Saturday, December 23, 2017

Stubs - Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Starring: Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn Directed by George Seaton. Screenplay by George Seaton. based on a story by Valentine Davies. Produced by William Perlberg. Run Time: 96 minutes. USA Black and White. Comedy, Drama, Christmas

Perennial Christmas film is a term that gets tossed around, but there are only a few films that qualify. For me It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is one of those. For many, Miracle on 34th Street has been one since its first release. Based on a story by Valentine Davies, who was inspired to write it while standing in line at a department store while Christmas shopping. It was clear to Davies, as it is clear to just about everyone these days, that Christmas has become more and more commercialized. He gave the story to his friend, George Seaton, who turned into a screenplay. Davies would also turn the story into a novel, which he published in 1947.

Originally called The Big Heart, Seaton presented it to 20th Century Fox Studios, which loved the script and moved it into production. But there was one issue, real-life stores, Macy’s and Gimbel’s, figured prominently and in order to use their names, they would eventually have to give their approval. The studio took a bit of a risk. While they made the stores familiar with the film going into production, no representative from either store was allowed to see the film until it was finished. But Fox had faith that they would be pleased with their depictions in the finished film, which they were. Since the film takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas and the studio wanted to not only capture some of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the film, but also shoot before and during it.

To do that, the film went into pre-production in October 1946. This would necessitate the lead actress, Maureen O’Hara, to return prematurely from her first trip home to Ireland since World War II. O’Hara began acting in amateur theater in her native country, at the age of 10. At 14, she started acting in the Abbey Theater, where at the age of 15, she won her first award for her acting. At age 17, she was offered her first major role. She attracted the attention of Harry Richman, an American actor/singer who encouraged her to get a film test at Elstree Studios. Even though the test didn’t go well, actor Charles Laughton saw it and with the approval of his business partner Erich Pommer, arranged to meet her. Laughton liked her, even appreciating her refusal to read an extract without preparation. She was signed to a seven-year contract with their newly formed company, Mayflower Pictures.

Her first film role was in Walter Forde's Kicking the Moon Around (1938), but the role was so small that O’Hara didn’t consider it a part of her own filmography. She would appear in a low-budget musical, My Irish Molly (1938), but her big break would come the following year, when she appeared as Mary Yellen in Jamaica Inn (1939), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and co-starring Laughton. Despite the film's less than glowing reception, O’Hara received praise.

Laughton was so pleased with her performance that he had her cast opposite him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) for RKO in Hollywood. Her agent, Lew Wasserman, arranged for her to get a pay increase from $80 to $700 a week. O’Hara made a major splash in Hollywood, even before her film was released. After the completion of the film, World War II started and Laughton sold her contract to RKO. The actress felt “completely abandoned in a strange and faraway place."

Her breakthrough role came starring opposite John Wayne in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) at Fox. It was made possible when Fox bought the rights from RKO to have her appear in one of their films every year. Her next film would be To the Shores of Tripoli (1942), a technicolor service film in which she co-starred with John Payne, her eventual co-star in Miracle on 34th Street.

The film, then called The Big Heart, went into production on November 26, 1946, with location shots before and during the parade. Macy's had granted them permission to film the parade, with the caveat that the parade could not be stopped to accommodate the filming. "It was a mad scramble to get all the shots we needed, and we got to do each scene only once," said Maureen O'Hara in her 2004 autobiography 'Tis Herself.

Actor Edmund Gwenn got to play Santa Claus that day. He was given the task of riding in the actual Santa Claus float during the parade and climbing to the top of the Macy's marquee. No one in the crowd was aware until the New York Times ran an article the next day. 

Meanwhile, Natalie Wood and John Payne are filmed watching the parade from inside and out through a window.

Following the parade, the cast and crew remained in New York to film on location in order to capture a realistic feel of the city during the Christmas season. With the store's permission, scenes were shot inside the real Macy's Herald Square during the month of December. But they had to shoot them at night since the store was busy during the day. In January 1947, the production moved to Los Angeles shooting on the 20th Century Fox studio lot. Filming continued until February 22, 1947, with additional scenes shot on February 28 and March 1. Retakes were done on March 24th.

The film opens with the camera following a man carrying a cane as he walks through the streets of New York City. We don’t see his face until he stops to correct a Christmas display in the front window of a closed store. The window dresser (Robert Gist) is apparently putting the reindeer of Santa’s team in the wrong order. The man (Edmund Gwenn) identifies himself as Kris Kringle.

Kris (Edmund Gwenn) tells the window dresser (Robert Gist)
that he's got the reindeer in the wrong positions.

Kris continues down to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is still setting up. He interacts with the Santa for the parade (Percy Helton), whom he discovers is drunk. Kris goes to tell Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), who is organizing the parade for Macy’s. Doris fires her Santa on the spot and then notices Kris’ resemblance to Santa and asks if he’ll ride on the float and Kris agrees.

Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) hires Kris as a last-second replacement for her now drunken Santa.

Meanwhile, Doris’ daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) is watching the parade in the front parlor of a neighbor, Fred Gailey’s (John Payne), apartment with a ringside view of the proceedings. When Doris comes home while the parade is in progress, she goes to Fred’s apartment to retrieve Susan. Over coffee, Doris tells Fred that she notices how nice he’s being to Susan. He tells her that he has been cultivating a friendship with Susan in hopes of meeting her. As they’re leaving, Susan asks her mother if Fred could come have Thanksgiving with them. Apparently, Fred had asked her to do that, but Doris agrees to let him come to dinner despite that.

Doris’ daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) watches the parade with neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne).

Because of his successful portrayal of Santa during the parade, Kris is hired to be Macy's store Santa.
On his first day at Macy’s, Kris meets Alfred (Alvin Greenman), a high school aged boy who works as a janitor at the store. Alfred, by his own admission, is overweight and relates to Kris that he enjoys dressing up like Santa for the kids in his neighborhood YMCA and hand out presents to them. Kris takes a liking to Alfred and sees in him the opposite of the drunken Santa he met at the parade.

On his first day on the job, Kris meet Alfred (Alvin Greenman).

Mr. Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), the head of the toy department and Doris’ boss, advises Kris to suggest certain toys that Macy’s has too much of to indecisive children. But when a child asks Kris for a particular toy, a firetruck, that his mother (Thelma Ritter) can’t find, he tells her where it can be found. When Shellhammer overhears this, he plans to fire Kris, but the mother tells him that the store has brought the spirit of the holiday back and vows to be a regular shopper in the future.

One mother (Thelma Ritter) tells Mr. Shellhammer (Philip
Tonge) how much she likes Macy's apparent new policy.

Later, when Fred brings Susan to the store to bring her to Doris, he insists that they stop and visit Santa. Doris, who was disillusioned by a bad marriage, has tried hard to make Susan a realist and not believe in myths, like Santa. Doris chastises Fred for filling her head with fairy tales. While they quarrel, Susan watches as Kris is confronted with a Dutch orphan (Marlene Lyden) who has been brought by her adopted mother (Mary Field) to meet Santa. The mother tries to apologize, but her daughter was insistent. Rather than an awkward situation, Kris speaks to the girl in fluent Dutch and the two sing a song together much to the awe of the mother and Susan, who now starts to think he might be the real Santa after all.

Kris is Susan's first in-store Santa.

But Doris wants to put a stop to it right away and brings Kris into her office to tell Susan he’s only playing a part. But Kris insists that he is indeed the real Santa. Doris asks to see Kris’ employment card. This is the first time that he says his name is Kris Kringle. Except for the fact he lists his residence as a home for the aged, everything else leads her to believe he’s insane. She tells Kris that their Santa from last year is now available and they’re going to hire him. And since there is only one Santa, Kris is out.

But before she can finalize his termination, she’s called up to R.H. Macy’s (Harry Antrim) office. He praises her and Shellhammer for developing the new policy of referring customers to other stores if Macy doesn’t have the item. He thinks it makes his store look like the one with heart. Even though they didn’t instigate the policy, they quietly take the credit.

After the meeting, Shellhammer convinces Doris not to fire Kris and suggest that they have him evaluated by Sawyer (Porter Hall), the company’s personnel director.

The next morning, Kris passes his psychological tests, though he does get one answer wrong (more on that later), but he does notice that Sawyer has a nervous tick. Asking him about it angers Sawyer, who recommends that Kris be dismissed right away and states that he thinks he’s a threat to himself and to the public.

Store psychologist Sawyer (Porter Hall) has a nervous tick that Kris asks about.

However, Doris has called Dr. Pierce (James Seay), the head of the Brooks Home for Old People, where Kris lives, and he counters Sawyer’s uneducated (he’s a Mr., not a Dr.) opinions. Pierce feels that Kris suffers from a delusion for good and insists that he’s not dangerous. He also suggests that Kris live closer to work until the job ends.

Dr. Pierce (James Seay) provides a contrary point of view to Sawyer's.

Doris and Shellhammer come up with the plan to have him live with Shellhammer and his wife in their son’s old room. Shellhammer tentatively agrees, but knows he’ll have to get his wife drunk before he asks her. For the time being, Doris agrees to take him home with her and feed him dinner.

Shellhammer gets his wife (Lela Bliss) drunk so she'll agree to have Kris stay with them.

But before Shellhammer can get Mrs. Shellhammer (Lela Bliss) loaded, Fred asks Kris to stay with him, thinking he can ride into work with Doris. That night, Susan reveals to Kris that she wants a real house for Christmas and shows him a magazine picture of her dream house. She tells him that if he’s the real Santa, he can make her dream come true. Although Kris makes no promises, he does agree to try to get it for her. Later, after getting ready for bed, Fred and Kris discuss how to proceed with the Walker women. Kris decides for them that he’ll work on Susan and Fred can work on Doris.

Fred and Kris discuss how to handle the Walker women.

The next day, Kris has lunch with Alfred, who reveals that according to Sawyer, playing Santa is evidence that Alfred has an unresolved guilt complex. Hearing this, Kris angrily confronts Sawyer and in frustration, bops him on the head with his cane. Sawyer pretends to be worse off than he really is and then lies about the causes of the encounter. Using a series of ruses, he contrives to have Kris committed to the mental ward at Bellevue.

Alfred tells Kris about Sawyer's diagnosis, which makes Kris upset.

Convinced that Doris participated in Sawyer's plot, Kris deliberately fails his competency tests. The hospital then contacts Fred, who comes to the hospital to see him. Fred convinces Kris that Doris knew nothing about the plan to commit him and agrees to help him gain his release.

Fred represents Kris in his competency hearing.

The District Attorney, Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan), thinks it’s a routine open and shut case and is about to get Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) to sign the commitment papers when Fred arrives and stops him. A trial date is set for a few days later. Sawyer tries to convince Fred to keep the trial from becoming a public spectacle, but that gives Fred the idea that he needs public support.

But a trial will prove to be tricky, not only for Fred but for the Judge. Charles Halloran (William Frawley), the Judge’s campaign manager, reminds him that he is up for re-election and does not want to be known as the Judge who found there was no Santa Claus.

Charles Halloran (William Frawley), the Judge's campaign manager, warns him against taking the case.

The District Attorney rests after calling Kris to the stand and hearing him admit he’s Santa Claus.

The Defense calls Mr. Macy to the stand, who, in the store’s best interest, claims that Kris is the real Santa Claus. On his way out of the courtroom, Macy fires Sawyer. Fred later calls the District Attorney’s son, Thomas Mara Jr. (Bobby Hyatt), to the stand. Not only has his father told him there is a Santa Claus, but he points out Kris as that person. Based on his son’s testimony, the DA has no choice but to concede that there is a Santa, but he insists that Fred prove that Kris is the real Santa.

During the trial, Fred has to admit to Doris that he’s lost his job with the law firm where he’s worked. She is not happy to hear that he’s thrown his future away to defend Kris, especially since they now seem to be in a relationship.

That night, in an effort to cheer Kris up, Doris and Susan write him a note. The next morning, a postal worker (Jack Albertson) sorting the mail sees the courthouse address for Santa. He convinces his supervisor (Guy Thomajan) to send all the letters addressed to Santa to the courthouse, in an effort to get rid of them.

On Christmas Eve, with the court already in session, Fred shows three letters addressed to Santa addressed to the Courthouse. While three letters aren’t enough proof, Fred has postal workers bring in sack after sack of letters and deposit them on the judge’s desk. Using the authority of the U.S. government and the postal service as proof, Fred claims they think Kris is the real Santa. The judge, seeing an out, dismisses the case and Kris is released. Kris doesn’t have time to celebrate, but before he leaves he invites Doris, Susan, and Fred to come to the Brooks Home the next day.

The Post Office delivers their letters to Santa to the courthouse.

On Christmas, at the Brooks Home, Kris presents Dr. Pierce with an X-ray machine purchased with a bonus from Macy's and with the help of Gimbel’s. Susan, though, is disappointed that Kris did not bring her what she wanted most. So disappointed, in fact, that she announces her disbelief in Santa. Doris, who has fallen in love with Fred, then explains that it is important to believe in something even if common sense says otherwise.

Christmas morning at the Brooks Home.

After the party, following directions from Kris, Fred drives Doris and Susan home. Susan is delighted when their circuitous route has them drive right past her dream house, which is also for sale. She makes Fred stop the car and rushes into the vacant and fortunately unlocked house. Susan's excitement is contagious and Fred proposes to Doris. After she accepts, Fred notices Kris's cane leaning against the wall by the fireplace.

Their route home takes them by Susan's dream house.

Fox knew what they had on their hands, but even though it would scream for a holiday release, they decided to release it on May 2, 1947, knowing that more people attend films during warm weather. But Darryl Zanuck and his marketing team devised a plan to play down the holiday-theme of the film. An example of this is the movie poster (above) which puts Edmund Gwenn into the background, concentrating instead on the light-hearted romantic comedy angle featuring prominently Maureen O’Hara and John Payne. The marketing apparently worked, as the film was a big hit, earning up to $2.7 million in rentals in the U.S.

Additionally, the film garnered generally positive reviews, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times calling it “the freshest little picture in a long time, and maybe even the best comedy of this year."

The film was also nominated for four Academy Awards, winning three: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. The one nomination it lost was Best Picture, which went to the much more serious Gentleman's Agreement. When is the last time you can remember a big summer hit being called out positively for story and acting?

Prior to the film’s release, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which had been a mostly local affair, was broadcast nationally in 1948, the year after the film’s release.

And as with anything successful, there have been remakes. As was the custom in its day, Lux Radio Theater adapted the film not once, but twice with broadcasts in 1947 and 1948. The entire cast participated in the first one, but Natalie Wood was absent from the second. Screen Director’s Playhouse also adapted the film into a half-hour radio play on two broadcasts featuring Edmund Gwenn.

In 1955, a one-hour television adaptation of the movie starring Thomas Mitchell as Kris, Macdonald Carey as Fred, Teresa Wright as Doris, and Sandy Descher as Susan aired as an episode of The 20th Century Fox Hour. A second TV adaption, this time live and in color, aired in 1959 featuring Ed Wynn and Orson Bean on NBC on the day after Thanksgiving.

Broadway took on the story with a musical, Here’s Love, written by Meredith Wilson, best known for The Music Man. The show ran for 334 performances from October 3, 1963, to July 25, 1964, at the Schubert Theatre.

TV would take a third shot at the story in 1973 featuring Jane Alexander, David Hartman, Roddy McDowall, Sebastian Cabot, Suzanne Davidson, Jim Backus, David Doyle and Tom Bosley.
And Hollywood wasn’t through, with a remake written by John Hughes, directed by Les Mayfield, and featuring Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, J. T. Walsh, Timothy Shea, James Remar, Jane Leeves, Simon Jones, William Windom and Mara Wilson. By now, Macy’s had enough and refused to give permission to use their name, so the store is referred to as Cole’s.

To round things up, there is also a stage play adapted in 2000 by Will Severin, Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder and John Vreeke, based on the novella, which is popular with Community Theater.

Despite all the remakes and adaptations, the 1947 film remains the definitive version. While I have not seen or heard any of the many versions, I can’t imagine that they could be nearly as effective as this film is. I did find myself welling up while watching, which isn’t something that happens all that often.

The story is quite the fantasy. The film doesn’t try to answer some of the obvious questions, like how does Santa live in an old-age home while monitoring the elves back at the North Pole? In fact, that part of the Christmas story is not even mentioned, though we do get the idea he’s going out after the verdict to make his legendary toy run.

There are also a couple of factual errors. Kris is very confident with his answers to the questions he’s asked in the several mental evaluations he’s been through, even bragging that he’s one of the few people to know that Daniel D. Tompkins was the Vice-President to John Quincy Adams. Problem is that Tompkins served under James Monroe and that Adam’s VP was actually John C. Calhoun. This oversight was actually corrected in the Screen Director’s Playhouse adaptation.

The other is that R.H. Macy, who is depicted in the film by Harry Antrim, actually died in 1877.

Despite these few minor errors, the film is quite enjoyable and heartwarming, having lost very little of its powers to entertain over the years. A lot of that has to do with the acting, which is quite good.
Maureen O’Hara plays a very modern woman for the time, no doubt shaped by personal and world events. A single working mother, she holds down not only a full-time job but an important position at a major retailer, though arguably a junior one. She seems to do well on her own, but lets Fred into her home and her heart. She even goes from one who has lost faith to one who believes.

This lack of faith is something she has passed on to her daughter, played by Natalie Wood. For a child actress, Wood is very good. Cute without being precocious, Wood plays Susan with a subtle touch. She manages to play different without being odd and you get the real sense that she is coping with her own changing opinions. But in the end, she still has the exuberance that comes with not only the young at heart, but the young in age.

One could argue that the relationship between Fred and Doris blooms very quickly, from neighbors/strangers on Thanksgiving to engaged and buying a house on Christmas Day, but that’s how movies at the time seemed to treat love as if there was a fire burning under the feet of those involved.

While not nearly as well remembered as his co-star, John Payne has an earnest quality in this film without being overly sentimental or wishy-washy. He has pegged his future on Doris and while he is still his own man, he does manage to win her heart. Payne had been in films since Samuel Goldwyn’s Dodsworth (1936) and had also appeared in Indianapolis Speedway (1939) before leaving Warner Bros. for 20th Century Fox. After serving in the war effort, Payne would appear opposite Maureen O'Hara in Sentimental Journey (1946) and The Razor’s Edge (1946).

His role in Miracle on 34th Street would be his best known, as well as his last with 20th Century Fox. After asking for his release every week for eight months, he was finally granted it.

Edmund Gwenn, a British born actor, had been acting since 1985 and in films since the silent film The Real Thing at Last (1916). Other than playing Kris Kringle, Gwenn was also known for his work with film director Alfred Hitchcock, appearing in his silent film The Skin Game (1921) as Hornblower; Foreign Correspondent (1940) as Rowley and The Trouble with Harry (1955) as Capt. Albert Wiles. Gwenn would also act in such films as Mister 880 (1950), for which he would receive his second Academy nomination; Bonzo Goes to College (1952); and Them! (1954). In Miracle on 34th Street, his appearance as Kris Kringle is a standard by which other film Santa Clauses will be measured. Not only does he look the part, but the personality he projects is what you would think Santa would act like if he walked amongst us.

A clever story, it is easy to see why this is a perennial Christmas film. I would put it up there with some of my personal favorites, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), and The Bishop’s Wife (1947). This was the first time I had ever made a concerted effort to actually watch Miracle on 34th Street, now I wonder what took me so long.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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