Tuesday, December 25, 2007


I Believe. It's Silly, but I Believe

By Odienator
Long before he directed Airport, George Seaton wrote and directed a more believable tale about a man who thought he was Santa Claus. 1947's Miracle on 34th Street may not be most people's idea of a favorite Christmas movie, but it is mine and I look forward to watching it every year. Like the Christmas film that occupies the hearts of most of my generation (It's a Wonderful Life), Miracle was nominated for best picture at the Oscars, and like Capra's film, it lost. However, Miracle was honored for its clever script by Seaton, its story by Valentine Davies, and for one of the best supporting performances ever to grace a movie, Edmund Gwenn.

Santa Claus has assumed many guises in the cinema. Last year, I wrote about some of his naughtier instances. This Christmas, in order to avoid another year of coal in my stocking, I thought I'd talk about one of his nicer incarnations. After all, the only thing good about coal in your socks is that it stops your feet from stinking. I'd rather let Dr. Scholls take care of that. So here's a nice story about how Jolly Old St. Nick came to the greatest city in the world and taught it, 22 years before the New York Mets, that "You Gotta Believe."

Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hotty, I mean O'Hara) is in charge of handling the holiday events at Macy's, starting with the famous Thanksgiving Day Parade. When the Santa she hired shows up for work in worse condition than Amy Winehouse, Doris panics. Santa Claus makes his first appearance in New York at the Macy's parade, and her actor can barely stand up. Before she can kiss her job goodbye, however, Doris meets Kris (Edmund Gwenn), a jovial old man with a real Claus-like beard. He takes over the reins at the parade and is such a success that Doris hires him to be the store's resident Santa Claus. But all is not perfect: When Doris asks Kris his full name so she can pay him for his services, he tells her it's Kris Kringle, the alias of Santa Claus. Doris thinks he's nuttier than a fruitcake, but he also seems harmless enough. Her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) likes Kris too, but when he tries to tell her he's really Santa Claus, she informs him that there is no such person. "My mother told me," she says. Doris explains that, since her divorce, she's been trying to raise Susan to "accept reality," and not have a vivid imagination. Kris sees this as detrimental, and plans to find some way to get Susan to dream like a kid again.

Once Kris starts taking requests from the kids who sit on his lap, things get troublesome. After one mother (the great Thelma Ritter, uncredited) chews Kris out for promising her kid a toy she can't find at Macy's, Kris tells her it's available at Macy's competitor store, Gimbel's. Mr. Macy, the owner of the eponymous store, hits the roof. How dare one of his employees send a customer to the Great Satan of department stores?! That Kris guy must be out of his damn mind! The shrink on Macy's payroll (a department store has a resident psychiatrist?!) thinks so too. When the customers return to Macy's, pledging their loyalty because the store puts customer satisfaction over profit, Mr. Macy backs down. His shrink does not, however. He thinks Kris Kringle is Krazy and wants him Kommitted.

Even more troublesome for Doris is that Kris is starting to give Susan some doubt about her prior notion that Santa doesn't exist. After hearing him sing a Dutch song to a little girl from Holland, Susan wonders if Kris is really on the level. "But when he spoke Dutch to that little girl," she begins. "Susan, I speak French," Doris says, "but that doesn't make me Joan of Arc." To cover her bases, Susan asks Kris to prove he's Santa by bringing her a special present on Christmas. "If you're really Santa Claus," she tells him, "you can get it for me. And if you can't, you're only a nice man with a white beard like mother says." Kris tells her he'll try.

Kris has an ally in the war for Susan's heart and mind: Doris' lawyer boyfriend, Fred Gailey (John Payne). He also believes that Doris' no-fantasy policy does Susan a disservice. His conversations with Susan play much like Kris'. He tries to inject an aspect of wonder, and Susan very politely shoots him down. "You must have forgotten your fairy tales," Fred says after she draws a blank on Jack and the Beanstalk. Susan replies "Oh ... one of those. I don't know any of those. My mother thinks they're silly."

Kris and Fred become fast friends and roommates, and then, thanks to that overzealous Macy's shrink, attorney and client. After Kris is committed by the shrink to Bellevue, Fred decides to defend his sanity in court. To prove Kris' sanity is to prove that which Kris believes. In other words, Fred has to prove that Kris is really Santa Claus.

This is when the movie really starts to shine, becoming a satire on parent-child relationships, attorney-client privilege, legal loopholes, consumerism, business, self-identity and whether the government has the definitive word on anything. Fred brings his case to court and, like any good lawyer, does anything and everything to get his client off the hook, including calling his opponent's son to the stand as a witness. "Hello, Daddy!" he says as he passes the prosecutor. "Goodbye, Daddy," he says after his damning testimony. Doris starts to soften her stance on Kris, and even tells Susan that perhaps she should believe in Kris.

So, is Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? I wouldn't dream of spoiling that, especially since the movie leaves the answer rather ambiguous. That's the biggest strength of the movie and why its screenplay deserved its Oscar. It's a smart, knowing piece of writing full of great lines and sentiment without being overly saccharine. The characters are allowed to develop and to change. Susan becomes more imaginative and optimistic (when she senses she won't get what she wanted for Christmas, she convinces herself to have faith: "I believe. It's silly but I believe."). Doris starts to trust again, and Fred's relationship with Doris warms up as she does. The other characters realize the Catch-22 of the situation of disproving the existence of Santa Claus, and the screenplay humorously deals with that as well.

Fine work is turned in by all the actors. O'Hara is quite credible as the hardened single Mom trying to shield her daughter from having her illusions shattered by life. Payne plays his lawyer with the right mix of practicality and optimism. His easy-going nature is a nice contrast to O'Hara's pessimism. Gene Lockhart is amusing as the judge presiding over the case, and this remains the best thing Natalie Wood ever did. The entire cast is funny and believable, but Gwenn is the glue that holds the film together. There is something magical about his presence that forces you to at least acknowledge he might be the real deal. The filmmakers leave it up to you to decide, though the way Gwenn plays him, he doesn't leave much doubt to the answer.

"Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to," Fred tells Doris. The real miracle is that this film works as well as it does, even today. (Note: Avoid the horrendous Richard Attenborough remake. The 1973 David Hartman remake is so-so, but nothing bests the original.)

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This is also my favorite Christmas movie of all time - and I have to believe that there's a special place in hell reserved for the people responsible for the remake.

Since I'm obligated to contradict you on at least one point (such is the adversarial nature of our relationship, blond-wigged one), I'm bound to point out that Gwenn's performance isn't really a supporting performance. He's a constant presence in the film from start to finish, and is the character who really drives the action. The Academy falsely classified him as a supporting actor since (a) Payne and O'Hara were the advertised stars, and (b) the supporting category functioned both then and now as an all-purpose ghetto for "character actors"(read: older or unphotogenic performers). There isn't a single scene of Judi Dench's in Iris in which Broadbent isn't as prominently featured - hell, Foxx actually has a bigger role in Collateral than Cruise does - so the practice obviously continues to this day. Personally, I don't think anyone supports Santa Claus. And I don't mean that in the Grinchy way.
Yes, the Academy likes pushing character actors into supporting performances, but it also likes pushing stars from supporting into lead too (Anthony Hopkins and Ellen Burstyn come to mind). Gwenn is in the movie a lot, but in every scene he's in, he's supporting the supposed main characters. They react to him, rather than the opposite, so it makes his role a supporting one. Sometimes I look at the role not for the size of it but for its duty. Besides, if Gwenn had been pushed in the lead, he would have lost, so let's Thank Heaven for Small Favors. I still think his Oscar speech has one of the greatest lines ever uttered by a winner.

Hope Santa brings you a newfound love of blondes, so I can take this figurative protest wig off my head! I look like Mary J. Blige's brother.
I have to go with Josh on Gwenn being a lead. While I like Miracle on 34th Street a great deal, I still have to go with It's a Wonderful Life, with the right blend of darkness and sentiment. Of course, my ideal holiday trilogy would probably be The Ref, Bad Santa and Die Hard.
Good Christmas choices, Ed. I gave Bad Santa a negative review, but that was primarily for the direction. Billy Bob Thornton is great in that movie.

Everybody knows I dislike It's A Wonderful Life, so no sense beating that dead horse.

I hope everyone had a great Christmas and that Santa brought everyone what they asked for this year.
By golly it is Natalie Wood's best performance - and that's not a knock on her. She great in it. Like Ed, I have to stick with It's a Wonderful Life, but this is certainly worth watching every year.
Just a slight correction to odienator's initial review. Kris actually tells the mother (Thelma Ritter) to go to Schoenfelt's for the fire truck. He tells the mother who's looking for skates to go to Gimbel's.

I love the movie too. Great review!
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