This is a five-part series of reviews of classic live-action Christmas films that are on my must-watch list every holiday season.
When people talk of a movie having “everything,” I’m surprised Miracle on 34th Street doesn’t come up more often. It’s part fantasy (as are the next two movies on my agenda this week) with the appearance of “the one and only Santa Claus,” masterfully played by Edmund Gwenn. It’s part romance, as Macy’s manager Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) falls in love with her lawyer neighbor, Fred Gaily (John Payne), despite all her reserve built up after her failed marriage. Susan Walker, Doris’s young daughter (Natalie Wood) lends a family atmosphere, playing a precocious child who is cute without being gag-me-now sweet. It’s also a legal drama, with one of the most satisfying courtroom verdicts ever caught on film.
The story and dialogue are tight, with intricate details that move the story along, but a basic summary of the film might go like this:
Doris Walker is in charge of Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade and discovers her hired Santa is drunk on the float. She finds a jolly, bearded old man to “play” Santa at the last minute, then hires him as the store’s Santa for the season. He goes above and beyond Santa duty, suggesting a frazzled mom (Thelma Ritter–possibly the greatest character actress of the silver screen) visit another store to find her son’s dream toy. Mr. Macy hears and pronounces the policy a “goodwill campaign”…but at the same time, Doris discovers that her Santa goes by the name Kris Kringle and he thinks he’s the real thing. After steeling herself and her daughter Susan against any sort of fantasy when her husband leaves, Doris just can’t go along with Kris’s delusions. Her new love interest, attorny Fred Gaily, thinks Kris is terrific and may be just the thing to reform the Walkers. He gets his chance to prove it, though, when Macy’s store psychologist tries to have Kris committed. Fred brings the case to trial, desperately searching for a way to legally prove that Kris is Santa, right up until Christmas Eve.
So many Christmas movies seem to stop at just being “Christmas” movies–throw in some snow, set the story between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and you’ve got it made. Miracle, though, is just a good all-around movie. The writing, as I said, is very good (worthy of the Oscars it won for its story and screenplay), and the characters grow and change in believable ways. And the setting? My mark of a good movie is if I want to be there, and I definitely want to shop at the original Macy’s in all its post-war glory.
Incidentally, this is also one of the few movies I enjoy equally in its original black and white and in its colorized format. Usually I hate colorizing, but I think it must be Maureen O’Hara’s lovely red hair (the inspiration for making my WIP main character’s guardian a redhead) and the lively department-store Christmas decorations that make this one bearable. Thoughts?