Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is enjoying the Macy's Thanksgiving parade in New York when he happens across the parade's hired Santa Claus; this Santa is sloppy drunk and about to make a fool of himself in front of the children of New York. Kris won't stand for such a slight against the good name of Santa Claus, so he brings this the drunken lout to the attention of Doris (Maureen O'Hara), the parade organizer. With so little time to solve the problem, Doris implores Kris to put on a Santa suit and play the part for the parade. He does, and everyone with a speaking part in the film remarks on what a good job he did.
|Santa is a sucker for praise|
|Like giving a crap about her kid|
|"He really, really looks like Santa, your honor. I rest my case."|
Miracle on 34th Street doesn't really approach the Christmas theme in the same way as most holiday films. While most focus on the importance of family, this one takes a left turn and tries to implore its audience to have faith in things that are obviously ridiculous. If nothing else, it does not take the easy way out. It was interesting seeing a movie show Santa Claus in a real-world environment, handling modern cynicism in a variety of ways, not all of which are saint-like. I really enjoyed the legal angle in the story, too. I'm a sucker for silly arguments, so I thought the courtroom scenes were pretty clever.
The acting is pretty decent, and rarely as schmaltzy as the film's Christmas pedigree might indicate. Maureen O'Hara is okay in the lead, and she plays her logical part with the appropriate amount of cold killjoy-ness. John Payne is also adequate; he doesn't do anything wrong, but his is a fairly generic part that any number of 1940s leading men could have done just as well. Edmund Gwenn is the true star of the film, even though his is only a supporting role. It's difficult to play exceedingly good or nice characters and make them interesting, but Gwenn was a sweetheart that also managed to be convincingly childish and irritable. Plus, he happens to look an awful lot like Santa. This was Natalie Wood's first major role, and she was actually pretty good. Child actors are always a little difficult to judge, but she didn't play a brat, a mischievous genius, or overact. That might not sound like much, but when you consider what passed for child acting at the time, it is more than respectable.
|Respectable, I tell you!|
|Chin up, you've got a pretty decent IMDb resume for a character actor|
The direction of George Seaton was pretty standard for the time period. His focus is on telling a story, and he does a good job with it. Seaton also wrote the screenplay, which is fairly clever. Is this a tour de force for acting or direction? Definitely not, but it is a story with a message, and it delivers where so many family films do not. Seaton made a cute, slightly unusual movie in an efficient manner.
Miracle on 34th Street has definitely aged, though. Not all of it is bad; some parts of this film are filled with friendly nostalgia for a time that probably never existed off-camera. Still, there are some awkward moments. The YMCA kid that volunteers to play Santa? He does it A) because he is so fat, he doesn't require padding and B) it makes him "feel important."
|Keep sweeping, fatty!|
I went into Miracle on 34th Street not expecting a whole lot. I've seen bits and pieces of the various versions of this story before, but never in one sitting that I can remember. It's a surprisingly well-made and charming film. It does have a healthy dose of remarkable coincidences, but they fit the miraculous tone of the story. The laughably fast-paced closing minutes --- whoever heard of dating? --- and Fred's awkward closing lines are the only real problems I had with the movie. In a genre filled with eye-roll-worthy moments, it was a pleasure to see a cute film that didn't overdo it.