I am a creature of habit. And a lot of habits of mine kick in around Christmastime every year. One is the daily posting, on Facebook, of a favourite Christmas carol. Another is this: the reviewing of a film that centres round Christmas. Over the years this blog has been in existence (I began it in November 2008), I’ve reviewed several films, some well-known, others not. This one, according to several polls, is listed as one of the very top Christmas films ever made.
It begins at Thanksgiving in New York City. The huge department store, Macy’s, at 34th Street, is holding its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the employee in charge of managing much of the parade is Mrs Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara). Doris is very harassed, what with the large number of people she has to juggle and instruct; thus, when she discovers that her Santa Claus has been drinking and is now tipsy, she nearly loses it.
… when, to the rescue comes an elderly and sweet, white-bearded gentleman (Edmund Gwenn), who’s been watching this all along.
We, the audience, have been privy to a tiny scene with this man just before Doris meets him: on his way to the parade, he stopped at a shop to chat with the man decorating the window with a scene of Santa with his reindeer and sleigh. The old man pointed out a couple of mistakes: Dasher was in the wrong position on the team, and Donner’s antlers didn’t have the correct number of points. Yeah, right, said the young man, waving off the old gent’s advice as eccentricity, and the old man had gone his way with an indulgent smile.
Now, when a desperate Doris asks him if he’d like to be their Santa Claus, he readily agrees. Before long, this year’s Santa is sitting up on his sleigh, waving to adoring crowds of children. [Little bit of trivia: this scene was actually filmed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade of 1946, and Edmund Gwenn did do his bit as Santa in it].
He’s such a hit that when the parade is over, a relieved Doris asks him if he’d like to also take on the task of being the store Santa at Macy’s. Sit at the store, listening to dozens of children who come to confide in him and tell him what they want for Christmas. He agrees, just as eagerly as he had for the parade.
Doris’s boss, Mr Shellhammer (Philip Tonge) gives the new Santa some further instructions, rather more to the point, considering this is (all said and done) a commercial enterprise. He hands over a list of toys of which they’ve got excess stock at the store. Whenever a child seems even the teeniest bit undecided, these are the toys Santa should recommend. They have to get rid of the excess stock.
Santa doesn’t say so to Mr Shellhammer, but he’s pretty disgusted, as he tells a fellow worker, a teenager named Alfred. Alfred commiserates, and agrees that Christmas has become far too commercialized; nobody seems to remember its spirit. ‘Christmas isn’t just a day,’ as the old man says emphatically. ‘It’s a frame of mind.’
Meanwhile, we catch up with Doris Walker. Doris is a divorcee who lives with her little daughter Susan (Natalie Wood, a far cry from the siren of later years). When Doris gets home, the maid informs her that Susan has gone off to the next-door apartment, which overlooks the street, and from where she can watch the parade. Doris isn’t surprised; though she herself has never met her neighbour, she knows that Susan has made friends with him.
This man is a young lawyer named Fred Gailey (John Payne). He’s very fond of Susan (or ‘Susie’, as he calls her), and as they chat while watching the parade, he’s surprised to discover Susie’s belief that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. As the conversation progresses, he realizes it’s not just Santa Claus Susie isn’t interested in, it’s also everything else that most children her age would believe ardently in: fairy tales, fantasy, make-believe.
She informs Gailey that her mother has taught her to use common sense and not to be swayed by ideas as stupid as this, no matter what the world may say.
While the man and the little girl are talking, Doris arrives to collect Susie (or ‘Susan’, as Doris always calls her). Susan introduces her mother to her friend, and then pleads with Doris to invite Gailey home for Thanksgiving dinner. Please, please? This is embarrassing for Doris—this is the first time she’s met the man, after all—but she finally agrees. And, because of a chance remark by Susan, realizes that Gailey had egged her on.
… because he wants to get to know Doris. This is very flattering, and Doris cannot help but smile at that.
Next day, at Macy’s, there’s a long line of children, accompanied by harried-looking parents, waiting to meet Santa Claus. The old man (who’s said his name is Kris Kringle) is sitting benevolently on his big chair and listening patiently and kindly to each child who comes along. One little boy arrives with his very harassed mother (the brilliant Thelma Ritter, in a small but memorable cameo). When asked what he’d like for Christmas, the boy mentions a particular toy fire engine—with all the bells and whistles.
His irritated mother pipes up that she’s been to every blessed toy store in town, her feet are worn and she’s ready to drop with fatigue—but that fire engine can’t be found anywhere. She’s at the end of her tether, and though she doesn’t say it, she looks as if she’d gladly throttle her son.
But Santa Claus soothes her. There’s no need to worry. He knows exactly where to get that fire engine. In so-and-so store, at so-and-so price. A good bargain, isn’t it? The little boy is ecstatic, and his mother is skeptical. Why should a Macy’s employee be directing customers to other stores?
Since she doesn’t have any other option, she decides to go, anyway, but she still can’t swallow this.
And Santa Claus doesn’t stop there. Soon, lots of puzzled parents are accompanying excited children out of Macy’s and to rival stores, having received clear leads on where to get which particular toy. And at what price. Doris and her boss, Mr Shellhammer, are shell-shocked. What is this man doing?! Doris, in fact, is so angry that she hurries to her office and calls for Kris Kringle’s employee card to see who this man is.
The card carries the most baffling information.
This man must be stark raving mad, decides Doris. An out-and-out lunatic. No wonder he’s behaving like that, sending off all their business to their rivals. As soon as there’s a break in the horde of children queuing up to meet Santa, Doris summons him to her office and (politely) fires him, by saying that the Santa Macy’s used to employ earlier has unexpectedly turned up, and they feel they owe it to him to give him his job back. Mr Kringle is sweet enough to not raise any objections.
In the meantime, though, there’s been an unexpected development. Among those many Macy’s customers trooping off to other stores, following leads given generously by Santa Claus, some have started to say what a refreshing change this is. Christmas has become so commercialized these past years, and it’s such a relief to find a store (Macy’s) which actually upholds the Christmas spirit—of helping others out, even at a cost to themselves. That Macy’s should recommend other stores is very commendable; in fact, even those who aren’t regulars at Macy’s swear that they will now start coming only to this store.
When this reaches the ears of Mr Macy himself, he’s very pleased, and decides that this should become store policy, at least for the festive season. They will print out a special catalogue for items they don’t stock, but which their competitors do—and customers will be directed to the appropriate rival store if they come around asking for those items.
And he wants to personally meet and thank the employee—the Santa Claus—responsible for this very heartwarming initiative.
Doris hurries to repair the damage and get Kris Kringle back. She succeeds, because he’s such a nice old man, he has no trouble accepting the indecisiveness of this woman who hires him one moment, fires him the next, and now wants to hire him again.
But, as part of the process of hiring him, Doris now is obliged to go through one more step: Kris Kringle must undergo a psychological test put to him by Mr Sawyer, Macy’s in-house psychology expert.
Mr Sawyer (Porter Hall) has a nervous tic—he keeps tugging at one bushy eyebrow—and is short-tempered and brusque. Kris Kringle, who (as he admitted to Doris) has been through this test several times and has always passed it with flying colours, does so this time as well, even anticipating most of Mr Sawyer’s questions.
Mr Sawyer is most displeased, but he has no option but to clear Mr Kringle. Mr Kringle is now, no questions asked, a Macy’s employee, and the pride and joy of (nearly—except Mr Sawyer) everybody at the store. However, two things need to be sorted out, and both of them connected to the residential address Mr Kringle’s provided on his employee card: an old age home.
Firstly, Doris contacts the place and speaks to the resident doctor there, who kindly consents to come over to Macy’s and meet her regarding Kris Kringle. Yes, he agrees; Mr Kringle does seem to have this long-held delusion that he’s Santa Claus. But, besides that, he’s a perfectly normal, perfectly sweet old gentleman. Nothing whatsoever wrong with him.
Their hearts set at ease, Mr Shellhammer and Doris now have to solve another problem: the old age home is too far away for Mr Kringle to do the journey to and from Macy’s every day. For the duration of his employment at Macy’s, it will be better if Mr Kringle were to stay somewhere close by. Mr Shellhammer says he’ll try, with the help of a couple of extra-strong martinis, to sweeten Mrs Shellhammer into agreeing to let Mr Kringle stay in their spare room.
It doesn’t come to that, however, because Mr Kringle—invited to Doris’s home for dinner that evening—happens to meet Fred Gailey, and the two men strike up such a strong friendship that Gailey invites Kringle to stay with him. Mr Kringle happily agrees.
That evening, too, after dinner, Mr Kringle makes friends with Susan. He tucks her into bed, chats with her, and is surprised to discover Susan’s cynicism. Their conversation, too, makes him realize that the responsibility for this lies with her bitter mother (who, in a moment of anger, lets drop the fact that she had had her head full of happy dreams and fantasies when she fell in love and got married, only to have her dreams shattered).
Before he’s gone off to Gailey’s apartment for the night, though, Kris Kringle has made inroads: he’s taught Susan how to imitate a monkey (and she’s discovered just how much fun that can be). Susan no longer thinks the neighbourhood children’s games, which often consist of them trying to pretend to be animals, are silly.
And, the next day, he’s back at work—making Macy’s and its customers very happy indeed. Everything seems to be smooth sailing. But there’s Mr Sawyer, lurking in the wings, getting ready to wield a blow… by accusing Kris Kringle, in a court of law, of being insane.
Even though I do review a Christmas film this time of the year every year, not always do the films really appeal to me. Some turn out too sappy for words. Others are just a little too predictable. This one, I thought, was gearing up to be another of those, concentrating on the ‘magic’ of Christmas. It turned out, though, to be somewhat different. Yes, the Christmas spirit is there (what’s a Christmas film without the Christmas spirit?), but it’s well tempered with a generous dose of humour, and an interesting observation on Christmas, which is (sadly) still very relevant even today.
What I liked about this film:
Its two main messages, and the (sometimes tongue-in-cheek, often outright humorous) way of conveying those messages. That Christmas has become increasingly commercialized, and that its true spirit—the sharing of joy, universal love and kindness—is now mostly submerged, is nothing new. What is ironic, though, is that Miracle on 34th Street actually uses a commercial establishment, Macy’s, as a setting to get that message across.
The other message, equally important, is the one of fantasy versus reality, of imagination versus common sense. Doris, bitter and disillusioned after her failed marriage, staunchly refuses to believe in fluff like an old man, clad in red, who comes about every Christmas, granting the wishes of children around the world. And Kris Kringle claims to be that very man, Santa Claus. The war between Doris (who insists on always calling her daughter Susan, even though others—like Gailey—call the little girl Susie) and Mr Kringle is a gentle one, even benign; but it is a war. Not in your face, not rude, but a definite battle between beliefs.
(I also really liked the way the story handled the question of Kris Kringle’s real identity. Is he just a sweet and eccentric old man who imagines he’s Santa Claus, and because of some lucky coincidences, manages to get people things they need? Or is he, as he claims, Santa Claus? There are no answers in black and white; it is, as the film shows, all a matter of what you believe).
What I didn’t like:
Nothing, really. This is, overall, an amusing little film. Not exceptionally memorable, not absolutely forgettable.
And, one last little bit of trivia:
Natalie Wood, who was eight years old when Miracle on 34th Street was made, was under the impression that Edmund Gwenn was really Santa Claus. She realized he was not when he came to the premier of the film clean-shaven.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, and a wonderful 2016!