Thursday, December 5, 2013

CANON OF FILM: "MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET"

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)

Director: George Seaton

Screenplay: George Seaton based on the story by Valentine Davies



You lose track of time in living in Las Vegas sometimes. I thought it was still Septmeber yesterday when I realized that the pizza place, the Starbucks, the sandwich place, the Panda Express, and the second Starbucks on College and Horizon were all covered in garland. It feels way too early to think about Christmas to me, but it’s a good excuse to talk about holiday movies and traditions. I think the best traditions would probably involve bad Bing Crosby music, family get-togethers, which are quickly followed by family-get-the-hell-out-of-my-house-togethers, egg nog sprinkled with just a slight touch of nutmeg, and half a bottle of Captain Morgan’s, hot cocoa with little marshmallows and the other half of the bottle of Captain Morgan’s, forgetting to decorate the fake Christmas tree because you know nobody will ever take it down until February, and while we wait for Santa to bring us the gifts that we told our parents that we wanted instead of the clothes and books that they actually gave us, we all sit around one of the TVs in the house, if we aren’t completely plastered by the Captain Morgan’s egg nog, and watch our favorite holiday specials, or play poker over cheesecake and coffee if the specials aren’t good and most of which aren’t really all that special. (Once you’ve seen “A Judy Garland Christmas”, you have no reason to ever really see it again.) But despite this cynicism there are still some that get me in the jolly mood. “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown,” is far and away the best of the holiday special programming, followed by “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the cartoon, not the bad Jim Carrey movie. There are three movies that have become holiday staples as well: “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “A Christmas Story.” (I know, we all have our personal other favorite Christmas movies too, mine for instance is Richard Curtis’s “Love, Actually.” [My mom’s favorite Christmas movie is “Die Hard,” stretching the definition of a Christmas movie a little bit, but whatever.])

Of those three that are undeniable must sees come holiday time, in my opinion, “Miracle…” is far away the best of these and the one that I think holds up better year after year. It takes a premise that is absurd, and decides to let the film play out not with cynicism, but with glee. It’s the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, (an early example of product placement in film) and Santa Clause is fairly drunk, so a nice old man with a white beard takes his place in an emergency. And as a Santa, he receives glowing reviews, including from the daughter of the parade organizer, Susan, (A very young Natalie Wood) even though she seems to have first-hand knowledge that there is no such man as Santa Clause. Edmund Gwenn, one of the greatest of all character actors won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his delightful work as Kris Kringle, who finds himself struggling to convince people that he is in fact the real Santa Clause. One of my favorite shots is seeing the insert of Maureen O’Hara looking at Kris Kringle’s application from, to check his real name, and seeing that he indeed put down Kris Kringle, and all the reindeer as next of kin. Up until that point, you don’t think they’re actually going there with the film, despite some hints. That really must’ve been a shock to a 1947 audience. In other hands, the premise would’ve been used for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch or something like that, but they take it seriously, but still keep the movie in the realm of the fantastic. The seriousness comes in both the supporting actors like William Frawley and Jerome Cowan as the District Attorney, but also in the John Payne character, who defends Santa Clause with all seriousness, at the same time falling for O’Hara, letting it show with his actions, not with his feelings, up until the end, partly ‘cause she’s a single mother, partly because of the case. That’s an unusually nuanced performance as well. If you don’t know what happens at the end, then you must still be 4 years old, or really had a weird childhood. It belongs on the same fantasy shelf as “Harvey” or some of those wondrous flights of fancy, but the movie never talks down to its audience, and it gives us legitimate reasons why some sane people, skeptics even, find themselves believing in the impossible. Christmas films aren’t really about logic anyway, they’re there to get you in the mood to feel and believe that you can believe in miracles, and really, there isn’t anything wrong about that. It’s also interesting to note that the miraculous events of the movie, really aren’t that miraculous. They’re just like most miraculous things, just simple acts like writing a letter. I’ll stop there, because I’m giving away wonderful ending scene in the courthouse trying to determine whether or not he’s insane. Don’t think too much here, this film is just for believers, and those who want to believe in Santa Clause.    


Note: Some stations have aired “Miracle…” nonstop or occasionally throughout the holiday season usually in Black & White, but also in the horrible “colorized,” version that got out back when people started the colorization of black and white films back in the '80s. Most people have come to their senses on that but this is maybe the only film that is still regularly aired in color once in a while, despite the b&w version, not only being better but cheaper to air. Don’t watch the colorized version of anything, it ruins the original essence of the film, and it looks particularly bad in this film. Most networks have stopped airing “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which was even more atrocious; basically if it was meant to be seen in b&w, then it should be in b&w. There’s exceptions to that rule; I have no idea why they still air the colorized version. 
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