Fox // 1947 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 19th, 2009
A cherished holiday family tradition!
"Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to."
Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn, The Trouble with Harry) is an elderly gentleman who just so happens to look an awful lot like Santa Claus. So, when the Christmas season rolls around, it's no surprise that Macy's executive Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara, The Quiet Man) hires Kris to play the role of Santa in the Christmas parade and at a Macy's store location in New York. Kris is a kind, warm, giving man, so eager to help the children that he actually directs parents to other local stores when Macy's isn't carrying the toys the parents are looking for. To make matters even more complicated, Kris actually believes that he is the real Santa Claus. It sounds crazy, but Kris seems so authentic that even Doris's immensely skeptical daughter Susan (Natalie Wood, West Side Story) quickly begins to wonder whether Santa Claus might actually be real. Unfortunately, some see Kris as a dangerous lunatic rather than a sweet and generous old man, and before long the poor fellow finds himself on trial. The judge (Gene Lockhart, Meet John Doe) must answer a question that proves far more challenging than anyone imagined it would be: is it possible that Kris Kringle is actually Santa?
Every holiday season, a new batch of films are released attempting to capitalize on the public's "Christmas spirit," but it seems that so few of these films actually manage to make a lasting impression. One of the rare exceptions is the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, a memorable and humorous experience capable of giving viewers that oh-so-elusive warm glow. Boasting a savvy and heartfelt screenplay by writer/director George Seaton and offering a tremendous, Oscar-winning performance from Edmund Gwenn, the film is one of those iconic holiday outings that truly deserves to sit on the shelf next to the likes of It's a Wonderful Life, Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and A Christmas Story.
The film was most assuredly a part of my own childhood, one of those films that were viewed faithfully every December. However, watching the film for the first time in years, I realized something I had never really considered before: there is the very real possibility that Kris Kringle is not actually Santa Claus. Sure, the film pushes viewers pretty hard toward believing that he's Santa, but it never actually provides any definitive evidence of this. There is not a single thing Kris Kringle does that a normal human being could not conceivably do. Yes, he speaks Dutch to a little orphan girl. Yes, he has a particularly fresh mindset that completely contradicts the traditional American business model. Sure, he manages to provide little Suzie with that house she wanted. These things may be a bit unlikely, but not impossible to achieve.
Nonetheless, the film isn't about proving to skeptical viewers that there is indeed a Santa Claus, but rather accentuating the importance of belief in Ol' Saint Nick. Kris Kringle may or may not be legit, but just look at the good he has brought to those around him: he generates a spirit of goodwill in local businesses, he emphasizes the importance of human connection and dismisses crass commercialism, he revives the imaginations of characters who have resigned themselves to living in "the real world" at all times, and he brings joy to a lot of people. It might not be real, but it's a whole lot better than the alternative, so why not believe in Santa Claus if that's what it takes to generate positive things in the community?
Edmund Gwenn is simply perfect as Kris, offering an appropriately jolly performance that should easily win over all but the most hard-hearted of viewers. He radiates sincerity, never winking at the audience or offering a hint of self-doubt about his story. He believes with every fiber of his being that he is Saint Nick and he is everything children want Santa Claus to be. Though Gwenn is the primary reason for the film's success (why isn't he given above-the-credits top billing?), the other cast members offer fine work as well. Maureen O'Hara (as the no-nonsense skeptic) and John Payne (as the easy-going lawyer who chooses to risk his career by defending Kris in court) play nicely off each other in a charming romantic subplot, and young Natalie Wood's expressive eyes and quizzical face offer considerably more than the average precocious child actor. Character actors Phillip Tonge, Jerome Cowan, Porter Hall and Gene Lockhart also generate laughs in colorful supporting roles.
The film has received a reasonably solid transfer, though it should be noted that the package includes a very significant error. The case absurdly claims that this Blu-ray disc contains an, "all-new, colorized Blu-ray version" of the film. That is (thankfully) by no means the case, as the disc only includes the original black-and-white version of the film. The image is reasonably clear and sharp, though lacking the rich clarity of the best vintage transfers like Casablanca and The Seventh Seal. There's a very minimal measure of scratches and flecks onhand, along with a bit of black crush at times. Still, my feelings about the transfer are mostly positive, as the level of detail is strong throughout and the disc looks vastly superior to any DVD version released to date. The 5.1 audio is solid, even if it doesn't really give your speakers much of a workout. Only a handful of scenes become particularly immersive, but the audio is crisp and clean throughout. I have no complaints.
The supplements are all carried over from the 2006 special edition DVD release, kicking off with a terribly dull commentary from Maureen O'Hara. Her comments are few and far between, making it a rather unsatisfying listen. A film historian or critic should have been brought in to fill in the gaps. More satisfying is the 22-minute "AMC Hollywood Backstory," which offers a brief but informative look at the making of the film. The "Fox Movietone News: Hollywood Spotlight" offers throwaway archival clips related to the film, while the "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: Floating in History" offers 15 minutes of info regarding the famous seasonal event. Finally, you get an archival 5-minute promotional short and a photo gallery. Oddly enough, missing from this disc is "The 20th Century Fox Hour of Stars: Miracle on 34th Street" made-for-television version of the film. Odd.
Sure, I can believe that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus, but I can't believe some of the hocus-pocus that goes on during that trial. Seriously, why is it that so few courtroom dramas actually consider the rules and regulations of the legal system? Charming as it may be, this anything-goes courtroom is hardly an accurate representation of the manner in which the judicial branch functions.
An honest-to-goodness Christmas classic gets a solid transfer and is worthy of an upgrade for those who own the DVD, though it would have been nice if a more substantial documentary or commentary had been provided.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1947
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Clips
* Image Gallery