When I was a mere sprout growing up in Ravenswood, WV, Thanksgiving morning meant watching the parades on television—marveling at the balloons and floats that presented my favorite cartoon characters as big as life. Then, once that celebration petered out, it was time for another timeless tradition: a watching (which was more like re-watching with the passing of the years) of the 1947 holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street.
I went searching for this movie on Thanksgiving while I was at sister Kat’s house. She’s got DirecTV, and something like two bazillion channels. In fact, she even tossed the remote at me and said something along the lines of “Here, go watch your black-and-white,” which is the phrase she uses to describe my classic film obsession. I checked every single channel she got (even the ESPN packages)…and came up empty.
Why doesn’t anyone show this marvelous movie in “my black-and-white” at Thanksgiving anymore? I thought that since 20th Century-Fox owns the rights to the film that they would surely give it a berth…but they were too busy spending time on the Planet of the Apes. (I swear I’m not making that up.) Oh, sure—I suppose it will eventually turn up during December but it really should start on Turkey Day, since that’s when the events of the movie take place. In the past, getting the opportunity to see Miracle was dicey at best; if it wasn’t the colorized version (which should honestly be hunted down like a rabid dog in my humble opinion) it was the 1994 remake (which I’ll refrain from discussing on the off chance that some of you might be eating as you’re reading the blog). Fortunately for me, I bought Miracle on DVD many years ago (along with the other holiday perennial, It’s a Wonderful Life) so if I’m overcome with nostalgia all of a sudden, I can take the film out for a long drive in the country, so to speak. And that’s pretty much what I did last evening, since it was nowhere to be found on Thanksgiving Day.
I’m going to assume that many of you are familiar with the plot but for those of you who aren’t—here’s the skinny. A man (Edmund Gwenn) who believes himself to be Santa Claus (he even insists that his name is Kris Kringle) just happens to be available when the woman (Maureen O’Hara) in charge of the annual Macy’s Department Store parade needs a replacement for the Santa (who’s stewed to the gills) she originally hired. He’s chosen (at the insistence of Macy himself, played by Harry Antrim) to be Macy’s full-time Santa, and wows Macy and his underlings with an insistence on directing customers to other department stores if Macy’s doesn’t have what they want—creating both a good will campaign and shrewd sales policy that spreads to Macy’s rivals.
In the meantime, Doris Walker (O’Hara) is being romanced by junior law partner Fred Gailey (John Payne), who cannily enters Doris’ life by becoming chummy with her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). Susan behaves a little differently from other kids of her age; Doris insists on being truthful with the little tyke and refuses to fill her head with fairy tales and make-believe (including the existence of Santa Claus). Because Doris has questions about Kringle’s sanity, arrangements are made for him to stay with Fred in order to keep an eye on him; in turn, Fred and Kris conspire together to “work” on Doris and Susan by getting the two of them to loosen up a bit. When Kringle has an encounter with the store’s “psychologist” (Porter Hall), he finds himself having to defend his sanity (with Gailey’s help) at a hearing presided over by Judge Henry Harper (Gene Lockhart) and prosecuted by D.A. Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan). Just when it seems that all hope is lost, Gailey—through a stroke of movie luck—proves that Kringle is the real Santa Claus, melting the cynicism of both Doris and Susan and paving the way for the three of them to live happily ever after.
Miracle on 34th Street is a film that’s been accused of being overly gooey and sentimental, and I think that’s a fair charge to make (I’m usually puddling up myself by the end of the movie). But what I’ve always marveled at is that there is a thin coating of cynicism surrounding Miracle, and how the characters in the movie are motivated to do the right thing—for the wrong reasons. Take Fred Gailey, for instance. It’s not stretching things to say that he’s very interested in Doris, and that what may appear to be selfless acts (inviting Susan to see the Thanksgiving parade from his apartment [or what Doris’ maid calls “the fifty-yard line”]; inviting Kringle to stay with him so that Doris need not worry about the old man running into a beat cop who may not be amused that he answers to “Santa Claus”; or choosing to defend Kris at his hearing) are really just a series of ploys to worm his way further into Doris’ good graces. Doris is no slouch at this herself—she believes that Kringle, while a nice old gentleman, might be a bit dangerous…but she keeps mum about it in order to continue in her lofty position at the department store. R.H. Macy, when asked by the D.A. at Kringle’s hearing if he truly believes Kringle to be Santa Claus, replies in the affirmative (particularly after having a vision of newspaper headlines trumpeting that “Macy Believes Santa Claus to Be a Fraud”). Judge Harper gives Fred a good deal of leeway at the hearing only because he’s facing a tough re-election campaign and is advised to do so (so as not to offend any potential voters) by ward heeler Charlie Halloran (William Frawley). Even the evidence that “proves” Kringle to be the genuine article arrives via an ulterior motive: bags and bags of “Dear Santa” letters from the Post Office that are delivered only because some smart employee (an unbilled Jack Albertson) suggests it would be an ideal way to get rid of the clutter in the Dead Letter section.
Miracle on 34th Street was nominated for four Academy Awards in 1947 and ended up taking home three (it lost in the Best Picture race to Gentleman’s Agreement): Best Writing/Original Story (Valentine Davies), Best Writing/Screenplay (George Seaton) and Best Supporting Actor (Gwenn). (The old observation of “Dying is easy…comedy is hard” has often been attributed to Gwenn, who supposedly uttered it while on his deathbed.) I think both the supporting actor and writing awards were justified (Miracle is a very funny movie, with plenty of jokes directed towards the adults in the audience) but I also think the entire cast give outstanding performances—particularly the aforementioned Albertson and Thelma Ritter as the woman absolutely gobsmacked by Macy’s new sales policy (“I don’t get it”). Ritter’s unbilled here, but it wasn’t too long before she became one of cinema’s outstanding character actors (a list of her most memorable film appearances would eat up quite a bit of bandwidth, let’s just say). Every time I watch Miracle I take away something new from it—it had previously escaped my notice, for example, that the actor playing the soused parade Santa is none other than Percy Helton (his voice was a dead giveaway)—and I was also able to spot cameos from Jeff Corey, Snub Pollard and Theresa Harris (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s lovely girlfriend in Buck Benny Rides Again  and Love Thy Neighbor ). When Miracle ended, I was so filled with Christmas cheer that I whipped out It’s a Wonderful Life and watched it as well…but that’s a post for another day.