There are few films in the history of cinema that have been able to invoke the true spirit of Christmas the way that George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street has. Based on a story of the same name by Valentine Davies, the film premiered in New York City on June 4, 1947. By today’s standards, this may seem a bit early for a Christmas movie. But, as Kris Kringle (played perfectly by Edmund Gwenn) so eloquently points out, “Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind.”
Gwenn, who was actually Santa in the 1946 Macy’s Day Parade, received high praise from fellow cast members. Maureen O’Hara (Doris) stated “By the time we were halfway through the shoot, we all believed Edmund really was Santa Claus. I’ve never seen an actor more naturally suited for a role.”
There have been remakes and TV adaptations of the film, and in 1985 it became one of the first films to be colorized. However, for many, the original has always been colorful enough.
The tale opens with the backside view of a man walking calmly through the bustling streets of NYC, as festive holiday music fills the air. When he turns around, it is clear that he bears a striking resemblance to a certain someone from the North Pole. As he goes on to claim he is the real Santa Claus, people are quick to label him mentally ill.
In many ways, this is a thinking man’s Christmas movie. There isn’t an abundance of recognizable Christmas music in the movie (though Kringle can be heard humming “Jingle Bells” in the first scene). There aren’t pretty lights and decorations everywhere. We catch a glimpse of a miniature reindeer set in a storefront, as Kris instructs the owner how to properly line them up. We are also treated to a couple shots of the Macy’s Day Parade, including one scene involving a drunken mess of a Santa, which really bothers Kris Kringle. From that point on, the focus is on the true meaning of Christmas: hope and love.
Kringle is bothered by the commercialism of Christmas. “The only important thing is to make the children happy”, he tells a mother before sending her to a competitor’s store. She is so appreciative she thanks the manager, and tells him she’ll be back. People love honesty. Alfred, a janitor who portrays Santa at the Y, explains to Kringle, “When I give packages to little kids, I like to watch their faces get that . . . that Christmas look all of a sudden. It makes me feel kind of good and important.” Kris nods in approval, and you can see that exact look appear on his face.
On the flip side, there is Doris Walker and her daughter Susan. Kringle refers to them as “lost souls”. One can’t help but feel sorry for Susan. She doesn’t believe in fairy tales. Not even Santa Claus. She is a proper, sophisticated, and pleasant adolescent. In some ways this is refreshing to see on screen. Unfortunately, in the midst of her maturity, she lacks an imagination (and what’s Christmas without a little imagination?). She isn’t just missing out on the magic of Christmas, she’s devoid of the carefree fun of being a child. Therefore, it’s an absolute joy to watch Susan’s transformation, as she slowly becomes more childlike, thanks to Kringle’s cheerful lessons on pretending.
Doris is understandably afraid of the mental conflict that her daughter might go through. She worries that fairy tales can provide a false sense of reality and unreal expectations. While she has her child’s best interests at heart, there isn’t need for such wild concern. Many kids believe in Santa and they end up just fine.
Kringle is institutionalized for standing up for what he believes in, and defending his friend Alfred. Sure, he also bopped the psychiatrist on the head with his cane, but one could argue he deserved that. This almost breaks Kringle’s spirit. Almost. He never loses his sense of humor or positive outlook again, once his trial starts. A “miracle” from the Post Office saves Kringle and declares him the one, true Santa Claus. But what ultimately saved him was other’s belief in him.
A good portion of the movie revolves around the quest for truth. The idea of faith is also examined. The writer recognizes the value of both, and seems to be striving for a balance between the two. In the middle lies the beating heart of humanity. People demand concrete evidence, not just during Kringle’s trial, but outside of the courtroom as well. As the truth becomes harder to find, they slowly begin to rely on faith. As Fred Gailey notes, “It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for.” Faith is pursued not just in the idea of believing there’s a Santa Claus, but in the idea of believing in people. Once that belief is displayed, that’s when the Christmas miracle happens. People feel better when you believe in them. Belief equals support. Support creates happiness. Happiness spreads like a snowstorm, and before you know it, Christmas is more than just a holiday; it’s a way of life.
Author: Written by Alan Ritch for the PA Christmas & Gift Show