Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Film Review: Miracle on 34th Street

"Miracle on 34th Street"  **** (out of ****)

As has been tradition since the inception of this blog, during the month of December, Christmas themed movies will be reviewed through the month.

Throughout the years, as I reviewed Christmas themed movies in the month of December, I thought I had reviewed all of the contemporary Christmas classics and the new favorites. Over the years I have reviewed "A Christmas Carol" (1938), "White Christmas" (1954), "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), "The Polar Express" (2004), "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) and religious themed movies such as "The Nativity Story" (2006) among them. And, as I started to beat my head thinking of titles to review this year, it dawned on me. I haven't reviewed the original "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947). How could I over look it?

"Miracle on 34th Street" is a holiday classic. It is one of those movies young and old movie fans alike enjoy. You don't have to be a movie buff to have seen it. It is a movie like "It's A Wonderful Life" in that, I've never met anyone that didn't like it. No matter how casual a movie fan you are, there is a very good chance you saw "Miracle on 34th Street" at one time during your childhood.

In our house "Miracle on 34th Street" wasn't one of our annual traditions but it is a movie I have fond memories of watching as a child.

What makes "Miracle of 34th Street" so special is it is a genuine feel good movie. As an adult, the movie makes you remember the joy of being a child. The movie is about faith. A kind of faith only a child has. It tells its story through such likable characters and with such good cheer, it becomes infectious. It makes you want to believe. Maybe not believe in Santa Claus but believe that wonderful things are capable of happening. It makes you believe in the value of kindness and generosity. And it makes you admire the innocence of childhood.

However, "Miracle on 34th Street" doesn't have to be watched only at Christmas time. Like any good movie it can be watched any time of year. This is a well-written, superbly acted movie. A remake of this movie was made in 1994. It was not a bad movie mind you. It did most of the things this movie did. But, there was a difference. You can't remake the charm of this movie. You can't find actors better than the ones used here. This will always be the definitive version of this movie. That's not necessarily a put down of remakes of this movie but a comment on the special quality this movie has.

Maureen O' Hara stars as Doris Walker. She works at Macy's Department store. As the movie opens she is planning the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. She finds out the person hired to portray Santa Claus is drunk and not able to participate in the parade. Caught in a bind, on the spot she hires an elderly gentlemen, who pointed out the condition of the drunken Santa. The man goes by the name Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) and he truly believes he is Santa Claus. He is originally from the North Pole and knows the position of all of his flying reindeer that pull his sled.

Doris however doesn't believe the man. Doris is a rational, sensible, young, attractive, modern, independent woman. She has a daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood) and teaches the child not to believe in Santa Claus. There are no such thing as fairy tales either. Doris wants to be completely honest with her child and not put foolish ideas in her head.

We learn the reason for this behavior on Doris's part is because of a failed love life. When Susan was a little girl, her parents divorced. When Doris explains to a neighbor, Fred (John Payne), why she has raised her child not to believe in Santa, she goes off on a tirade about Prince Charming, and the audience knows all they need to know. Of course it goes back to an old, cliche notion, that the root of a woman's problem is always a man. A woman's happiness or sadness is dependent on a man.

Fred has taking a liking to Doris and to Susan. But, with her broken heart, how can Fred ever get Doris to give him a chance? If Doris can't open her heart to believe in Santa Claus, and accept the possibility that all things are possible if we have faith, then Fred doesn't stand a chance. And that's the theme of the film. Believe. Don't ever stop believing good things can happen.

If there is something "Miracle on 34th Street" doesn't do well it is the way it handles the love interest between Doris and Fred. In one scene they aren't a couple and the next time we see them together Doris mentions they have spent the last few days together and have discussed building a future together. The audience hasn't seen any of those scenes or heard the two of them talk about being a couple. Heck, I didn't even know Doris was interested in Fred.

The movie also doesn't show her heart warming towards Kris. She makes declarations in two scenes about growing fond of him, but, the audience hasn't seen a slow, steady build-up to that statement. These kind of scenes may very well have been written in the script and may have even been filmed. The problem may have been in the editing room. These are important scenes which would have establish characters. Sadly they are missing.

Instead of scenes between Doris and Fred or Doris and Kris, the movie settles for a trial sub-plot with Kris on trial and must prove he is a sane person and the real Santa Claus. This takes up a majority of the picture.

Still, these scenes are very funny. The judge for the hearing, Judge Harper (Gene Lockhart) begins to worry about the political implications of the hearings if he should have to declare Kris insane. What would the papers say? Judge declares Santa Claus crazy! The Judge is up for re-election and his campaign manager (William Frawley) warns him not to rule against the kind old man who believes he is Santa Claus. It would cause a union backlash against the Judge.

Because so much time is spent on this angle of the plot, with Kris as the center of attention, one thing that bothers me is the billing for the movie. Maureen O' Hara and John Payne are given top billing, above the title of the movie. Edmund Gwenn is listed with the supporting characters. This isn't fair in my opinion. When I think of this movie, to be honest, I don't think of Maureen O' Hara or John Payne. I think of Edmund Gwenn first. The movie is about Santa Claus. It is not a screwball comedy between O' Hara and Payne. It could have been. They could have taken the "Adam's Rib" (1949) approach. Payne's character is a lawyer who defends Kris during the hearing, O' Hara's character could have been the prosecutor, and during the hearing, while they are fighting, they fall in love. But that's not the case. At the very least Gwenn's name should have been billed equally with O' Hara and Payne. I understand, O' Hara and Payne were the box-office names but Gwenn's role is equally important to the movie.

"Miracle on 34th Street" was directed by George Seaton. Prior to this movie he directed the entertaining Betty Grable vehicle "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim" (1947). He would go on to direct "The Country Girl" (1954) with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, a movie which I believe is a masterpiece. Seaton was nominated for a best director Academy Award. He did win the best screenplay award for that picture and Kelly won the best actress award that year. Seaton would also go on to direct "Teacher's Pet" (1958) with Clark Gable and Doris Day.

The movie also has a terrific supporting cast; Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Jerome Cowan and William Frawley (also spot Thelma Ritter in a brief role). This could have been the supporting cast for a Preston Sturges comedy!

"Miracle on 34th Street" received a total of four Academy Award nominations including best picture. It won three of the nominations; best supporting actor (Gwenn), best original story (Valentine Davies) and best screenplay (Seaton). It lost the best picture Oscar that year to "A Gentlemen's Agreement" (1947). Also nominated that year for best picture was another film that has become a holiday favorite, "The Bishop's Wife".

"Miracle on 34th Street" is a wonderful film to watch any time of the year. It holds up to repeated viewings and would be a great movie to introduce younger children to.