Reviews: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

On the surface, 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street is somewhat unlikely as an all-time classic. The story sounds like something you’d find in a cheesy, made-for-TV special, perhaps something from the Hallmark channel: a kindly old man working as a mall Santa Claus claims to be the real Santa Claus, spreads the Christmas spirit everywhere he goes, and is eventually put on trial to make good his claims. But set that premise to a witty, intelligent script and give it to a truly first-rate cast and you’ve got the makings of a genuine classic.

On Thanksgiving morning, a white-bearded old man calling himself ‘Kris Kringle’ (Edmund Gwen) strolls down the New York Streets and ends up at the staging ground of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, which is being overseen by the competent, if strained Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara). He indignantly alerts her to the fact that her parade Santa is intoxicated, and in desperation she presses Kringle into taking the role, as his white beard and cherubic figure immediately suggests the part to her mind (“Have you had any experience [being Santa]?” “Oh, a little”). He’s a smashing success and is quickly hired by Mr. Shellhamer (Phillip Tonge), the head of the Macy’s toy department, to serve as their store Santa.

Meanwhile, Doris goes home to find her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood) is watching the parade from the apartment of their neighbour, a young lawyer named Fred Gaily (John Payne). When she comes by to collect her, Gaily confesses that his attentions to Susan have been, partly, in the hopes of meeting her (she is played by Maureen O’Hara after all) and successfully manoeuvrers his way into an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.

At Macy’s, Kringle takes to his new role with gusto, shocking several mothers (including the inimitable Thelma Ritter – have I mentioned how wonderful this cast is?) by directing them to other stores to get just the right toys for their children, not excluding Macy’s arch-rival Gimbel’s. Upon learning this, Shellhamer is speechless with indignation…until he discovers that the customers are so thrilled by this approach that they’ve resolved to become loyal shoppers. Meanwhile, Doris makes the unwelcome discovery that Kringle actually believes himself to be Santa Claus.

One reason this movie works so well is that, even amidst all the fun and whimsy, everyone reacts exactly as they should react. When Doris learns that Kringle thinks he’s Santa Claus, for instance, her first move is to send Susan out of the room, then try to find as gentle a pretext as possible for dismissing him immediately. Which is exactly how a reasonable woman would react to realizing that one of her employees appears to in the throes of a delusion. Certainly she can’t allow him to continue to work around children.

Later, after Mr. Macy has just gotten through congratulating her and Shellhammer on Kringle’s new campaign, she has to break the news to Shellhammer, who naturally protests. His counterargument is equally reasonable, if clearly coloured by self-interest; given how rational Kringle usually appears, it’s possible his delusion is only very mild and won’t affect his work (“Perhaps he’s only a little crazy, like painters or composers or some of those men in Washington”). So, they hit on a compromise: to have the company therapist, Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), examine him and form an idea of his condition before allowing him back to work. Doris also hits on the idea to call the rest home where Kringle lives to speak to the doctor in charge.

(By the way, all this depends upon no one having bothered to have read his employment card very closely when he was first hired. Given that the whole film depends upon it – and it fits the theme – I’ll choose to call this a bit of satire on the impersonal nature of the corporate world).

In general, people’s reactions to Kringle’s apparent delusion are very well-judged. Like the shopkeeper in the opening scene, they don’t try to argue with him, but cautiously play along, watching for how far he’ll take it. Then, once they realize that he’s otherwise perfectly lucid and amiable, they more or less just go along with him, because he’s friendly and pleasant enough to be worth conversing with.

I also like how Doctor Pierce (50s sci-fi regular James Seay), Kringle’s caretaker, cheerfully admits that he was expecting their call. And again, he makes a very good argument; that though he fully believes Kringle to be delusional, such delusions are not uncommon and it doesn’t mean that he can’t hold down a job or interact with the public. At the same time, Doris raises another issue; the possibility of him getting into an argument with a policeman on the way to or from work. This leads them to hit on the idea of him staying with one of the employees; a reasonable precaution not only because he’s (possibly) delusional, but also simply because he’s a very old man who has a long commute. And story wise, this serves as a pretext to keep him in close contact with the rest of the cast, particularly little Susan (Fred rather sneakily offers him a room as part of his efforts to introduce some fantasy into Susan’s life; an offer prompted, at least in part, by finding him in the act of teaching her how to pretend to be a monkey).

On that subject, the film does a masterful job of delineating its characters. For instance, Kringle’s first scene has him correcting a shop worker setting up a Christmas display, gently explaining that the reindeer are in the wrong position. Most obviously, this sets up that he believes himself to be Santa Claus, but equally importantly that he has strong ideas of how things ought to be done; he wants Christmas done right and cares about his own image. Along with this is the fact that he is both very kindly – he laughs at himself for making an issue of how many points Donner’s antlers have, since he’s the only one who would even know that – and conscious of his own authority: that he feels perfectly entitled to correct anyone who is making a mistake with regards to the image of Santa Claus. This is then reinforced by his fury at finding the parade Santa intoxicated and his immediately setting out to rectify the situation (he briefly threatens to beat the man with his cane, foreshadowing his later confrontation with Sawyer).

Then consider how well Fred Gaily is set up. He’s introduced kindly playing host to Susan so that she can watch the parade, already having an easy rapport with her (ah, remember what it was like to have a functioning society? Neither do I). He tries to engage her with talk of giants and fairy tales, only to be somewhat shocked by the little girl’s matter-of-fact cynicism (she casually refers to her parents’ divorce and the fact that she never knew her father without turning a hair, leaving him briefly speechless). Then when Doris comes in he cheerfully confesses his real motives (note how Maureen O’Hara takes a moment to consider how she feels about that), and we discover that he plotted with Susan to get himself invited to Thanksgiving dinner, establishing his strategic mind and willingness to adopt audacious and unorthodox approaches, which continue throughout the story all the way to the climax.

By the way, I cannot say enough good things about Natalie Wood. She is so absolutely perfect and charming as Susan, capturing the exact tone of a precocious, but still childish little girl.

Returning to Kringle, one of the reasons he’s so convincing as Santa Claus (to the point where most people come away from the film not even realizing that it never commits one way or another) is the way he interacts with children. Gwenn is really magical in these scenes, the way he talks to them, listens to them, looks them in the face, and acts as if he thinks what they’re saying is worth taking seriously. Like take the scene where he meets Susan in Doris’s office. He immediately engages her on topics she might be interested in; her dress, her school, and so on, focusing on her and asking questions with genuine enthusiasm.

Or take the aforementioned scene where he teaches her how to pretend. It starts off with another genuine question about whether she plays with the other children. She tells him about how they play ‘silly games’, like pretending to be zoo animals. He responds that that sounds like a great game to him, leading to a discussion of imagination and playing pretend. But throughout he talks to her in a matter-of-fact, conversational way; he ornaments his comments with words like “I think” and “to me”, as if he’s simply offering opinions one person to another rather than instructing her. It’s only after she asks to learn how to pretend that he adopts the role of instructor, but by then they’re practically just playing together.

That’s one of a number of brilliantly conceived gems of scenes that stride that delicate line of being charming without being saccharine or overdone. Kringle’s earlier encounter with the little Dutch girl is another one; with the adoptive mother anxiously explaining that she doesn’t speak English (this was 1947, remember: the unfinished sentence “she’s been living in an orphan’s home in Rotterdam since…” speaks volumes that don’t need to be said). Kringle then breaks out with perfectly fluent Dutch and sings a Dutch Christmas song with her while rocking her like a fond grandfather.

Susan watches the exchange from one side, and it’s the first thing that begins to shake her doubt as to Kringle being the real deal. Meanwhile, her mother is nearby rebuking Fred from taking her to see him. Again, the exchange is very much how someone like this would react: she doesn’t fly off the handle or even really get angry with him, she simply lays out her reasons for her parenting philosophy and how his actions undermine that before requesting that he not do this sort of thing again. For his part, he clearly doesn’t like it, but agrees, since she has every right to lay down such rules regarding her own daughter (though a subsequent look shows that he’s not given up yet).

This also provides us our only allusion to why she divorced her husband: when talking about “waiting for Prince Charming,” Doris briefly begins a bitter recrimination before catching herself (“We were talking about Susan, not you,” Fred reminds her). A lesser film would likely have gone into detail of just what happened, but the writers here were wise enough to know that we don’t need anything else. The point is made, the insight into her character and reasoning is given, and we move on.

Likewise, in any other film of this type, Doris would likely be the antagonist: the “proverbial stepmother” as she herself puts it. But she’s not; even though she doesn’t believe in Kringle, she likes him and sympathizes with him. She doesn’t allow her daughter fantasies and fairy tales, but we never get any indication that she enforces this very strictly or against Susan’s wishes (she doesn’t, for instance, object to Kringle becoming a regular visitor); they have a warm and loving relationship, with the closest we come to seeing them at odds is when Susan rather rebelliously practices piano while she’s on the phone. Doris is portrayed as being in the wrong, but for perfectly understandable reasons that never push her too far.

It may be me, but it always seems like actresses of that day had something that their successors don’t; a presence and poise that gives them greater authority on screen. When Doris lays down the law or casts disapproving glares in the direction of the other characters, it feels like there is real weight behind it, without her having to raise her voice or do anything of the kind. It’s also a striking relic of another era that all the men in the company meeting stand up when she comes in.

The one time that Fred actually argues with her comes when she rebukes him for potentially throwing away his career to defend Kringle in his hearing. He replies that it’s a matter of principle, that what is on trial isn’t just Kringle, but “everything he stands for; love, and hope, and good-will.” She answers that those ‘imponderables’ are nice, but not practical, “You don’t get ahead that way.” “It all depends on what you mean by ‘getting ahead’,” he answers, before concluding that abstract values are “the only things that are worthwhile.”

Which brings us to the thematic part of the film, where, I think, it gets really interesting. What we have here is something more weighty than the standard, safely ambiguous “spirit of Christmas.” Oh, the phrase is still used, and we predictably don’t even allude to the real meaning of the holiday, but what it means here is something a bit more specific than usual.

What we have here are two distinct sides; modern, materialistic consumerism, where value is reduced to variations on the monetary kind, and traditional fantasy and romance, all the ‘imponderable’ values that go beyond wealth and practicality. The former is impersonal, the latter personal. The former is the world of corporate meetings, marketing, single career women, divorce, greed, and egoism. The latter is the world of children, fairy tales, intact families, romance, generosity, and kindness.

The figure of Kris Kringle and the ‘Christmas Spirit’ he represents is more or less the embodiment of that old-world romance. “Christmas isn’t just a day,” he insists, “It’s a frame of mind.” It’s the same frame of mind embodied in fairy tales and playing pretend.

Notice also how the world of fantasy and childish whimsy is specifically embodied in fairy tales and songs; traditional, immemorial branches of culture. Susan has never heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, nor does her mother ever sing nursery rhymes like To Market, To Market to her at night. By contrast, the little Dutch girl at once joins Kringle in a traditional Christmas song from Holland.

Tied in with this is the notion of home and family. Although Susan appears indifferent to her parents’ divorce and her own lack of a father, the way she responds to Fred’s overtures of kindness, even to the point of collaborating with him to meet her mother indicates that she feels the lack of a father figure in her life. More directly, her great, secret Christmas wish is for a house; a real one, not just an apartment in the city. She doesn’t articulate it directly, but symbolically speaking what she wants is a household: an intact family unit and a normal childhood with a mother and a father. Kringle, seeing what she’s asking for, promises to do his best to make it happen.

Meanwhile, Doris justifies her exclusion of fantasy and fairy tales on the grounds that she wants her daughter to grow up understanding how the world ‘really’ works. Specifically, that she’ll avoid the same kind of heartbreak that she herself went through, explicitly connecting fantasies of Prince Charming with her own bitter experience. In the same way that she’s shut her daughter off from fantasy, so she’s shut herself off from its adult counterpart, romance, choosing instead to focus on her career (Fred laments to Kringle that his efforts to ask her out have thus far failed because “she’s always too busy with her job”). Yet even then, she doesn’t seem particularly interested in her job except in a vague notion of “getting ahead.” This is indicated when she doesn’t bother to even watch the parade she’s put on and can only think of it in terms of what it cost her (“The acrobats were good.” “They ought to be at those prices”).

It’s in this context that Kringle’s mission to make the children happy is seen; childish fun and fantasy isn’t just good in itself, but it influences the adults they will become, whether focused on hollow, material success or guided by deeper, intangible values.

The worst elements of that modern materialism are embodied in Mr. Sawyer, the would-be psychiatrist, a bitter failure of man with an inflated sense of his own importance who takes immediate offence to Kringle’s cheerful willingness to probe into his mental state during their interview and tries to declare him a potential menace to society, standing on his supposed experience in such matters. Later we discover that he’s been giving unlicensed consultations to Alfred and (presumably) other low-level employees in order to stoke his own sense of importance, in the process tearing down their best impulses and personal relationships (one of Alfred’s ‘discoveries’ under his care is that “I hate my father. I didn’t know it, but he says I do”).

It’s this that prompts a furious Kringle to storm into his office and order him to stop such behaviour, ending by giving him a sharp whack on the head, leading into the crisis of the third act. Here Kringle’s traditional attitude crashes most violently against the modern world; he sees a skunk who ought to be taught a lesson, but forgets the apparatus of deceit, clinical deconstruction, and legal intricacies that bring consequences to such an act.

Sitting in the mental hospital, Kringle lays out his thinking to Fred, noting that Sawyer is “contemptible, dishonest, deceitful…and yet he’s out there and I’m in here. He’s called ‘normal’, and I’m not. If that’s normal, I don’t want it.”

Which is precisely the point; if the cold, ruthless, dishonest, and impersonal world of today is ‘normal’, then what good is normal? Isn’t it worth a harmless delusion like believing yourself to be Santa Claus if it brings clarity and right values?

You see, in way this movie can be seen as a kind of modernized Don Quixote, with Kris Kringle as the Lord of LaMancha.

All this leads into the hearing sequence, where once again, everyone acts exactly as they ought to; the judge and the prosecutor are both shown to be good men who don’t like the prospect of condemning Santa Claus, but make the effort because it’s their job. At the same time, they’re both anxious about the kind of public reaction the case might bring them, which ends up being a crucial factor in the case (one of the film’s funniest scenes comes when the Judge’s political advisor (William “Fred Mertz” Frawley) lays out to him why ruling that there is no Santa Claus would be political suicide).

The judge himself, by the way, is played by Gene Lockhart, formerly Bob Cratchit in the Reginald Owen version of A Christmas Carol.

The film’s strong writing comes through again in the climax, where Susan’s letter of encouragement to Kringle, professing her belief in him (and to which Doris adds a postscript to the same effect) turns out to be what gives the postal workers the bright – if probably illegal – idea to send all their letters to Santa Claus to the courthouse, providing Fred with the kill-shot he needs to win. It’s a brilliant touch; their assertion of belief – effectively throwing in with the world of ‘the intangibles’ that he represents – is the direct cause of his vindication, but in a way they could never have predicted or intended.

As I say, this movie has a really, really good script. It’s also extremely funny. It’s kind of insidious how funny it is, because so much of the humour simply rises naturally out of the scenes; an absurd situation that the characters react to exactly as they should. Like Shellhammer’s horrified reaction upon learning that Doris has fired Kringle (“I don’t care if he thinks he’s the Easter Bunny!”), or Kringle’s disastrous experiment with bubble gum, or Fred rather anxiously launching into an explanation the moment Doris discovers that he brought Susan to see Santa.

A lot of the fun simply comes from the expressions the cast make over the course of the story, particularly Natalie Wood, who gets some big laughs just from the unaffectedly serious looks she throws at the adults. The judge and prosecutor get quite a few good ones in as well as they react to the exasperatingly ridiculous case, and the prosecutor has a whole conversation with his wife in nothing but looks when his young son is called to the witness stand (followed a string of “please kill me” faces as he listens to his testimony). The strained smiles on Macy and Gimbel’s faces during their photoshoot are also pretty amusing.

Speaking of expressions, watch John Payne’s face when the prosecutor is conceding all his points regarding the post office; he flashes a small smile as much to say “checkmate!” I also love Maureen O’Hara’s bemused look after Kringle begs off of dinner on the grounds that it’s Christmas Eve: you can practically see her thinking, “Just what is he going to be doing tonight?”

There’s also a lot of little ‘bits’; not really jokes, just funny pieces of blocking that you might not even notice the first time around. Like how we see the prosecutor’s son wrapping a gift by winding an endless sting of tape around the package, or Charlie the campaign manager being wordlessly challenged on his ever-present cigar in the courtroom and showing that it isn’t lit, or the drunken Santa in the opening falling asleep on Doris’s clipboard.

So, what’s bad about the film? Not a whole lot, really; there’s some contrivance here and there, such as Kringle’s being able to get the job without anyone realizing his ‘delusion,’ and in his making such a foolish decision to hit Sawyer, though both I think are covered by what the film presents us. I also have to wonder why Dr. Pierce wasn’t called during the hearing to testify to his fundamental lucidity. Some of the dialogue is a little schmaltzy, such as “faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to,” which isn’t necessarily wrong but doesn’t rise above typical Hollywood pablum. Realistically, the good will campaign probably wouldn’t work the way the film presents it, but we can chalk that up to the fantasy. And I suppose Maureen O’Hara’s accent slips a few times, but who’s gonna complain about that?

I guess the biggest problem is just that it’s another film leaning into the secularized ‘Santa Claus’ version of Christmas without even an allusion to the real meaning of the holiday (even A Christmas Carol at least made reference to the day’s “sacred name and origin, if anything can be besides that” among other allusions). Which means you could argue that the medium undermines the message, in that by so doing it forwards the commercialization of Christmas rather than opposing it. That is a problem, but at the same time it seems to me that what the film is doing instead is itself a very positive thing wholly compatible with and supportive of the reality of Christmas; celebrating tradition, immaterial values, and prioritizing the personal over the impersonal.

This is one of those films that I almost can’t resist watching every time it comes on. It’s such a well-crafted piece of thoroughly wholesome entertainment. I would definitely say that this is the very best film ever made on the figure of Santa Claus, and an indispensable Christmas classic. Certainly canon status and highly recommended.


4 thoughts on “Reviews: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

  1. Apparently, when they weren’t filming, Maureen O’Hara would take Natalie Wood through Macy’s at night, when all the customers had gone home and the film crews weren’t there. They had the store *all to themselves* during this time, and Wood LOVED IT!!! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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