringle seems to be warming up to her 10-year-old daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), whose inherited cynicism of all things fantastic and imagined may be melting under the consideration that perhaps the old man may just be the real Santa Claus. A single lawyer who already believes, Fred Gailey, sees this perfectly healthy for the child, ad perhaps good for Mom too, whom he secretly has romantic feelings for.

But when Kringle “assaults” the psychiatrist (he just taps him on his head with a cane), he’s committed to an institution, now requiring Gailey’s legal council to get out and prove his sanity. A widely-publicized trial ensues – and the presiding judge is at loggerheads when faced with the trial’s two key questions: does Santa exist, and is this guy really him? It’s also a tough poser for Gailey, who ultimately avails himself of the testimony of a child to prove the former, and thousands of U.S. postal-service-carried letters, delivered directly to the defendant, to prove the latter. And, on a more personal level, Doris finally concedes that the man is Santa, with Susan the final convert after her ultimate wish-list item fulfilled: a house in the ‘burbs, with a new daddy attached.

Not a lot of in-depth analysis here; it’s just a shining example of fine, vintage-era Hollywood product, with a tight Oscar-winning screenplay by George Seaton, who had already penned Fox’s The Song of Bernadette (also in this collection). In both films he explores the reason and faith, and how, ultimately, they’re not opposites at all but symbiotic elements, both of which are essential to the human psyche. It’s amazing how in both cases, he manages to convince even the most jaded cynics in the audience (like myself), that the unprovable or unseeable must exist, on some level, when it is perceived as true by so many.

Edmund Gwen won an Oscar, too, with his avuncular depiction as Santa, and in a way his performance was the first in what I like to call the “Is he or isn’t he?” genre. You know: take a character who claims to be a fantasy figure or that something fantastical is true and spend the movie trying to determine if  he is or just delusional. Other films of this ilk include K-Pax, Don Juan DeMarco, and Take Shelter, and they all end the same way: they’re not crazy. I’ve actually seen variations of Miracle, on TV for example, in which “Santa” is crazy, but that what matters is the joy he spreads, and the faith he inspires in others.

And then there’s Natalie. As young Susan. she nearly steals the film with her furrowed-browed cynicism – but yet, she makes the transition to believer truly believable. I think that’s due to her marked intelligence – we see her cerebral wheels turning beyond those innocent eyes – an intelligence that would make her such huge movie star in the postwar 50s, counterculture 60s and feminist 70s. It’s hard to imagine a more auspicious movie debut for a juvenile actress.

And now, having heaped praise upon the film itself, I’d like to take Twentieth Century Fox to task now for the most misguided decision I’ve yet seen on this collection. They used the colorized version. I’m not going to get into why I’m against it; hopefully if you’re reading this you agree with me. But for Fox to assume that the likely purchaser of such a mammoth set – a serious student or at least fan of quality film – wouldn’t want the B&W version is a most egregious miscalculation of their target demographic. And beyond that, it’s just wrong. For shame, Fox. What would Zanuck say?

But the film itself is a chestnut.

                          Rating:  ****

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