“Miracle on 34th Street” is a famous Christmas movie loved by people all over the world. Consequently, I must admit that when I watched it the other night, it was for the very first time! However, I found it well worth watching and leaves the audience with a happy feeling.
The plot centres around a man hired to play Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn), first for Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and then at the department store, after the original person hired was drunk. It takes a little time for Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), an employee of Macy’s, to discover that the man introduces himself as Kris Kringle, and his employment card, while giving an aged care home as an address, cites his place of birth as being the North Pole. Meanwhile we learn that Doris is divorced, and is raising her daughter alone. She has been hurt badly by her divorce and is left feeling that there is no point having faith in anything other than concrete reality, a trait she passes on to her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). However she begins a friendship which is turning into a romance with neighbour Fred (John Payne), who takes Susan to see the Macy’s Santa. All the people involved in this story begin to regain some Christmas spirit, especially when Mr Kringle is threatened with being committed to a lunatic asylum and a trial ensues.
Gwenn’s performance netted him a best supporting actor Oscar, and I think it was well deserved. He embodied the spirit of the role and you could really believe he was the real deal. His kindness to the children and to the adults shines through. He befriends the young janitor and stands up for him when he is being treated unethically by the store’s psychologist. (Actually it was unclear what this man did in the store other than assess people for employment, and Kris says he is not qualified to diagnose and treat the janitor as he is claiming to do.) Gwen was completely convincing when he was righteously indignant, when he was happy, when he was sad, it was all believable as Santa. His Oscar is the only one awarded to an actor for playing Santa Claus.
Natalie Wood was eight years old when she played this role. Already she was exhibiting a real talent. The character’s adult-like cynicism, her highly sceptical face when meeting Santa, and her confusion, a short while later, when she witnesses his meeting the Dutch girl, are all very convincing. She very capably played the gradual melting of the hard heart her mother had encouraged, and the happier child that came through afterwards.
On the face of it this film is about there really being a Santa Claus, but I don’t think it is about that at all, not thematically. After all, no magic is seen in this film and we are left with no definitive evidence that the man calling himself Kris Kringle is anything more than a very kind and harmless (but rather batty) old man. But what we do have is a film that speaks to us about retaining faith in the unseen, some belief in magic and in kindness.
Along the way there are a number of very fun pokes at different attitudes of society. To start with, there is an amusing dig at commercialism – the very idea that a store might send a customer to another store leaves everyone aghast initially. When they begin to learn that this actually impresses customers, lends them an air of kindness and honesty, and consequently is very good for business as customers are more likely to shop with them again, the management decides this is a great idea. Competing department stores learn of this and soon follow suit. It’s a great example of a good act spreading around (even if not entirely for the right reasons.)
The film has what was a common post-war sentiment, the idea that children are often wiser than their parents. So, when Susan starts to be exposed to ideas that her mother hasn’t taught her, she quickly learns to expand her horizons and ultimately has a few things to teach to her mother. Doris has taught Susan that she needs to be always practical, so she is not allowed to read fairy tales or make believe in any way. It’s a little alarming and potentially damaging to the girl, as she is not encouraged to use her imagination and of course this is limiting her development. Doris is an interesting character – divorce was unusual in the 1940s as was a woman occupying a management position in a business. We don’t learn anything about the divorce, but it is not hard to guess from Doris’ attitude and the fact that the father is entirely absent from Susan’s life that there has been infidelity. Her disillusionment is understandable. In the film both mother and daughter start to heal, and this to me was a great part of the story.
There is a small scene that forms part of the (circumstantial) evidence that Mr Kringle is Santa Claus. A little girl comes to see Santa at the store and doesn’t say anything. The woman with her explains that the girl is a Dutch orphan that she has adopted, but she speaks no English. Orphans from Europe would also have been a familiar concept to the audience of this time, so there is nothing unusual in this situation. Mr Kringle immediately addresses the girl in Dutch and they have a great conversation. The idea is that Santa Claus would speak all languages. (Fun fact – this short exchange is actually in Dutch, and apparently it comprised of Kris asking her what she wanted for Christmas, and her responding that she wanted nothing, as she already had her present by being adopted by her new mother. Awww!)
The film has many characters expressing erroneous ideas about mental illness. Of course, back in the 1940s that would have been common, so it’s quite sad that seventy years later there is still so much misinformation. The idea held by many in the film is that Kris’ ‘delusion’ means he is not safe and needs to be locked up. He is quite calm, goes about his day, looks after himself, holds down a job, but they cannot cope with the idea that someone who believes themselves to be a fictional character should be able to just go about their business.
The court case is quite amusing in many ways. The judge is particularly dodgy. All he is worried about is running for office, and his manager/handler tells him that the case will be very bad for him as it will give him bad publicity. He wants out, or to find a legal out that will enable him to shut the whole thing down, but he has no interest in its effect on the people or in the legality, just in himself. The prosecutor, interestingly, has far more integrity. He is not happy to be in charge of the case either, but he does his duty diligently and doesn’t look for excuses.
Of course, a flaw in this plot is the court case itself. It’s supposed to be a committal hearing. As such the defence would have no burden of proof to show Kris is Santa Claus at all. The burden would be on the prosecution to show he is mentally unsound and unsafe. They called no expert witnesses and made no attempt to do so. Yes, it’s fun, but it’s not realistic.
The final ‘proof’ of Kris’ identity comes when some post office employees read about the court case in the paper and get the bright idea to dispose of all their Santa Claus mail by delivering it to the courthouse. The lawyer uses this as evidence to show that Kris must be Santa Claus because a federal government department acknowledges him as such. It could be argued that this is the ‘magic’ of Christmas, so the court gets what is needed to officially recognise Kris Kringle as Santa Claus. However, it could also be some postal guys having a laugh.
“Miracle on 34th Street” is a sweet and enjoyable film. It contains no magic at all. There is no solid confirmation moment. The question is still left in the air, really, despite the walking stick in the corner at the end. But I think it’s stronger for that. It’s not about Father Christmas really. It’s about love, imagination, compassion for others, and kindness. I find it definitely worth a watch.