Director: George Seaton
Writer: George Seaton (Based on a story by Valentine Davies)
Starring: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood
“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”
This is the line upon which the entire premise of Miracle on 34th Street hinges, a black and white film from 1947 that tests just how colourful your imagination is, just how strong your faith is, and just how willing you are to believe in something akin to magic.
It’s a film beautiful in its subtlety, highly-relatable in terms of its characters, and inspiring in its simple, but thought-provoking dialogue.
Written and directed by George Seaton, Miracle on 34th Street tells the tale of the practical and capable Doris Walker, played by Maureen O’Hara, and her attempts to single-handedly bring up her daughter Susan, played by a very young Natalie Wood.
Walker’s aim is for her daughter to be self-sufficient, not the sort of young lady to believe in myths and fairytales, and certainly not the sort of young lady who hopes that Prince Charming will come along and fix all her problems. She says as much, when she declares “… by filling them full of fairy tales they grow up considering life a fantasy instead of a reality.
They keep waiting for Prince Charming to come along. And when he does, he turns out to be a…” Her voice trails off leaving us to draw our own conclusions, to fill in the blanks for a part of her life that we haven’t been privy to.
Susan herself, we soon realise, has learned every lesson her mother has taught her, and learned them well. She’s a grim little lady, with the air of one far older than her diminutive size indicates. She nods wisely, opines primly, and rarely smiles. In fact we’re introduced to just how practical her views on life are when she dismisses her next door neighbour, Fred Gailey’s (played by John Payne) claims that giants once existed.
Then there’s Gailey himself, who clearly has a soft corner for his rather lovely neighbour, and does everything he can to help out. In fact, it’s Walker and Gailey’s characters that are so interesting in their contrasts. Her, the practical event director of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. And him, the far from cynical lawyer.
Into this cast of characters’ lives steps Mr Kringle, a white-bearded gentleman, with twinkling eyes, a kind heart, and an ability to do good deeds just to make other people happy. When we’re first introduced to him, he seems a touch loopy, pointing out the errors in the way Santa’s reindeer have been arranged in a store window display. But in the next scene he seems like a sensible elderly gent, admonishing Walker, “I am not in the habit of substituting for spurious Santa Clauses!” But he eventually does so anyway.
It is this very gentleman, played by Edmund Gwenn in his Oscar-winning role as Kris Kringle, who is a pivotal character in the film. Is he just a kind elderly gentleman who suffers harmless delusions that make him believe he is Santa Claus? Or could he possibly be the Santa Claus? The one who sneaks down chimneys, dashes about in a sleigh and keeps tabs on who is naughty and nice? Well, Kringle finds himself under trial to prove he is Mr Claus himself, failing which he will be institutionalised. And here is when things get very interesting.
After all, it is at this point in the film that you as a viewer find your own belief and faith on trial. For, the direction in which you lean could well indicate the sort of human being you are. If you find yourself rooting for Mr Kringle and Mr Claus to be one and the same, you’re likely the eternal optimist. If you find yourself tut-tutting and thinking it’s simply impossible for the gentleman to escape being committed, you could well be a realist, if not a cynic. Either way, the movie makes you think.
And it is this ability of Seaton’s (with all due credit to Valentine Davies, upon whose tale the script is based) to write a Christmas movie that is so steeped in wonder, without the traditional cliches of presents miraculously conjured up, bells mysteriously ringing, and the sound of reindeer hooves and “ho-ho-hos”, that really makes Miracle on 34th Street stand out.
It’s a film beautiful in its subtlety, highly-relatable in terms of its characters, and inspiring in its simple, but thought-provoking dialogue. Lovely lines, such as the quote that you see in the beginning of this piece, dot the script all through.
It deals with characters who are successful in their own right, have seemingly comfortable lives, but still need a gentle reminder, every now and again, to have faith.
Ably carrying the film forward is the acting. O’Hara as sensible Doris Walker is a powerful figure, who carries herself with a quiet dignity. Payne as the at-times cheeky but good-guy lawyer is believable and charming all at once. Wood, as Susan, excels – an early indicator of the sort of acting she would be capable of through her career. But Gwenn, as Kris Kringle, is unsurpassable. He is adorable in his dealings with children, stern in his dealings with the people he dubs “contemptible, dishonest, selfish, deceitful, vicious,”, and philosophical but not preachy when he does dole out advice – “No, to me the imagination is a place all by itself – a separate country.”
Perhaps the reason Miracle on 34th Street succeeds more than any other film in this genre, though, is because it deals with characters who aren’t down on their luck, or at the end of their ropes. Instead it deals with characters who are successful in their own right, have seemingly comfortable lives, but still need a gentle reminder, every now and again, to have faith.
Which is exactly why it’s our pick for the perfect movie to watch once you’re done with Christmas dinner. Curl up with a cup of hot cocoa and you won’t be disappointed.