Miracle on 34th Street differs from many Christmas movies because it is a subtly subversive film. Not many movies of the era had the female lead portraying a divorced, working, single mother. And her work was not that of a secretary or nurse. Instead, she is successful in a high-powered job. Nevertheless, she also has what was not seen in other movies, the difficulty a single mom had (and has) in obtaining childcare, and that is why, of course, she accepts neighbor Fred Gailey’s assistance in looking after Susan (Natalie Wood). The established order of 1947 may have pretended that divorced, working mothers did not exist, but this reality is front and center in Miracle on 34th Street.
The movie slyly subverts in many other ways, including the delightful martini scene where a man gets his wife quite tipsy in order to ask a favor or when Kris asks the precocious Susan if she knows what the imagination is, and she replies, “Oh, sure. That’s when you see things, but they’re not really there.” Kris Kringle replies, “Well, that can be caused by other things, too.” Or when Mr. Shellhammer, the Macy’s executive wistfully hopes that Kris Kringle is not grievously nuts: “But . . . but maybe he’s only a little crazy like painters or composers or . . . some of those men in Washington.”
The movie satirizes psychology, of course, but Kris Kringle is subverting something broader than that. The movie is questioning the reactions of many to those who do not conform to the established norms. Kringle’s answers to several simple but hardly important questions are amusing but also are a challenge to an established order that asks such questions routinely. How old is he? On his employment card he writes, “As old as my tongue and slightly older than my teeth.” And at his sanity trial District Attorney Mara asks Kris, “Where do you live?” He replies, “That’s what this hearing will decide.” (I learned from Kringle in his examination by the psychologist that Daniel D. Tompkins was vice-president under James Monroe, a factoid I tried hard to work into many conversations including with friends with whom we used to have Christmas dinner who lived in the Staten Island Tompkinsville section, named for Daniel D.)
At first glance, the psychologist may appear to the bad guy at the heart of the movie, but I think the film appealed to me because it is really the “system,” not an individual, being challenged. Those who put Kris on trial are not bad people but people merely doing their jobs. Kris is not rebelling against them but against something more pervasive. As he says, “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind, and that’s what’s been changing.” And: “Seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.” It is something much broader than an individual like Scrooge or Bailey that needs changing.
The most subversive statement comes not from Kris but from Alfred, the young man cleaning the locker room: “There’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floating around this world and one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn, it’s the same—don’t care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck.” The ‘ism’ mentioned is not communism, fascism, or socialism, but, although does not say it, capitalism, surely a statement subverting the social order of 1947 of the post-World War II and nascent Cold War era. And ever since.
It isn’t fascism or communism that Kris feels as oppressive, and it is not those ideologies that put him on trial. What subtly appealed to me on a level I did not realize when I first fell in love with it, is that the movie is a rebellion against the prevailing order, and from my boyhood until today part of me has wanted to be a similar rebel, which I have only fitfully managed to do.
However, Kris and his defender Fred Gaily are sweet, not destructive, rebels, for the movie has its traditional side. It is also a movie about faith and belief, although faith and belief in what is not defined. Thus, Susan Walker says “I believe. . . I believe. . . It’s silly, but I believe.” And Fred Gailey, later to be repeated by Doris Walker, pronounces, “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.”
This, too, appealed to me. I never knew what I wanted to have faith or belief in, but I wanted to have a faith and belief. And at the end of the movie when the cane is spotted in a room of the envisioned house, I perhaps, too, like Susan, had a spot of belief.
This year I will again watch Miracle on 34th Street, although I plan to wait until nearer Christmas to do it. I am planning a new holiday viewing schedule for myself. I am going to watch all the Christmas shows that I can and that I have not seen before to see what else is out there. I have already started this project and have watched A Boy Called Christmas, A Castle for Christmas, Jingle Jangle, and A Sherlock Carol. (Unfortunately, the performance I was planning to attend of Golden Girls Live! Christmas Show was cancelled because of a cast member’s illness.) Surely there are enough unwatched-by-me Christmas shows to fill up December. The heavier fare can wait until next year. Maybe such watching can squelch all feelings of Bah Humbug, which is a major goal for the end of this year. (Some old movies, of course, might still slip in. A few scenes, for example, from Elf are always welcome.) If I carry out this project, perhaps I will report on it later.
But I will conclude my viewing with Miracle on 34th Street, saving the best for las