The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, December 20, 2013

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Well, it's Christmas time again, putting parents in awkward spots since....well, forever. How do you handle the Santa Clause issue to kids? Tell them or let them find out themselves? It's a great jumping off point for one of the all-time classic Christmas movies, 1947's Miracle on 34th Street.

In charge of organizing the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) is thrown for a loop when her Santa Clause turns up drunk on the float. She finds quite the stand-in, her new choice delighting the kids and parents in the crowd. He looks like Santa, talks like him, and is far better than previous Macy's Santas to the point he's offered the job as Santa Clause in Macy's, little kids lining up to see him and tell them what they want. There is an issue though. Named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), Kris says he is the Santa Clause. Doris finds herself in another spot, Kris has inspired an unlikely Christmas promotion nationwide in department stores across the country. What to do? Can she fire Santa? There's bigger issues though, a Macy's employee is taking the issue to court. Is Kris really Santa? Well, now it's for the court to settle.

The plot description for this 1947 Christmas movie from director George Seaton is tough. It's not that this is a complicated story, just an episodic one that covers a lot of ground for a Christmas movie. Clocking in at 96 minutes, it accomplishes a lot in its relatively short running time. Let's start with the look of the movie, a gorgeous, old-fashioned black and white that has aged quite well over the years. Steer clear of the colorized version! Seaton filmed on location in New York City as much as possible, giving us a good time capsule look at post-WWII NYC. There's some great footage early as Kris walks through Manhattan, as well as some even better behind the scenes(ish) footage of the Macy's parade. From the outdoor shots to the indoors at Macy's and Gimbel's, the look of the movie is pretty perfect.

That's all well and good though, but the best thing here is Gwenn as Kris Kingle, an old man with a round stomach and a big, white beard who claims he is the real Santa Clause. Could he be? Gwenn was nominated and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part, one of four nominations Seaton's film earned. It's easy to see why. First off, how do you play Santa Clause? Gwenn commits, and that's what is most key. The movie has its cynical moments -- about politics, Santa, belief/faith -- but the heart of the movie is Gwenn as Kris Kringle who convinces his employers at Macy's to help customers...wherever that may be, even if it's at another store! It's the spirit of Christmas, the time of the year for giving, for helping and for being thoughtful and generous. That's what Gwenn's Kris lives out and encourages.

In earning his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Gwenn does just that; supports. He's in most scenes, but not all of them, his Kris Kringle character providing a jumping off point for the rest of the story and characters. Not quite episodic, but certainly approaching that territory. The focus is mostly on O'Hara's Doris, a single mom (I know, I was surprised as anyone to find out divorce existed in the 1940s!!!) who is trying to raise her daughter, Susan (9-year old Natalie Wood), basically as an adult, question everything and don't believe in all sorts of fairy tales and whatnot...namely Santa. What about when young Susan takes a liking to Kris, even if she's been taught not to believe in him? There's also the Walker's neighbor across the hallway, Fred Gailey (John Payne), a talented lawyer looking to make a name for himself who also strikes up a fast friendship with Kris, who stands for everything he shouldn't believe in. A good ensemble for sure, but there's more.

Also look for Gene Lockhart as the judge who presides over the Kris Kringle case, William Frawley (later of I Love Lucy fame) as his political adviser (how do you rule against Santa?), Porter Hall as Macy's amateur psychologist who gets on Kris' bad side and starts off the Santa circus, Jerome Cowan as the D.A. working against Kris, Philip Tonge as a nervous Macy's employee, and Alvin Greeman as Alfred, a 17-year old kid who volunteers as a Santa at a local youth club and meets Kris in his travels.

It's hard not to like this movie. 'Miracle' has its fair share of iconic moments from Wood's Susan suspiciously interviewing Kris at Macy's, famously pulling his beard, to Kris taking the stand at his own trial/hearing, answering enthusiastically and honesty about what he believes/knows to be the truth. The most famous scene though is obvious, Payne's Fred coming up with an ingenious way to prove Kris' identity. It's a great ending, followed up in the subsequent scenes which some good semi-twists. A Christmas movie that's aged incredibly well. Gwenn is excellent, young Natalie Wood a scene-stealer, their scenes together providing most of the movie's best moments. An easy one to recommend, one definitely worth checking out this holiday season.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947): *** 1/2 /****

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