It’s a Miracle (concluded)

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

A Spectacular Christmas Kick (continued)

For our recent trip to Radio City Music Hall to see the Christmas Spectacular, we did not have the seats in one of the first rows as we once had. Instead, we sat quite a way back and slightly off to the side, but we could see fine. We had not selected where we sat. Part of the reason we went is that I got discount tickets through TDF, the source I use for most of my New York City playgoing. I have to take whatever they give me, and I can only pick up the tickets shortly before showtime. I don’t know where I will sit when I use TDF until I walk into the theater. Our seats were highly acceptable.

The cost for tickets in New York, however, often shocks. I had spent $147 for the three admissions, but these were discounted. When we got home, I looked to see what full price was for the next day’s performance at the same time–$160. The rack rate for seats we had had in olden days? $450!! On the evening we went, there was a family of four to my right. A family of six in the row in front of us. Even with discounted tickets, it is amazing that so many people can afford or are willing to pay the price. At full price, I can’t imagine it. And many of these people are from the suburbs. They have the expense of getting to the City, and no doubt many are going out to dinner afterwards. Even so, 6,000 seats for a 5 P.M. performance on a rain-soaked Monday were filled.

Given the ticket prices, I hope the performers are well paid. They work hard, almost all nearly nonstop, during the ninety-minute show. They have to be exhausted after a performance. And there are many performances. Some days have five shows; others four; and the remainder three. The Christmas Spectacular will be performed twenty-nine times this week. I have no idea what the average ticket price is after discounts and group sales, but even if it is as low as $60, at 6,000 seats, the box office is raking in over $10 million a week (and if the average ticket is closer to face value, the take is double or triple that.) While I would not be surprised that it is otherwise, I hope those hard-working, talented singers and dancers get a sizeable portion of that money. (At Yankee games, I look around and wonder how any but a well-to-do family can go to the games, but at least I know there that the performers are getting excellent compensation.)

We could see the show without straining, and as old devotees of the Christmas Spectacular, we noted changes from back in the day. Of course, there was more high tech—lasers, light show effects, and some 3-D projections. I can’t recount what else was excised, but the abbreviated version of A Christmas Carol was gone. (No big loss.) There was still a skating segment where a rink appears on stage (I always wondered if it was real ice or some other surface that can be skated on), but the segment seemed shorter than before.

A new set piece was added where a teenage boy and his younger brother seek a gift for their sister. The teenager is of the cynical persuasion, and this was the I-don’t-believe-in-Christmas-or-Santa-but-something-will-happen-that-will-give-me-belief-again portion. It did offer the opportunity for many, many Santas, real and projected, to dance. I thought it had some appeal, but the NBP thought it was “creepy.” Some in the audience laughed when the “teenager” said that he was fifteen. I guess these audience members did not think someone of that age should not look as if he might shave twice a day.

When I want that I-don’t-believe-etc. stuff, I turn to something much better, the movie that I have watched more often than any other movie, the old Miracle on 34th Street. This was an extended tradition for me. It was not Christmas season until I saw the movie, and I would search TV listings religiously until I could find a time to watch it, and I usually watched it two or three times in a season. I may have seen this film fifty times. I know many of the lines. Even so, I cry regularly when that little Dutch girl is on Santa’s knee. (Hey, don’t you doubt my testosterone! A real man can be moved by a soppy movie. Haven’t you ever been like me and teared up at The Parent Trap?) The I-believe moment of finding the cane in the otherwise empty room is much better than anything on the Radio City Music Hall stage. (I cared about Miracle enough that I wrote my only letter to a TV station when its showing of the regrettably colorized version dropped a scene, a crucial scene in my opinion, of the Miracle on 34th Street.)

          [Digression. Of course, there are a lot of holiday movies, but I was surprised when Die Hard made lists of top Christmas movies. Although I did not think of it as a Christmas movie (it does take place during an office Christmas party), I watched it when I saw it playing on one those obscure cable channels on Christmas night. Probing my memory, I could not remember having seen it since I saw it in its initial release thirty years earlier, and I started to watch even though the movie was into its last hour. I was enjoying it again, finding that the impossible physical heroics were outweighed by the Bruce Willis banter, but the ending, unfortunately, brought back more disturbing memories other than of my first viewing. Bodies come out of the skyscraper; the bad guys blow off the roof of the building, and for a few moments, I had remembered being on the street thirteen years after the movie’s release. It was September 11, 2001, and I was watching the World Trade Towers from a few blocks away. I couldn’t be overly fond of Die Hard for bringing back those memories and have not watched it again.]

          [Further digression but it is still about Die Hard. David Foster Wallace in his 1995 essay David Lynch Keeps His Head writes about the moral manipulation of film directors and cites movies “where we are so relentlessly set up to approve the villains’ bloody punishment in the climax that we might as well be wearing togas. (The formulaic inexorability of these villains’ defeat does give the climaxes an oddly soothing, ritualistic quality, and it makes the villains martyrs in a way, sacrifices to our desire for black-and-white morality and comfortable judgment. . . . I think it was during the original Die Hard that I first rooted consciously for the villain.)”]

(concluded December 23)