(Original reviewed 12/4/2012)
While there have been two serviceable remakes, neither come close to the magic of the original “Miracle on 34th Street”. This 1947 Christmas picture has become a stalwart for Christmas movie watchers each and every year. But while most modern Christmas movies are cheap and gimmicky, “Miracle on 34th Street” rightfully holds its place as a true Christmas classic as well as an incredibly well-made film. It’s also one of the few seasonal pictures to get recognition from the Academy Awards. It won four Oscars, was nominated for Best Picture, and is a movie that deserves the accolades and treasured status it has received.
George Seaton directed and wrote the script which begins on Thanksgiving day. The beautiful Maureen O’Hara plays Doris, a cynical single mother who works for Macy’s and is in charge of their Thanksgiving Day Parade. As she frantically works to get the parade under way, she discovers that her Santa Claus is drunk off his feet. Desperate to find a replacement for the big finale of the parade, she convinces a passerby named Kris (Edmund Gwenn), who strikingly looks the part, to fill in. His convincing work eventually earns him a spot as Macy’s department store Santa. His only quirk? He claims to be the real Santa. But Doris’ bosses overlook that after seeing their customers positive reaction to him.
But the core of the story and the most satisfying component of it revolves around the relationship between Kris, Doris, and her young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). Susan is just like her mother, cynical and skeptical about all sorts of things, most notably the existence of Santa Claus. Kris sets out to not only convince Susan that he is Santa Claus but to convince Doris that there are many things in life worth believing it. Helping him along the way is Fred Gailey (John Payne), a struggling attorney who is also attracted to Doris. Fred uses the crafty old technique of getting close to the daughter in order to get close to the mother. He and Doris eventually hit it off even though his willingness to believe in things sometimes clashes with her stubbornness.
I really like the chemistry between O’Hara and Payne. Their developing relationship is easy to buy into especially thanks to O’Hara’s cautious confidence and Payne’s witty self-deprecating humor. Both give spot-on performances. Also, young Natalie Wood is fantastic. She wonderfully portrays Susan and her childlike innocence combined with her inherited skepticism. And then there is Edmund Gwenn who is still the most convincing Santa Claus I’ve seen on film. His undeniable sincerity and infectious charm flows from every scene he’s in and his Oscar was well deserved. The movie also gives us great supporting roles such as Porter Hall as Macy’s psych evaluator and the movie’s chief antagonist, James Seay as a nursing home doctor and friend to Kris, and Jerome Cowan as a district attorney given an certain impossible task. The cast is fantastic from start to finish.
“Miracle on 34th Street” is a nice mix of holiday sentimentality (in a good way) and genuine feel-goodness. But it’s also a wonderfully written story that’s flawlessly realized through sharp direction and the perfect cast. It’s easy for some to dismiss Christmas movies as shallow seasonal escapism. But there are those special gems that are simply great movies. They show us that sense of style and craft that remind us of how good movies can be. This is one of those films.