Miracle on 34th Street [DVD]
Director : George Seaton
Screenplay : George Seaton (story by Valentine Davies)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1947
Stars : Maureen O’Hara (Doris Walker), John Payne (Fred Gailey), Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle), Gene Lockhart (Judge Henry X. Harper), Natalie Wood (Susan Walker), Porter Hall (Granville Sawyer), William Frawley (Charlie Halloran), Jerome Cowan (Dist. Atty. Thomas Mara), Philip Tonge (Julian Shellhammer)
Having been with us so long as a Christmas-time staple, it is easy to forget that Miracle on 34th Street is a rather unlikely classic. It could have easily gotten lost during its initial theatrical release in 1947, especially given the fact that it played in the middle of the summer, a time when most audiences are not in the mood for movies about Santa Claus and Christmas shopping. It is also a film with surprisingly astute social insight, with its sly jabs at holiday commercialism, fly-by-night psychology, and the intersection of law and politics. Kids can watch it as a rewarding fantasy about the existence of Santa Claus, but older and more mature viewers will also be rewarded with an intelligence that is too often lacking in holiday entertainment.
The story centers around an elderly man (Edmund Gwenn) who not only looks a lot like Santa Claus, but claims quite proudly and unabashedly to be the one and only Kris Kringle. Through a series of coincidences he takes a job as the department store Santa at Macy’s, where he rocks the boat by rejecting the store’s policy of pushing its own products at any cost and instead directs customers to other stores (namely chief rival Gimbel’s) if Macy’s doesn’t have what they’re looking for. That is, he promotes the idea that people should be able to get what they want, regardless of where it is purchased, which cleverly takes the commercialism out of Christmas without really taking the commercialism out of Christmas.
Kris is initially hired by Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), a single mother who works for Macy’s (the bluntness with which her divorce is discussed is rare for a 1940s Hollywood production, which usually skirted around the issue with vague references to Reno). Doris believes in raising her young daughter, Susan (precocious Natalie Wood in a very early role), with directness and honesty, which means a complete absence of fairy tales, myths, and, of course, anything as ridiculous as Santa Claus. In her parentally enforced hyper-rationality, Susan is an amusing conceit--a pip-squeak logician who is in dire need of being set straight through fantasy and illusion.
The thrust of the story is the need to believe in things that are unbelievable. Rationality and the fantastical eventually meet head to head in a courtroom, where the sanity of Kris Kringle is to be determined in a heated case that is putting the judge’s (Gene Lockhart) political future at risk. After all, if he allows his court of law to concede the existence of Santa Claus, he could become a running joke; at the same time, if his court of law establishes that Santa Claus does not, in fact, exist, he could be responsible for bursting the illusion of millions of dreamy children, making him a literal Grinch who stole Christmas.
Miracle on 34th Street was directed by George Seaton, who started as a radio actor (he was the first to be credited with the role of the Lone Ranger) and then moved behind the camera as a writer in the 1930s (he mostly helped pen romantic comedies, although he did cowrite the script for the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races). Miracle was only his fourth movie as a director, and it shows a solid sense of craftsmanship. While his visuals are never outstanding, Seaton shows a true gift for working with actors, having been an actor himself for many years. Over the years, six actors in his films were nominated for Oscars and three won, including longtime British character actor Gwenn, who won for his role as Kris Kringle, which could have easily been a silly cliché. Gwenn deftly keeps his character consistently ambiguous as to whether he is genuinely Santa Claus or just a sweetly deluded old man. Either way, you can’t help but like him.
While not nearly as sublime as that other Christmas staple, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street is a smart and immensely enjoyable fable, one that carefully hedges its bets in playing the line between fantasy and reality. It leaves enough doors open for the rational to see that it’s all smoke and mirrors, while at the same time never shutting down the possibility that the fantastical is the true reality. In this respect, Edmund Gwenn’s performance as Kris Kringle is crucial because he makes the belief in Santa Claus a genuine possibility, even for the adults (both in the film and in the audience) who should “know better.”
The story’s charm and the way it cuts to the heart of what so many people treasure is evidenced by the fact that it has been remade four times, three times for television (in 1955, 1959, and 1973) and again on the big screen in 1994. It is evidence of how good the original is that none of them have come close to equaling it.
|Miracle on 34th Street Special Edition DVD|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|Release Date||November 21, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|This two-disc Special Edition of Miracle on 34th Street contains both the original black-and-white version of the film on one disc and the atrocious computer-colorized version on a second disc. I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than a few minutes of the colorized version, and from what I saw I can report that the transfer looked good--it was smooth, clean, and detailed, and the colors looks just as phony and diluted as expected. Purists will certainly restrict themselves to the original black-and-white version, which is beautifully rendered here with great detail and fine shadings of gray. The image is very nearly pristine, with barely any hints that the film is almost 60 years old. The soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, which has effectively opened up the musical score, but little else. The original monaural soundtrack is also included.|
|Both versions of the film include the same audio commentary by star Maureen O’Hara, who was recorded in August 2006. It is more of an interview than a commentary, as O’Hara only rarely refers directly to what is taking place on-screen. She proves to be delightful, though, spinning well-told old stories about her work during the classic age of Hollywood. Those interested in the history of Miracle on 34th Street will find plenty of intriguing bits in the 22-minute AMC Backstory episode on the film, which includes interviews with O’Hara, film historian Rudy Behlmer, and actors Robert Hyatt and Alvin Greenman. One of the things I most appreciate about the supplements on this Special Edition is the inclusion of artifacts from the time the film was released, including Fox Movietone news footage of the 1948 Oscars and a creative five-minute promotional short for the film that doesn’t use a single scene from the film itself. A real gem is the inclusion of the 1955 47-minute made-for-TV version of the film, which inexplicably adds The to the title. This version essentially condenses the theatrical film, but still uses much of the same script. Also included is a padded-out 15-minute featurette about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and how the film helped make it famous and a gallery of original advertising that demonstrates how the studio’s ad department was trying to hide the film’s Christmas theme.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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