Miracle on 34th Street
d. George Seaton / USA / 1947 / 96 mins
Viewed on: Film 4 (UK)
One of the best things about the festive season is the sheer volume of films on television, and the fact that almost all of the Christmas classics get trotted out (It’s A Wonderful Life being a notable television absentee in the United Kingdom). As such, you can probably gauge how far behind I am on this here blog by the fact that the next few write-ups are going to be distinctly festive, starting with an bona fide classic, the original Miracle on 34th Street. Then again, that film was originally released into U.S. theatres at the start of May 1947, so you can’t really complain about my timing! After all, what’s good for the Fox, is good for the blogger!
If you’ve spent every Christmas under a rock with particularly bad television reception, Miracle on 34th Street tells the story of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) and his off-season adventures in New York City (the narrative is actually quite complex, considering, so I’ll leave it to Wikipedia if you need a detailed synopsis). Essentially, this is a film about faith, and yet Kris – who is sick of the over-commercialisation of Christmas and demands a return to its ‘true meaning’ – leaves concepts of Christianity conspicuously absent.
If not about Christian faith, Miracle on 34th Street is perhaps about faith in the fundamental tenets of American society: truth, justice, the ‘American Dream’. The collective faith in these fundamental tenets is tested here – as it is in countless other Hollywood films and, indeed, in real life – on the courtroom floor, with John Payne’s lawyer, Fred Gaily, arguing to the Supreme Court that Kris Kringle can’t be insane because he is, indeed, the real Santa Claus.
Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) has absolutely no faith – and no belief – in anything that isn’t 100% tangible, a trait that she has passed on to her daughter, Susan (played here by a very young Natalie Wood). When their faith is restored (there is, after all, an assumption here that faith in some form or other is a fundamental human trait) it brings with it resolution: truth and justice is restored via a court ruling that Kris Kringle is indeed the one and only Santa Claus, whilst the ‘American Dream’ is realised as Susan’s wish for a nice family home in the suburbs is granted, and a romance is struck up between her mother and the kindly lawyer.
Appearing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, George Seaton’s film could also be read as a kind of meditation on the ‘business as usual’ philosophy that applies in an America largely defined by its ability to adapt to new political and economic realities, and to somehow profit from that adaptation (fiscally or otherwise). Interestingly, venerable New York Times critic Bosley Crowther opened his review of Miracle on 34th Street by recommending it to ‘all those blasé skeptics who do not believe in Santa Claus—and likewise for all those natives who have grown cynical about New York’. For Crowther, at least, this film is as much about faith in America as it is about faith in faith itself.
Speaking of adapting to difficult situations, you’re probably wondering how Fox promoted a Christmas movie to a Summer audience? Watch, and learn: