Miracle on 34th Street

May 14, 2012 8:24

Year: 1947 Director: George Seaton

There is no doubt that this appears on the list as a sentimental favorite of both fans and critics. It’s a classic film that, being a Christmas movie, is generally only shown at that time of year. I do not have a particular fondness for or Yuletide association with it — it’s not that I dislike it, it’s simply that I didn’t grow up watching it that often.

In fact, I think this is probably the first time I’ve watched it straight through. Such is often the fate of holiday movies — they end up in the background, easily interrupted when friends or family are there to talk to instead. Watching it in May gave me the chance to look at it with a more critical eye.

I say that and yet one thing I feel about this movie is that it should not be picked at too much by criticism. You have to work at not liking it. It manages to be charming and tender but not ingratiating. Most who’ve seen it probably already love it (unless you are opposed to such ‘whimsy’)“Americans do not like whimsy” – Edmund Gwenn’s cousin rejecting the Santa role.. Possibly, like me, you haven’t ever sat down and watched it all at once, so maybe if you get the chance you should take it. It is very sweet, and relatively short.

The impetus of the plot is that an old man [Edmund Gwenn] is hired to fill in at the last second for the Macy’s Santa Claus. He’s remarkably good at the job, but eventually annoys some of the higher-ups at the store when instead of pushing the inventory they want him to move, he tries to help the children and parents to get the best gift for them — even if that means directing them to another store entirely. Eventually it comes out that he may actually be the Santa Claus. He at least says he is (calling himself ‘Kris Kringle’), and deciding what is to be done about that becomes the question of the movie.

The other main characters of the film are the woman responsible for handling the Macy’s Santa [Maureen O’Hara], her daughter [Natalie Wood], and a family friend who later becomes Kringle’s lawyer [John Payne]. The mother and daughter are skeptics about Santa Claus; the daughter has been kept free of anything fanciful by her mother. Natalie Wood gives a delightful performance, striking a perfectly playful mood for the girl even as she is kept serious by her mother. By the end, though, the little girl has come around on the idea of Santa and her mother has a similar conversion. Really, though, it’s not that they believe in Santa Claus, it’s that they can believe in people.

Kringle serves here to teach them this lesson. The film does not try to force the audience to decide who this man really is. It is just as likely that he is the man known for bringing gifts at Christmas as it is he’s just an old man who decided that people might best receive him as that character. There is enough in there to support either view. Although the question of belief in him as Santa Claus is brought up, it could be sidestepped entirely. Kringle’s real talent is his faith in humanity. He simply wants to help people to help not only themselves but to realize that helping others helps them as well.

This lesson is well taught, and repeated in other forms throughout the movie. For instance, the practice of treating customers with respect and help ends up making Macy’s more money as they inspire loyalty and trust. Those defending him might not believe he his who he says he is, but they do think he should be allowed to do what he is doing by helping others. The film treats its themes seriously but does not over-dramatize them. One scene with a psychiatrist pushes it just a bit, though it actually works well for the character that Kringle portrays, and to keep the plot going.

It is perhaps slightly interesting that this character, Santa Claus, is in his modern version practically the symbol of commercialism that is decried every Christmas. Christmas has become a complex holiday, at least in America. It is difficult for Christians to separate from its religious significance the secular influences on how it is celebrated, and it has grown here and even around the world into a massively commercial holiday but one of joy as well. This movie never makes any mention of the religious holiday. Yet it raises issues that are applicable to all who hold faith of any kind, and it is a genuinely uplifting movie well worth watching.

Watch it for: Delightful charm, sweet and humane Santa Claus. Nice to be reminded of its ideas on belief, altruism, and humanism.

Warnings: Somewhat screwball and contrived comedic moments. The terse 1940s-style scripting and editing might be offputting to some.