Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Holiday Watch: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

I think the first time I saw Miracle on 34th Street (1947) was in high school when some teacher or other was trying to kill time before Christmas break.  Between you, me and the wall, what I probably remember most from that first viewing was Maureen O'Hara.  Yes, I was a teenage boy.  Sue me.

But even with that viewing, I dug the spirit of the whole thing.  It's a great example of a true all-ages movie you could take the kids and Grandma to and enjoy it yourself.  It's a fantasy, yeah, but it's one that exists in the adult world of drunk Santas, incompetent counselors, exhausted parents, Bellevue Hospital, legal issues, politics and divorce.

When the Santa scheduled to participate in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade falls down drunk on the job, a fellow who looks the part of Santa who firmly believes his name to be Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) happily takes over the part at the behest of the overburdened parade-runner, Doris (Maureen O'Hara).  Doris' neighbor, an affable attorney with just amazingly good hair (John Payne) has befriended Doris' daughter, Susan (a very young Natalie Wood who can throw side-eye like nobody's business).  Asked to continue the role as the official Macy's Santa, Kris accepts the role and his approach as Santa wins over new customers - but he gets crosswise with the company HR quack and winds up committed to Bellevue.  To keep him from winding up in Bellevue permanently, John Payne and his remarkable haircut go ahead and decide to prove that not only is Santa real, Kris is our boy.

In a lot of ways, Miracle on 34th Street is more or less the Platonic Ideal of a Christmas movie all Hallmark movies are trying to equal.   Divorced mom.  Has put Christmas and silliness well behind her.  Job oriented.  Raising kid to be robot/ practical.  Meets earnest guy.  Santa wants to get them the hook-up.  Heck, there's a repeating of some serious fortune cookie wisdom.  Although, in this case, it's really just them defining the word "faith" over and over.
It's hard to say what the difference is between this movie and the previously discussed Hallmark movies.  Certainly the charm is in place that the Hallmark movies are lacking, production value, and it has a third act that's a bit of a surprise and a great pay-off.  But, in a lot of ways, what works about the movie is that it does take place in a very grounded reality.  It isn't a movie with sharp edges (It's a Wonderful Life is arguably the far starker picture), but it hasn't put rubber bumpers on everything to tell the story and make it something utterly unobjectionable.  People are heels, politics trumps common sense (in Santa's favor), people get their wives drunk in order to ask them difficult questions.  There's some humor built in that's going to go right over the head of the kids, and if I read it right - I'm not sure the psychologist isn't having an affair with his secretary (watch how she has the same reaction to the wife's phone calls as the shrink).

I've only seen bits and pieces of the 1990's version of the movie, and while it's, you know, fine...  There's such a gloss over the movie, and an insistence of setting mood with filter light and sweeping music and such a... 90's-ness to the whole operation, you forget that the original doesn't rely on any of that.

Our Kris Kringle is aware of the mean-ness out there, and he's the one flickering light.  Whether he's the real Santa or not (and the movie certainly leaves it up to the viewer to decide) is unimportant.  But believing in the possibility of goodness, fairplay and charity?  Doesn't really matter if that's the Real McCoy or a nice old guy who works by those same rules.  The spirit of thinking things can be better, and maybe the guys who are crazy are the ones telling you it can't be better.

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