Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Miracle on 34th Street

Perhaps now most people know of this classic film in which Santa Claus visits New York and inspires some goodwill before being put on trial. But when the film was originally released in May, 1947, the Christmas element was surprisingly obscured in the marketing.

The movie was based on a short story by Valentine Davies. This original version joins stories such as The Greatest Gift in the collection of stories that inspired great Christmas films that no one reads.

After replacing an inebriated Santa Claus in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is quickly hired as the Macy's store Santa Claus. Much to the surprise of everyone at Macy's, Kris begins to tell customers where to find the exact products they want at other stores. While everyone thinks advertising for other stores is business suicide, it creates a better image for Macy's, which earns them more regular customers and higher profits. Other companies soon adopt similar models, creating a little less competitiveness and more goodwill between the stores.

Meantime, Kris has befriended Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). Doris is divorced from Susan's father, and teaches her daughter to see things for what they are. No nonsense, no imagination. Their neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne) is surprised that Susan has never even heard a fairy tale before. But thanks to Kris, Susan quickly learns to embrace her childhood.

Troubling some of the staff at Macy's is Kris' insistence that he is Santa Claus, even though he passes a psychological exam. When Kris eventually confronts Mr. Sawyer over a unfounded diagnosis of a helpful young employee, he is sent to a hospital and then taken to court, where he is believed to be insane because of who he says he is. However, Mr. Gailey says he will take the case and prove that Kris actually is Santa Claus. After embarrassing some members of the court, the judge has to consider the downside of ruling that there is no Santa Claus. The trial is given a recess until the next day.

Susan decides to write her first letter to Santa, which prompts workers in the post office to clear all letters to Santa from the dead letter office by sending them to the courthouse. Since the post office—a federal institution—recognizes Kris as Santa Claus, the judge decides not to dispute it.

The film wraps with Susan being disappointed that her wish wasn't granted, but Doris—now convinced that she should believe in "lovely intangibles"—tells her to hang onto her beliefs. While out driving, Susan spots a house that matches the description she gave to Kris when he visited once. Doris and Fred see it's for sale and begin to consider buying it, when they notice Kris' cane by the fireplace.

I love the film for reminding us that anything is possible, even what we believe to be fantasy. In one scene, Doris chides Fred for giving into an idealistic binge of a bunch of lovely intangibles. He tells her that she shouldn't be so quick to brush them aside, because one day, that might be all she has. Imagination and goodwill is every bit as important to adults as it is to children.

The film has been novelized (by Valentine Davies no less), and had three television and one film remake, at least two stage adaptations, and four adaptations for radio. The remakes generally keep to the same plot, most of the TV versions running at a faster pace. The 1994 film version does a generally good job of updating the story, though not everyone has been a fan of how it uses "In God We Trust" on money instead of letters to Santa being delivered by a fluke to get Kris off the hook.

Basically, why go with another version when you can have the original? And I'm not talking about a colorized version.

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