Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.

Release Date: June 4th, 1947 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George Seaton Actors: Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, Gene Lockhart, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan

 


 

“T

he children mustn’t be disappointed.” As the Macy’s Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade welcomes Santa Claus, who happens to be an inebriated employee, struggling with his whip and barely able to stand, a concerned man in the crowd intervenes, complaining to the woman in charge, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara, whose notable accent peeks out intermittently). As a last-minute substitution, that kindly citizen (Edmund Gwenn), a coincidental look-alike for the jolly gift-giver, agrees to don the costume and ride in the sleigh. After all, it’s not a terribly demanding task. “Have you had any experience?”

After the festive procession gets underway, Doris heads home, and then to the apartment across the way, where friendly neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne) watches alongside Doris’ precocious young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). Harmless as it may be, Fred is getting close to Susie in order to flirt with her mother, a divorcee. He even coaches the child into asking Doris to invite him to dinner. Meanwhile, the unnamed Santa Claus impersonator (who eventually introduces himself as Kris Kringle) is so convincing that he’s offered a job at the Macy’s store itself, where he quite unwontedly directs parents to other businesses where they can purchase toys that Macy’s doesn’t carry. Of course, when Kringle insists that he’s the real Santa Claus, even to Susan, Doris grows irate; it’s particularly frustrating when she goes out of her way to raise Susan not to believe in fairy tales and other such childhood nonsense. “He’s insane, I tell you!”

Interestingly, as the film condemns commercialism (the never-ending sacrifice of quality and ethics for the almighty dollar), it also promotes the Macy’s store as a friendly, welcoming location to shop – in a decidedly contradictory fashion, even if it acknowledges that the representation is itself a marketing gimmick to increase revenues. In many unsubtle ways, the picture vigorously promotes places of business and manipulative sales tactics, even as it unfolds its fantastical story of generosity and goodwill over money-grubbing profiteering. But in a more realistic avenue, a major subplot involves parenting techniques and the overstepping of boundaries by others, as well as persuading children to embrace make-believe and frivolities for the sake of bolstering imagination and age-appropriate silliness.

The notion of putting an end to carefree masquerading by legal means – which is where this ends up, as a court must decide on the limits of mild pettifoggery – is certainly one for the big screen (and a competently outrageous mockery of a hearing it is). And it’s nicely paired with the villainy of an overreaching psychologist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall), and the dangers of accepting viciousness as normalcy versus kindness as insanity. Aside from the judicial battles, however, there’s a decent romance afoot, in which the obvious coupling of Doris and Fred (who just so happens to take on the role of Kringle’s lawyer) get an opportunity to woo and quarrel while discussing unshakeable faith and pragmatism against idealism.

Additionally, notes of politics, governmental duty, and the financially worthless concept of honesty come into play (amusingly demonstrated by character actors Gene Lockhart and William Frawley), but they’re never quite as potent as the humor of defending and questioning Santa Claus on the witness stand, complete with nonsensical surprise witnesses and evidence. Despite the ludicrous courtroom shenanigans, “Miracle on 34th Street” is primarily a sentimental, heartwarming piece, designed to be a fluffy bit of yuletide entertainment. And though it falters in its sensibilities and sudden shifts in support (chiefly from Doris, whose guilt coaxes her into giving in to Kringle’s purported charade), the finale is terribly magical. After all, common sense is no fun.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10