For most of my life, I did not feel as if it were truly the Christmas season until I saw it again. In the many years before VCRs, DVRs, and Netflix, I would carefully examine the weekly TV lists in the Sunday papers until I found its time, for there always was at least one time that it was shown. Then I would plan my schedule to make sure that I could see it. This is why I have seen Miracle on 34th Street more than any other movie—the black and white version made in 1947. I was never disappointed. When I was a child, this Wisconsin boy liked what seemed to be real exterior shots of exotic New York City and footage of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with balloons that now looked quaint.
The movie, however, made me something of an activist. The film was colorized and that version, to my horror, was the only one I could find to watch one year. My distress increased because it had dropped a scene, a key one with a bit appearance by Jack Albertson in the post office sorting room. I dashed off a letter to the TV station decrying the bastardization. I am still waiting for a response, but, to my relief, I could find the original version in later years. (I know there is a remake, but I have not seen it. Why watch it when the original is close to perfection?)
My seasonal quest was in place when I linked up with the spouse in my twenties. We sat down to watch it in our first Christmas season together, and I found out that she had not seen it. To help her grasp the magic of The Miracle on 34th Street, I told her that the actor playing Kris Kringle had made only this one movie, and she, with the wide-eyed trust of early love, believed my jest. (N.B.: I have never, ever tried in earnest to mislead the spouse, he protested too much.) When years later she saw Edmund Gwenn in another movie, she was, how to put it, put out, but our marriage somehow survived if only by the slenderest of heartstrings. (Gwenn, of course, was in many movies, but he got his only Academy Award for playing Kris.)
I don’t remember when I first saw the movie, but I have a memory of having read the story in Scholastic or some other school magazine before seeing its depiction. However, I have not trusted the recollection. It seemed unlikely that a screenplay would have been part of my grade school reading. On the other hand, I have recently learned that the story was novelized when the movie came out and editions of it were being printed when I was a schoolboy. So, perhaps, it did get excerpted in something I read when I was ten or twelve. (Valentine Davies wrote the story of Miracle, for which he won an academy award. Davies, who died at 55 in 1961, wrote the screenplays of many successful movies and a Writers Guild award is named after him.)
I have tried to figure out why the movie appeals to me much more than other classics, such as White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Carol, all which—and many other holiday films—I have enjoyed. Of course, Miracle is well acted with heavyweight Hollywood stars in the lead roles—Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, and, of course, Gwenn—with actors in the character roles whose names I did not always know but I recognized from many films and TV shows. It has some touching scenes. When Kris speaks in her native language with the little, WWII-displaced Dutch girl who has come to see Santa, I invariably tear up. That said, the movie, in my opinion, does have one major flaw—it’s pro-suburban bias. The cute-as-a-button little girl and the aspiring lawyer want to move out of New York City to, of all places, Long Island. I can’t imagine how any sensible person would have wanted to give up their apartments overlooking the parade route and Central Park, especially when, in those days, apartments were hard to find and might have been rent-controlled.
However, I have always overlooked this gigantic flaw in the plot, and on my twentieth or thirtieth watching, I started again to wonder why I was especially drawn to this Christmas classic. I realized that this movie was different from the holiday films that have the characters overcoming obstacles so that loved ones (and family) can celebrate the joyous times, films such as White Christmas, and Home Alone, and the various rom-coms where lovers have to learn they are right for each other in time for Christmas.
Miracle is also fundamentally different from the films of personal transformation or even resurrection, such as It’s a Wonderful Life or the many adaptations and derivatives of A Christmas Carol. (At least one of the actors of Miracle on 34th Street, the marvelous Gene Lockhart, who plays the judge, also appeared in a filmed version of A Christmas Carol, playing Bob Cratchit.) Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) does change in the course of the movie, but it is not the result of supernatural beings or forces as in many other Christmas movies. She instead gets a renewed appreciation of life that grows out of human interactions and observations that all of us could experience. But even though Doris’s new outlook is important to the film, it is not really the core of the movie.
(concluded December 8)