REVIEW: “Miracle on 34th Street”

MIRACLE POSTER

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.

MIRACLE

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.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Classic Movie SpotlightMALTESEA good argument could be made that The Maltese Falcon is Humphrey Bogart’s best film. It’s a movie that seems to get better each time I watch it and has earned it’s recognition as a film noir classic. It’s also a film featuring two notable firsts. This was Sydney Greenstreet’s first feature film and it was John Huston’s directorial debut. Huston also wrote the story which is based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name. It’s said that Huston extensively planned everything in the script, even to the most minute detail. It certainly shows. The movie is smart, well written, and very well made.

Bogart plays Sam Spade, a San Francisco private investigator. He and his partner Miles Archer, played by Jerome Cowan, meet with an attractive new client, Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), who hires them to help find her missing sister.  Archer volunteers to follow her as she meets with Floyd Thursby, an acquaintance of her sister. Later that night Spade receives a call that Archer has been murdered. Spade weaves through a barrage of lies and an assortment of shady characters to find that it all revolves around a priceless statuette of a bird covered in jewels.

Bogart wasn’t Huston’s first choice to play Sam Spade but after George Raft turned down the part Bogie was brought in. This was the beginning of a great friendship between Bogart and Huston that spawned many other wonderful films such as “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The African Queen”, and “Key Largo”. Bogart’s performance is simply brilliant and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Mary Astor gives a strong performance and sets the table for some of Bogart’s best lines in the film. Add Peter Lorre and Greenstreet and you have an incredible cast. Also keep an eye out for a cool cameo from Walter Huston, John Huston’s father.

MALTESE1

The film’s is also helped by some fine cinematography. The movie features some crafty camera work and low-level lighting which adds to the picture’s mood and tone. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson plays around with the angles and camera locations which give the movie a cool, slick look.  It’s such a technically sound and stylish movie and Huston’s accomplishment is really profound considering this was his first picture.

The Maltese Falcon epitomizes what high level filmmaking and cinema storytelling is all about. Bogart’s performance became the model for other film noir detective roles and the supporting cast is nothing short of brilliant. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards but it’s contribution to filmmaking  can’t be measured by that alone. This is a motion picture classic and it should be considered mandatory viewing for any fan of film. If you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon, it’s time to.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M