Alongside such works as It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street is one of the undisputed Christmas classics, and it’s easy to see why: it’s an intelligent, charming, and thoughtful picture; and its message hasn’t aged one iota since it debuted in 1947.
Edmund Gwenn stars as Kris Kringle, a kindly old man who insists to a doubting world that he is the real Santa Claus. His good nature and sincerity earn him widespread praise as Macy’s department store Santa Claus, though it causes many headaches for his employer, Doris, a woman who has no time for such ridiculousness, or for any other silly “intangibles”. What’s more, she has imbued this worldview upon her young daughter, Susan, who not only doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, but has no appropriate sense of imagination either.
The best parts of the film involve the interactions of Kris with Doris and Susan. Over the course of the movie; he gradually succeeds in waring down their extreme realism and convincing them to embrace him as Santa Claus. Of course, what Doris and Susan are really learning in the process of accepting Kris are important abstract ideals (more on that in a little bit); impalpable, unquantifiable (yet critically important) concepts that Susan has never really known and that Doris abandoned long ago. I should point out that Gwenn really shines as Kris in these moments; he’s charming, grandfatherly, and quite enthusiastic. He more than deserved the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor that he received for this movie.
Along for the ride in this film is lawyer Fred Gailey. He’s a very benign, gentle soul; a man who believes whole-heartedly in Kris and aids him in his quest to convert Doris and Susan; as an added bonus, he eventually succeeds in winning Doris’s heart. In my review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I coined the phrase Self-Respecting Labrador Dream Guy in order to describe a generally even keeled male character who goes through no change of his own but helps a female character grow in a story; I definitely think Fred is another example of that trope.
Admittedly, Fred has more to do than just help Doris. Eventually he comes to defend Kris Kringle during a hearing in which his sanity is questioned. This represents the same general conflict of belief that Doris and Susan struggle with, albeit on a somewhat grander scale. The hearing also marks something of a shift in the film’s style from a quirky comedy to a courtroom dramedy, although it remains stellar throughout. This hearing doesn’t play out the way one might expect: at this point, Kris is so well regarded that neither the judge nor the district attorney participating in the case want to be involved, lest they risk damage to their public careers. For me this is a sign of really intelligent and thoughtful writing; few films would strive for such nuance for our antagonists (if we can call them that) over comparatively cheap black and white characterization. Plus, the reservations of these characters about their involvement in the hearing make for some of the best and wittiest bits of dialogue in this entire picture.
In one of the more clever plot twists in film history, Fred is able to win the hearing when the post office decides to send thousands of letters addressed to Santa Claus to Kris; thus providing government recognition that he is the true Santa Claus. And wouldn’t you know it? The post office was inspired to do so after Susan wrote a letter addressed to Kris, acknowledging him as Santa Claus. It’s a very sweet moment in the movie; and it reinforces the value of having faith in people.
I mentioned earlier that by coming to believe in Kris as Santa Claus, Doris and Susan were really learning much higher ideals. To expand on that, there’s a genuine elegance with which Miracle on 34th Street uses the figure of Santa Claus to represent the deeper, more spiritual aspects of the holiday, but without having to specifically touch on particular religious beliefs* that might polarize the audience. Throughout our lives, we will all need to believe in things that we can’t physically touch or impartially detect or objectively deduce from the physical world around us: love, friendship, hope, and trust in others (the movie refers to these as the intangibles). The myth of Santa Claus (I use “myth” in the C.S. Lewis sense of the word here) is, in its own way, a bridge, particularly for children, to these grander, more universal intangibles; and it is therefore something far greater than just a story of a kind old man giving people presents. It’s a guide to how we ourselves should learn to view the world and each other.
There’s an important secondary message in Miracle on 34th Street, which is a sobering critique on Christmas commercialism. While the film itself supports the idea of getting people gifts, it appropriately condemns the excessive efforts by companies to make money at all costs, regardless of whether or not they are providing the customer with what they truly want, and over commercialize the holiday in the process. This feels as relevant today as it did when the film premiered in 1947. The movie shows Kris taking a stand against this by sending customers to stores other than Macy’s where they will find what they are truly looking for; this is so well received that Macy’s and rival department store Gimble’s begin implementing it on a large scale to great success. I have no idea whether or not this would actually work in real life; but the sentiment is certainly inspiring. There are far more important things in the world than money; and I wish some companies today would remember that from time to time.
With strong messages and a great story; it’s no surprise that Miracle on 34th Street has endured through the years and regularly found new audiences. So appealing is this narrative that it’s actually been remade several times–there are three separate made-for-television adaptations as well as a full theatrical remake in 1994. I haven’t seen any of the made-for-television versions (none of them appear to hold a candle to the classic); and I have mixed feelings about the 1994 version. Richard Attenborough, playing Kris Kringle, is certainly endearing; but the story, written by John Hughes, suffers from a rather simplistic us vs. them ideology (a recurring theme for Hughes) that the original was, frankly, above.
At any rate, I would just stick with the classic 1947 version; it really feels timeless, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. So if you are looking for a good Christmas film to watch, you can’t do much better than this.
*Unless you view Santa Claus as part of your religion, I guess.