Miracle on 34th Street (review)

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The Spirit of Christmas

Wouldn’t it be nice if Santa Claus were really real? Not only would parents the world over save a ton of money every Christmas, but it would also do away with the kinds of awkward questions children ask, like: How come Santa doesn’t visit poor kids?

Miracle on 34th Street is, as all of us who love this classic film know, the story of how Macy’s department store in New York City not only found the real Santa Claus but hired him to, well, play Santa Claus. A last-minute replacement for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade’s Santa — in which Santa, in full sleigh-and-reindeer regalia, traditionally brings up the rear — the man who calls himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is such a hit with the crowd that Macy’s parade honcho Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara: How Green Was My Valley) promptly hires him to sit in the big chair in the store and listen to kids’ wish lists. When toy-department manager Mr. Shellhammer (Philip Tonge) instructs Kris to push the overstocked toys on kids who haven’t made up their minds, Kris is appalled. Instead, he sends parents to other stores — sometimes even Macy’s big rival Gimbels — when Macy’s doesn’t carry whatever a kid asked for. This causes an uproar, naturally, and things snowball to the point at which Kris — who insists he is actually the real Santa Claus — ends up in court trying to keep himself from being committed to a mental hospital.

Not only must Kris prove to the world — and, even worse, cynical New Yorkers — that he’s telling the truth, but he has a “test case” in Doris and her skeptical young daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood: West Side Story). A child of divorce who thinks fairy tales and playing and Santa Claus are “silly,” Susan has yet to have her imagination awakened. A prim, sophisticated child, she’s capable of working in cahoots with the Walkers’ neighbor, the handsome lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne), in an effort to get him and her mother together, but she doesn’t know how to pretend, say, to be an animal. It’s as if she passed from babyhood directly to adulthood without ever learning the value of fantasy. For Kris, who believes that “the important thing is to make children happy,” winning over the serious Susan is his most important goal.

Of course Kris isn’t really, really Santa: If he is, why is he living in a nursing home on Long Island? Shouldn’t he be at the North Pole, especially during what would be his busiest time of year? If Santa were real, parents of kids in Macy’s wouldn’t grimace when kids ask Santa for some impossible-to-find toy, right? Because the parents wouldn’t need to worry about finding it — Santa will bring it, won’t he? And if Santa will bring all the asked-for toys, why bother sending parents to other stores to find them? And the biggest “if” of all: If people were waking up on Christmas morning and finding stuff under the tree they hadn’t put there themselves, there’d be no need to have a court hearing to determine the truth.

But Miracle on 34th Street isn’t actually about whether Kris is the jolly old elf or just “a nice man with a white beard” — it’s about whether it’s insane to believe in the giving spirit of Christmas in our world today. I say “today” because even though Miracle is more than half a century old, the rampant commercialism that the film protests is still with us now — and it’s probably even worse. Kris tells the drunk parade Santa he replaces that the drunk is “a disgrace to the tradition of Christmas” — and that indictment covers, by extension, Macy’s department store and all it represents. The store psychologist, Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), tells the nice young janitor who plays Santa at the local Y that it’s a “guilt complex” that makes men dress up and give stuff away — generosity as psychosis. Macy’s, “the store with a heart,” expands Kris’s referral idea across the rest of the store, because customers love it. Ostensibly the store is putting spirit ahead of profit, but — heh heh — they’ll make even more money than ever.

It’s a depressingly familiar attitude, but Kris is the refreshing antidote. My favorite scene in Miracle on 34th Street is the one in which Kris performs perhaps his most kind-hearted act: He speaks to a little Dutch girl, who knows no English, in her own language. It’s a sweet and moving moment, and the delight on the girl’s face is all the thanks anyone could want for giving such a gift. That is the kind of gift that makes Christmas worth celebrating.

And whether a fat man in red actually lives at the North Pole or not doesn’t matter. We can all still believe in Santa.

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