As children, most of us were brought up to believe that Santa not only existed, but he could see us when we were sleeping and was constantly aware of our daily behaviour as if he had access to a CCTV set up. Little Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) has been brought up to believe the opposite. Her mother Doris (Maureen O’Hara) sees that lying to children about Santa distorts their sense of reality and fantasy then overrides their everyday goings on.
All of this changes when Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) appears on the scene and becomes the new Macy’s Santa Claus. Hired by Doris in an act of desperation, Kringle begins to disturb the air by slowly changing Susan’s perceptions of Santa, as well as changing the face of modern retail commercialism and of the New York state legal system. Naturally, his sanity is doubted which ensues with a psychiatric committing, an imprisonment and a court hearing.
Released in 1947, Miracle on 34th Street was fairly unconventional for many reasons. Firstly, the female protagonist is a working, divorced mother. While not uncommon today, the challenges of working mothers were seldom seen on the screen in the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, from a feminist theoretical perspective, the film fails the idea of the working mother by closing with her placement in a domestic, suburban environment.
Another unconventional element sees the male suitor to Doris taking the place of Susan’s male nanny (John Payne). He cooks for Doris after a hard day at work, acts as Kringle’s lawyer and constantly tries to make Susan believe. The conventional elements of the film see the pairing of the two adults in a traditional family setting, thus turning its back on its initial uniqueness.
Valentine Davies and George Seaton’s sharp and smart script won them an Academy Award, with Edmund Gwenn also winning a Supporting Actor statuette for his performance as Kris Kringle. The rest of the cast are very well suited, especially with the casting of the wonderful Natalie Wood. O’Hara and Payne are fine as the respectable adults, but it is Gwenn and Wood that shine. Thelma Ritter also makes her first (and uncredited) appearance as a surprised Macy’s customer.
1994 saw a remake with Elizabeth Perkins in the O’Hara role, Dylan McDermott in Payne’s role, Mara Wilson as little Susan and Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle. The remake charms in a similar vein as the original adding some literal colour to its black and white predecessor. The idealism displayed in both films sees that a healthy imagination in a world where consumerism does not exist and greed is overridden by joy and Christmas spirit.
Miracle on 34th Street is all about believing. When one believes, the world opens up and all good comes. The wholesome image wrapped up in the film sustains a chord of Christmas harmony that may be a little old fashioned, but never goes out of style, as evidence in the multitude of Christmas films that follow.
Miracle on 34th Street opened on December 17, 1947 in Australia. The remake was released on December 1, 1994. Both were released through 20th Century Fox.