Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Look at that movie poster.  If you didn't know better, you might suspect that this is kind of like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; a creepy old man falls in love with a little girl, and when he inexplicably de-ages as she ages, their disembodied torsos get to share longing, sex-crazed grins.  But you do know better; this is the story of how people dissolve into a yellow background --- and love every second of it!  Or not.  Miracle on 34th Street is a Christmastime movie classic, but it obviously wasn't advertised as such when it was first released.  I don't know why they went to such lengths to hide it (aside from being released in May), because this is a pretty great example of what a holiday movie should be.

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
Kris is so good that Doris hires him to play the part of Santa Claus for the holidays inside the famous New York Macy's department store.  And boy, is he great.  His methods might be unusual --- he tells customers to shop elsewhere if Macy's doesn't have what they need --- but his friendly attitude and astounding knowledge of toys makes him not only a customer favorite, but an accidentally influential person on the business policies of New York department stores.  He is also surprisingly influential on the people he meets.  He stirs up a sense of optimism in lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne), introduces the concept of childhood to Doris' daughter, young Susan (Natalie Wood), and makes the pragmatic Doris consider the importance of life's intangibles. 
Like giving a crap about her kid
Of course, that's before anyone realized that Kris actually believes that he's the real Santa Claus, and isn't just a method actor.  This revelation, along with Kris giving someone a well-deserved noggin tap with his cane, leads to a sanity hearing.  After all, this guy thinks he's the real Santa Claus --- he must be insane.  That is, unless Fred can legally prove that Kris is the one and only physical representation of Christmas, derived from a Christian saint, a Dutch folk tale, a poem and a satirical cartoonist.
"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!
The other supporting characters are less impressive, but they are really just props in the story.  The only stand-out was veteran character actor Porter Hall, once again playing an unpleasant person, this time as a wannabe psychiatrist with a chip on his shoulder. 
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!
Neither admission earns even a raised eyebrow from Kris Kringle, even though you can use the same points to validate smothering someone with your own body.  The drunken "Santa" in the parade was also a little odd.  I get that his drunkenness was intended for comic purposes, but the explanation Doris gives little Susan is a little disturbing, something along the lines of "remember when so-and-so did such-and-such?"  Great.  That's what I needed in my holiday movie: an underlying current of alcoholic abuse.  And Fred was occasionally more than a little creepy.  He made a point of finding out whether Santa Claus slept with his beard out or under the covers when he went to bed.  It's meant to be a little funny throw-away joke, but it made me uncomfortable, as did Kris' nonchalant answer; it's not as intimate as "boxers or briefs" or "manscaped, or untended wilderness" between two strangers who are sharing a room, but a simple "beards are awesome" would have sufficed.

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.

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