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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/04/04 15:01:53

"Go ahead. Try not to cry. Can't do it."
5 stars (Awesome)

The great thing about the original ďMiracle On 34th StreetĒ is that it not once comes out and says that Kris Kringle, the kind old man who insists that he is Santa Claus, actually is Santa Claus. It offers no magic, no bending of logic, nothing that does not exist in our own modern world. Everything that happens here can be explained away with the cold light of reality. And yet I doubt thereís a single person who has ever seen this film who walks away doubting Krisí claims. This movie is not about proving that this man is Santa. Itís about getting us to have faith.

Itís certainly easy to believe in Kris, as played by Edmund Gwenn (he won an Oscar for his performance here, the only movie Santa to do so). Gwenn plays Kris as the embodiment of goodwill and kind-heartedness, the kind of person that makes you smile just by seeing him. He is perhaps the perfect movie Santa Claus; others have played up the ho ho hoing and the bowl full of jelly, but here, Gwenn takes a quieter, simpler approach. Heís merely a man who lives for the joy of helping others. He knows that goodness is a better remedy for the world, and he lives every minute with an aim to watch goodness spread.

The story, for those still somehow unfamiliar with it, follows Kris, a mysterious old man whoís hired by Macyís to be their in-store Santa. His employer is Doris (Maureen OíHara), whoís raising her daughter, Susan (a very young Natalie Wood), to understand reality, not the fantasy of childhood. Susan doubts the existence of Santa Claus - heck, she doesnít even know how to play make believe like a normal kid.

Meanwhile, their neighbor, Fred (John Payne), doesnít understand why Doris insists on bringing her daughter up in a matter-of-fact world, when childish wonder is what she really needs. But where Fred fails, Kris succeeds: the old man and the young girl become friends, and maybe he can get her - and her mother - to have faith, to believe in something unprovable, such as, just maybe, Santa Claus.

The memorable scenes of the film come in its final act, when a quack psychiatrist tries to have Kris committed to the loony bin. The whole thing goes to court, with Fred taking the case for the defense, going so far as to hope to prove that yes, Kris is Santa. It helps a little that the judge (Gene Lockhart) sees only the political angle of such a case (if the New York Supreme Court declares that there is no Santa Claus, it may kill not only the national economy, but also his own re-election chances), and that the D.A. (Jerome Cowan) has a son at home who believes in Santa, and how do you handle that sticky situation?

Again, the genius of the screenplay (written by George Seaton, who also directed) is that no one ever authoritatively declares Kris to be Santa, nor does it prove in any way that Santa even exists. Just as Doris and Susan slowly begin to gain faith in the unprovable, so does the audience. Sure, the movie drops hints and suggestions in Krisí favor (how did he know that Dutch childrenís song?), but nothing is ever solid. Itís up to us to believe, and believe we certainly do.

And yet the film refuses to get mushy on us. The sentiment is genuine, but never forced. Seatonís script is quite sharp, deftly mixing sly comedy (itís actually a very funny movie) and pointed commentary (the movie remains a memorable attack on the commercialism of Christmas) into its tender drama. This isnít some cornball effort that uses the holiday backdrop as a way to cheaply jerk a tear. No sir, itís just a simple story of how kindness and decency will win over even the most cynical hearts. Quite plainly, itís the Christmas spirit put on film.

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