Fox // 1947 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // November 27th, 2006
Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. 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.
Miracle on 34th Street was a miracle in more ways than one. It was a little B movie -- a Christmas-themed movie, no less -- that its studio didn't know how to market. The solution? Open it during the summer. What should have been a recipe for box office failure turned into an instant audience favorite that ran six months and earned three Oscars and a Best Picture nomination.
A classic was born.
As is the tradition every year in New York City, Macy's Department Store officially kicks off the Christmas season with its Thanksgiving Day parade. But this Christmas will be unlike any other the city -- and the world -- has ever seen.
A kindly old man going by the name Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn, one of the film's Oscar recipients) is horrified to find a drunk "Santa" headlining Macy's parade. In swoops special events director Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), who fires the wino and invites Mr. Kringle to wear the red suit and take over the job. Doris' career is saved, and Macy's winds up with the city's most talked-about Santa. It's not until Mr. Kringle begins passing himself off as the real Santa Claus that Doris becomes alarmed.
Doris questions Kris' mental stability, but she's even more concerned about him influencing her worldly seven-year-old daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), who Doris has raised to not believe in magic, fantasy, or fairy tales -- and that includes Santa Claus.
After being underhandedly institutionalized for mental incompetence, Mr. Kringle, aided by Doris' lawyer friend, Fred Gaily (John Payne), sets out to prove to an unbelieving world that Santa Claus does, in fact, exist. It will take nothing short of a miracle for Mr. Kringle to win.
Would you please tell her that you're not really Santa Claus, that there actually is no such person?
Well, I hate to disagree with you, but not only is there such a person, but here I am to prove it.
What's most striking about George Seaton's yule classic, Miracle on 34th Street, is how it doesn't hesitate in placing the myth about you-know-who front and center. This was always intended as a family film, and I can't help but wonder how children in 1947 must have gasped in astonishment at even the slightest suggestion that mom and dad DO NOT BELIEVE.
Yet here is a movie that not only confronts that skepticism head on, but actually uses it as a jumping-off point for a warm parable that's about so much more than whether there really is a Santa Claus. Read it again: Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. The entire film is a study in the nature of faith. Sure, we're rooting for Gwenn's grandfatherly Mr. Kringle to be the real thing, but whether he is the genuine article is beside the point. It's also a question the film shrewdly sidesteps, say what you will about the surprises that unfold in the final moments.
No, what Seaton wants to know is what drives our beliefs, or, more to the point, what drives them away. At what stage in our lives do we abandon our willingness to embrace that which we cannot see or comprehend, and why? Of course, that doesn't even begin to tackle what we do as parents. Do we have the responsibility or even the right to shield -- excuse me, to protect -- our children from "life's intangibles"? Should that be left for the child to decide?
Pretty heady stuff for a Christmas movie, but Seaton approaches the material with a light touch that never resorts to sermonizing. And has there ever been a sweeter, more delightful holiday film for families, not to mention one that regards children with so much intelligence?
Seaton is careful to ground Valentine Davies' elegant, economical, yet wholly fantastical story in reality. Most of the action takes place in New York City's famed Macy's department store which, like in the movie, was indeed engaged in a real-life retail war with Gimbels (the director and producers held their collective breath while waiting for the retail giants to bless the picture). This gives Seaton ample opportunity to wag his finger at money-hungry retailers determined to turn the Christmas season into a commercialized payday. Even Macy's spectacular Thanksgiving Day Parade is the real deal. It was filmed on location, giving Seaton exactly one chance to get the shots right, and he did.
Like so many other holiday films set in the first half of the twentieth century (Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and Bob Clark's A Christmas Story, to name but a couple), Miracle evokes a time of sheltered innocence far removed from where we are now. Most contemporary viewers may find it hard to imagine that such a time ever existed. A time when milk was delivered to one's doorstep in small bottles, when a trip to those fabulous department stores meant dressing in your Sunday best, and when the dapper young stranger across the hall could be trusted alone with a little girl.
To visit the world of Miracle on 34th Street is not to step back in time exactly, but to enter a nostalgic, sugar-coated dream where the air is forever crisp, snow is always on the verge of falling between the highrises, and a frazzled shopkeeper never remembers in what order to place Santa's reindeer in the display window. That is the world Seaton has captured here, and he gives us so many wonderful moments that have become a part of our cinematic heritage: Mr. Kringle singing with the little Dutch girl; the great Thelma Ritter in an unbilled cameo as a flustered shopper and early benefactor of Kringle's natural goodwill; and the U.S. Postal Service figuring in a dénouement that is so perfect, so logical.
It's all here, along with O'Hara's Irish fire, a wonderfully precocious Wood giving one of the best performances ever by a young actor, and Gwenn, who instantly and effortlessly rekindles our belief in old Saint Nick.
I believe. I believe. It's silly, but I believe.
After all these years, so do I.
What I can't believe is how so magical a film could result in so flat a special edition. "Now in full color!" the packaging exclaims. And, sure enough, it's the ghastly colorized version that gets top billing by being placed on Disc One. (Not to worry: Disc Two contains the original black-and-white version we all adore, and it's lovely, despite a slight softness in the picture.) The oversaturated colors make the movie look as artificial as an aluminum Christmas tree, but at least this version might entice younger viewers -- so quick to dismiss black-and-white classics -- to give the movie a try. It certainly did my son.
The package includes a Dolby Surround track that is noticeable mainly during the opening shots of the film, particularly the parade sequence. Otherwise, the track sounds suspiciously mono. Still, it's a clean track with little hissing and distortion. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Both versions include a commentary by O'Hara. Well, sort of. Actually, it's excerpts from an August 2006 interview that have been interspersed throughout the film. O'Hara's remarks are well thought out, and her charming brogue is always pleasing to the ear, but there's simply not enough material here to sustain one's interest. Besides, much of what she discusses is covered in the "AMC Hollywood Backstory," also included here. As a matter of fact, this 21-minute featurette stands in place of the in-depth documentary so many other classics are given. Lazy on Fox's part, but the program did include a few interesting factoids and remarks from Wood's sister.
The next most substantial extra is "The 20th Century Fox Hour of Stars: Miracle on 34th Street," a bland television production that condenses Seaton's film to 45 minutes and features Thomas Mitchell, Teresa Wright, and Sandy Descher. Personally, I almost wish they would have instead included the obscure 1973 version starring Sebastion Cabot, Jane Alexander, Roddy McDowall, and David Hartman.
"Movietone News: Hollywood Spotlight" runs less than two minutes and presents clips from the 1948 Oscar ceremony, including Gwenn accepting his statue. The "Promotional Short" is the film's theatrical trailer, and quite possibly the most unconventional one I've seen next to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It answers the question of how to sell a movie about Santa Claus in the month of June (hint: distract viewers with a handful of A-list stars and don't even mention the movie). "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: Floating in History" gives a 15-minute overview of the celebrated parade and its place in motion picture history. Finally, the package includes a poster gallery.
Anchored by a dandy screenplay that is both sentimental and smart, and by performances that are warm and sincere, Miracle on 34th Street should be required viewing every Christmas Eve. As for the treatment it's given here? Functional, but not quite a miracle.
Not even the intrusion of color or the humdrum extras can sink this treasure. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2006 Bryan Pope; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1947
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Hollywood Backstory
* Movietone News: Hollywood Spotlight
* Promotional Short
* The 20th Century Fox Hour of Stars: Miracle on 34th Street
* Featurette: Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: Floating in History
* Poster gallery