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Entries in Miracle on 34th Street [1947] (1)

Monday
Dec262011

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

This Heartwarming Rejection of Commercialism Has Been Brought to You By Macy's

For anyone who thinks that nothing cool happened in the movies until color came along, I submit George Seaton's Miracle on 34th Street. At first glance, it appears to be about a kindly old man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) who's put on trial in New York for claiming to be Santa Claus. If his lawyer, Mr. Gailey (John Payne), can't convince the judge that he's the magical gift-giver, Santa will be sent up the river for assaulting a psychiatrist. There's also a cute "B" story about Kris' relationship with Susan (Natalie Wood), the too-smart-for-kids'-myths little girl who doesn't understand make-believe.

Modern audiences will find no plot twists here, only charming, 1940s predictability. Kris turns out to be Santa. Susan comes around to believing in Christmas. Her no-nonsense mom, Doris (Maureen O'Hara), falls for Mr. Gailey, despite his silly belief that imagination is something to be nourished instead of starved.

What may surprise people is the insidiousness of Seaton's screenplay. Miracle on 34th Street is, above all, a commercial for Macy's department store. It begins with Doris hiring Kris to replace a drunken Santa just ahead of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and ends with greedy company owner R.H. Macy (Harry Antrim) painted as a jolly man-of-the-people. In between, there are lots of jabs at Gimbels, Macy's rival store. Even when the heads of both companies form a holiday partnership to boost publicity, it's clear that Gimbel (Herbert Heyes) is the stooge to Macy's cool, calculating genius.

Seaton offers a neat bit of misdirection, having Kris direct Macy's customers to other stores for out-of-stock items; shocked customers are so relieved at the lack of cynicism that they spread the word and vow loyalty to the Macys brand. Mr. Macy seizes this chance to launch a new image campaign, thus driving more customers to him by appearing to unselfishly support the wider merchant community.

The film itself uses this tactic to help the audience wash the bad taste out of its mouth (assuming people notice this weird meta-commercial in the first place). By including the "Store with a Heart" angle, Seaton covers his Macy's-sponsored tracks: Mr. Macy's interest in the bottom line would have, under normal circumstances, led him to fire Kris for insubordination. But since that insubordination led to a beefier bottom line, all is right with the world. Seaton diminishes Macy's villain status by showing him spreading a fraction of his newfound profits around and heartily backslapping his employees; had Kris' idea dented the store's profits, one might easily assume that Macy would have fired as many people as necessary to regain the upper hand, financially. At the end of the film, he hasn't so much been overcome with the holiday spirit as with the wads of cash lining his pockets.

If you don't care about these kinds of messages, Miracle on 34th Street is a perfectly serviceable holiday film. Gwenn's Kris Kringle is an absolute delight who exudes honesty and love for everyone (except for the shrink, who he most certainly did whack over the head with a cane--not that he didn't deserve it, but this fact goes unaddressed at Kringle's, um, assault hearing). The rest of the cast, with the exception of Payne, is remarkably unremarkable. I guess it's hard to inject personality into characters whose main function is to exaggerate the star's eccentric whimsy. But everyone besides Santa and Santa's lawyer do too good a job playing stuffy, boring legal-types and store managers.

Wood, in particular, seems narcotized for half the picture. O'Hara is a cold, ultra-serious fish. And the judge who hears Kris' case (Gene Lockhart) has two faces: Judge-y and "I just sat on a tack!". Thank God for the courtroom scenes, which liven things up a bit with cute kids, outrageous stunts, and some fantastic Gee-whiz lawyering from Gailey (Payne looks like he's having a lot of fun in this movie; he also looks like the love-child of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart).

Just as It's A Wonderful Life gets a bad rap as sentimental garbage--when it's really one of the darkest, most honest pictures about America ever produced--Miracle on 34th Street is incorrectly hailed as a cuddly Christmas picture. The story deals with commercialism and politics in ways I hadn't expected, and the production itself is like a giant profit snake eating its own tail (I wonder if this film's Kris Kringle, who laments the commercialization of Christmas, would approve of Miracle on 34th Street?). This is the kind of well-produced, expertly scripted crowd-pleaser that can make even the most cynical audience member believe in Santa Claus--who can be found just up the street at Macys, your home for unbeatable bargains and holiday cheer.

Spotted! Look out for a young Jack Albertson as the sorting-room clerk who spots the letter to Santa. He played "Grandpa Joe" in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.