The original, 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street is one of those classic films of which people usually say ‘they don’t make them like that any more’. To me, it’s a little more than that: I firmly believe they can’t make them like that any more.
At heart, this is a simple, intentionally heartwarming story about a Department Store Santa in the run up to Xmas, who believes himself to be the real Father Christmas, and acts like it. He refuses to push the more expensive gifts on children who only want simple toys, and he recommends customers go elsewhere for better and more suitable products.
As a result, he faces a Court hearing to determine competency: is he suffering from dementia and should be committed to an asylum? He becomes a national cause-celebre, and more importantly he becomes a test for a seven year old girl’s overly cynical heart, leading to a conclusion that is one of those mad, improbable things that gloriously reject logic and law, as thousands of boys and girls’ letters to Santa are delivered to the Court, enabling the Judge to rule that as the US Post Office, a Federal Service, is charged with delivering letters only to their true recipient, the old man is who he says he is: Father Christmas.
And if that strikes you as a rather cynical attitude, there is a final scene that overcomes any doubts to fill the film with a Christmas magic of the traditional, can’t-explain-that kind.
This kind of film can only work if the audience approaches it with complete acceptance, in innocence and the desire to believe. And it can only succeed in doing so if everyone associated with the film adopts the same approach. A moment of knowingness, a moment of irony, the least hint of the wink that says this kind of nonsense is all very well for little kids and the hard-of-thinking but you and I know better, don’t we? and the film is lost. We no longer make audiences that can adjust themselves to that level of accepting innocence, for we have been long poisoned by the world, and by filmmakers who can no longer even counterfeit that belief.
Miracle on 34th Street has been remade twice, once in the Seventies, as a TV film with Sebastian Cabot in the main role, and again in 1995, starring Sir Richard Attenborough. Oddly, I saw both the original and the TV version the same Xmas, with BBC showing the film and ITV the remake within three or four days of one another.
Leaving aside the differences between a colour TV version, and the twenty-six years of film advances separating the two, it is already obvious why no remake can match up to the original. Edmund Gwenn plays Kris Kringle as a sweet, overly decent gentleman, a Santa Claus in all respects except when he is disgusted at the drunk Santa letting the kids down, but Cabot plays Cabot, irascible and more short-tempered. I have never seen the Attenborough version and will take great care never to: though I can imagine him playing the role completely straight, I cannot imagine the film allowing him to, or matching him: we would be lucky to get away with no worse than thick dollops of over sentimentality over it. Even as early as 1973, it was not possible, and we have gone farther than far since then.
Though the film stars Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, its two standout performances are Edmund Gwenn (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) as Kris Kringle and a seven year old Natalie Wood as Susan Walker. Gwenn plays his role as the man who looks and acts like Santa Claus and who believes that he is utterly straight. He is in every way decent and kind and the walking representative of the Xmas Spirit.
The story starts on Thanksgiving with the famous Macy’s Parade. Their Santa Claus has been drinking and the affronted Kringle takes his complaint to the story’s Events Director, the highly efficient Mrs Doris Walker (O’Hara), who sacks the man on the spot and offers the job to Kringle, who is then employed to play Santa in the store until Xmas.
That he calls himself Kringle and doesn’t provide a formal age or next of kin outside eight reindeers worries her and the Toy Department manager, Mr Skillhammer, especially after he starts sending shoppers to Gimbels to buy the things Macy’s haven’t exactly got. But it’s magnificent publicity for Macy’s, which thrills Mr Macy and starts a competition among all the stores to celebrate the Heart of Xmas.
Dorisis a very efficient, common sense woman, bringing up her daughter to be completely practical, and not to believe in fantasy or fairy tale: Doris is divorced after an early marriage. And Susan is very smart and sensible and most unchildlike, which rather confuses their friendly neighbour, junior partner Fred Gailey (Payne), who is interested in Doris. The Walkers become a pair of test cases, with Kringle set on winning Susie over and Fred her mother.
The fly in the ointment is store psychologist Mr Sawyer, a bad-tempered, mean-minded, self-important toad who invests his energy into getting rid of Kringle. He provokes Kringle into a decision to expose him to Macy when Sawyer confuses the good-hearted Albert into thinking he has a guilt-complex. Kringle is decoyed out of the store and into a mental test that, disspirited by Sawyer’s lie that Doris has helped set this up, Kringle deliberately fails. Gailey gives him heart and represents him in a full hearing over his committal, resigning from his firm to do so and provoking a quarrel with Doris.
The trial is a delight, especially when Gailey calls the DA’s young son to the stand to testify that he believes Santa Claus exists because his Daddy told him so and he wouldn’t lie. But to Kringle, the vindication is that Susan has come round to believing in him, and so too has Doris.
Natalie Wood is superb in her part, as a grave, over-serious child gradually allowing herself to be convinced that the world is more than the practical place her mother has taught her to believe in. Wood’s facial expressions sell her part in the story perfectly: no wonder she became a star in adult life!
But though the expected miracle takes place in Court, allowing a relieved Judge to dismiss the committal, and though Doris is able to row back on her anger at Fred’s recklessness in throwing up his job and his security for a fantasy, the case is not yet finally proven for little Susan. The Xmas present she wants is a home, a particular house, and impliedly the family that goes with it. And that Kris Kringle can’t place under her tree. Even Doris’ attempt to teach her to be patient is met with another wave of cynicism.
Until Kringle sends Doris and Fred a different way back, past a house that has Susan exploding with delight because it’s past ‘her’ house, a house for sale, with a sleigh in the yard, and a mother who’s suddenly being kissed by a successful lawyer who she now has an excuse to marry…
…and in a corner of this empty house there’s a cane. A cane suspciously like the one carried by Mr Kris Kringle, officially recognised as Santa Claus…
It’s the perfect ending to a perfect film, of a kind we cannot make any longer because our instinctive cynicism bars our way. But we used to make them, and we have the DVDs to remind us, and to prove that we did used to be able to be innocent, and that for a time at least we can still open ourselves up to what we once were, and remember what we have lost,