Santa Week Day 1: Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle_on_34th_StreetIcons is back, guys, for a week-long look at one of the greatest characters ever to grace the screen… Santa Claus!

Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: George Seaton

Writers: George Seaton & Valentine Davies

Cast: Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge, Jack Albertson, Alvin Greenman, Harry Antrim, Porter Hall

Plot: Shortly before Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a charming man calling himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) discovers the Santa Claus Macy hired has arrived stone cold drunk. Horrified, he reports the problem to parade organizer Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), who in desperation hires Kris to take his place. Kris turns out to be a huge hit, and he is offered the job as Macy’s store Santa for the Christmas season. Single mom Doris returns home to find her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) watching the parade with their neighbor, lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne). Fred tries to bond with Susan over fairy tales, but Doris has raised the girl to be strictly pragmatic, not believing in such foolishness as giants or Santa Claus.

Kris turns the store upside-down when a child requests a toy Macy’s is sold out of, and he tells the boy’s mother which competitor still has some in stock. When word reaches toy manager Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), he’s briefly outraged until he realizes the goodwill Kris is generating is turning the parents into loyal customers. In fact, everyone starts to fall for Kris’s charms – even the stoic Susan is stunned when she overhears him speaking Dutch to a lonely child who is new to America. Doris asks him to explain to Susan that he’s merely an employee, but he surprises her by insisting that he is, in fact, the real Santa Claus. Shocked, she’s about to fire him, until R.H. Macy (Harry Antrim) congratulates her on the “new policy” of redirecting customers to other stores. Still nervous about his stability, she arranges for him to be examined by the store therapist, Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall). Sawyer is the only person not taken in by Kris’s charm, immediately deciding the kind old man is potentially dangerous.

Macy’s policy of directing customers to other stores becomes so popular that competitors begin following suit, and Kris takes advantage of his proximity to the Walker girls to continue bonding with Susan, hoping to convince both of them of the reality of Santa Claus. He gets enraged, though, when he finds out that Sawyer has been analyzing his friend Alfred (Alvin Greenman), loading him with nonsense about hating his father and guilt complexes. He angrily confronts Sawyer, striking the therapist with an umbrella. He’s played straight into Sawyer’s hands, giving him the opportunity to paint him as dangerous and forcing him into a competency hearing.

Fred Gailey quits his law firm in order to represent Kris, and the trial becomes front page news. The Judge (Gene Lockhart) finds himself walking a thin line, not wanting to be the man to rule there is no Santa Claus in an election year, and Fred cleverly makes the District Attorney admit that Santa exists. The trial now rests on his ability to prove that Kris, himself, is the legitimate Santa Claus. He brings in one character witness after another, even Mr. Macy, to testify on Kris’s behalf. Things dangle precipitously in the air, though, until a pair of mail clerks see a letter addressed to Santa Claus at the courthouse (from one Susan Walker, who is writing to tell him she believes in him now). The clerks see an opportunity to dump the mountains of Santa Claus mail in their dead letter office, and send them all to Kris Kringle. In a magnificent finale, Fred argues that if the United States Post Office – a department of the Federal Government – recognizes that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus, the courts must do so as well. The judge agrees and Kris is set free.

On Christmas morning, at a party at the home where Kris lives, Susan is disappointed that she doesn’t see a sign of the present she asked for, and her faith in Kris is shattered. Kris gives Fred directions on a “shortcut” home, and on the way, Susan spots her present: a house she saw in a magazine. And, as Fred notes to Doris, it’s for sale. As they look at the house, they find Kris’s cane leaning in the corner, and Fred has to question if he really was such a fantastic lawyer after all.

Thoughts: I couldn’t possibly spend a week talking about Santa Claus in the movies without starting here, the quintessential performance of the character. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it, though, is that the movie is couched in such a fashion that you’re not supposed to be entirely certain if Kris really is Santa Claus or if he’s just a sweet-hearted lunatic. Obviously, with nearly 70 years of loving the film behind us, I think most people have taken it to heart that Kris was legitimate, that the magic he brings to the role is all real, but that doesn’t mean it was intended that way, that’s part of the baggage we’ve assigned to the film over the years. It’s earned baggage, though, earned by Edmund Gwenn and his flawless performance.

Gwenn has a timeless quality about him. He’d be perfectly suitable in a Santa story set in Victorian England or modern America, but he made Christmas in New York circa 1947 an extraordinary place. He relishes every moment in the role, whether suited up in red or walking down the street in a topcoat. (Speaking of red, do the world a favor and don’t watch the colorized version of this. It’s an abomination on to Rudolph. Stick with the glorious black and white.) He won an Oscar for this part, as best supporting actor, although I find it hard to imagine he wasn’t up for lead. The film, incidentally, also won “best writing, original story” and “best writing, screenplay,” and was nominated for best picture, losing to Gentleman’s Agreement. You guys have all seen Gentleman’s Agreement, right? Show of hands? That’s what I thought.

A word, if I may, about the history of this movie. When it was released in 1947, it actually came out in May, and the marketing did its best to hide the fact that it was a movie about Santa Claus, instead trying to make it appear like a simple romantic comedy about O’Hara and Payne’s characters. Word has it the studio head was convinced that more people see movies during the summer, and didn’t want to wait until the holidays to release it. It just goes to show you that short-sighted movie executives are nothing new. The film would have been moderately successful as a romcom, I suppose, but can you possibly imagine it having the longevity or cultural impact it did if it wasn’t a Christmas movie? Hell, can you even imagine what the plot would be without Kris Kringle? A May release? It’s practically insane.

The rest of the cast is very good, though. Maureen O’Hara and John Payne are a classic screen couple, with the kind of old fashioned glamour that you just don’t see in movies these days. Modern audiences may want to assign some sort of creepy attitude towards Gailey – he does, by his own admittance, start to befriend Susan in an effort to win over Doris – but he never comes across as inappropriate or sleazy. What’s more, the chemistry between Payne and young Natalie Wood is one of the high points of the film. There’s a sort of frustration that comes along with his attempts to convince the child that Santa Claus is real, and that’s something a lot of adults struggle with as the world their kids grow up in gets more and more cynical. It rings very true, very honest.

The bit players are fantastic too. Porter Hall as the nasty Mr. Sawyer is the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, and he sells the part solidly. Jerome Cowan as the District Attorney gets some really plum scenes, such as the one where his own son is called to testify to establish that even he has admitted Santa Claus exists. Gene Lockhart as the judge helps carry the film to its conclusion, and I Love Lucy’s William Frawley as the Judge’s campaign manager brings a touch of modern politics that keeps the film from becoming too saccharine.

This movie has been remade from time to time, including a particularly famous remake in 1994 starring the great Richard Attenborough, but nothing comes close to the sweetness and joy of the original. (And, to be honest, I simply can’t forgive them for the way they changed the absolutely perfect ending.) Accept no substitutes this Christmas, friends – stick with the original.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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About blakemp

Blake M. Petit. Author. Podcaster. Teacher. Actor. Geek Pundit.

Posted on December 22, 2014, in 4-Icons, Comedy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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