Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Directed by George Seaton
When a nice old man who claims to be Santa Claus is institutionalized as insane, a young lawyer decides to defend him by arguing in court that he is the real thing.

Holiday Combination That Works Well

8 December 2004 | by Snow Leopard (Ohio) – See all my reviews

Still among the most worthwhile of the familiar holiday movies, this classic version of “Miracle on 34th Street” has a combination of cast, story, and production that works well. Maureen O’Hara, young Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn would probably have carried it pretty well by themselves, and they are joined by a very good supporting cast. The screenplay is nicely done, bringing out the fantasy elements of the story without letting it become trite.

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Gwenn, who played many solid character roles, gets the chance here to play a role for which he was ideally suited, and it works very well. O’Hara and Wood make a good pair to balance him out. The supporting cast gets some very good moments of their own, especially Gene Lockhart and William Frawley, whose scenes are entertaining while also offering some occasionally pointed commentary.

The style of the production is well-suited to the material, offering an innocently upbeat story without overdoing it on sentimentality. For all that this style of the production and acting are out of fashion, they are able to capture a theme like this in a worthwhile way that is simply not possible with the kind of false “sophistication” that permeates so many present-day movies.

That’s not to say that this is some kind of masterpiece, which it is not and did not try to be. Instead, it’s a light, enjoyable, positive movie that does make a worthwhile point or two. That kind of feature will always find an appreciative audience somewhere.

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Sweet movie not without social comment

Author: whitey54 from San Jose, CA
15 September 2004

This is certainly a lovely warmhearted movie, but since other reviewers have described the plot in detail, I’ll move on to other topics.

I love movies like this for the insight they provide into the customs of a lost era. Watch the clothing – everybody is so dressed up! – women in dresses, gloves, and hats, men in hats and suits. Notice that when O’Hara enters a room filled with Macy’s executives, even though they are the bosses and she is lower management, they all stand up instantly.

The social satire, most on display in the courtroom scenes, also is very 1940s. Apparently audiences of that era took a kind of genial corruption in the judicial system in stride. Business leaders, like “Mr. Macy” were expected to be sharp and profit-oriented, but also decent people like the rest of us. It’s a much more nuanced view than the “businessman as criminal villain” so common in today’s movies.

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The character played by Maureen O’Hara probably needs explanation for modern viewers. Late 1940s audiences knew that the social and economic situation of a divorced working woman with a child was much more precarious than it is now. Divorce was still somewhat shocking – this is brought out neatly in the movie when her would-be lover does a double take when he learns from her daughter about the divorce – he probably had assumed she was a war widow. Divorced moms were still rare in the middle classes. Society universally agreed that women should stay home to raise their children. Economically, women in management positions were still very rare, couldn’t expect promotion, and were last hired, first fired. I think O’Hara’s performance brings out these qualities in a way that the audience of the 1940s would have understood easily. The character’s stiffness, fear of losing control, and anxiety about her job make a great deal of sense. It would have been nice to see a few scenes showing her loosening up, perhaps at dinner with her boyfriend; no doubt those got left on the cutting room floor.

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I really like the scene where Santa talks to the little Dutch orphan. First, this scene also must have resonated with the audience; in 1947 the western European countries had only started to recover from World War II, and probably many Americans were familiar with the idea of adopting a war orphan, just as many sent CARE packages. Second, by making Santa fluent in Dutch, the writer cleverly left the viewer thinking that hey, he might really be Santa Claus (isn’t Santa Claus fluent in all languages)?

Some reviewers don’t like the acting and think that modern actors are “better”. I think the older actors aren’t better or worse, just different. The audiences of the 1940s expected a certain style of acting, and the directors and actors gave that to them. Then as now, Hollywood paid top dollar and got very talented people, but like all of us they were shaped by their own time and place, more particularly the requirement to make movies that audiences would like. Move Maureen O’Hara to 2004, or Tom Cruise to 1947, and you’d see them acting in the style of that decade.

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Classic holiday fare

10/10
Author: Boyo-2
21 November 2001

Its very easy to see why this movie won the Oscar for Screenplay that year. Its very intelligent and has a lot to say about several topics – how to raise a child, how a person of questionable sanity gets treated, how greedy businessmen are, how politics play out in a courtroom..and what to do with all that damn mail addressed to Santa Claus!

Its also very mature in some ways – Doris (Maureen O’Hara) is divorced and the mother of Susie (Natalie Wood). Doris has raised Susie to be very practical and to think for herself, but she neglected to teach Susie one thing – how to be a child, when you ARE a child. Enter Mr. Gayley (John Payne), a struggling lawyer who befriends Susie as a way to get to know her Mom better.

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Doris works at Macy’s and is organizing their Thanksgiving Day Parade, when the Santa they’ve hired is intoxicated. In a pinch they hire the REAL Kris Kringle to appear in the parade. He ends up being such a big hit that he gets hired to work at Macy’s also. He is not the traditional employee, however, and this comes to light when he sends a customer (the venerable Thelma Ritter) to ANOTHER STORE! Schoenfeld’s, he says, has what she’s looking for. Then he is overheard, by the store manager no less, sending another customer to GIMBELS!

Don’t want to give away any more, but the movie is touching, dramatic and hysterical – Doris on the phone with her co-workers’ wife, who has been given too much liquor, is worth a million bucks alone. Whenever I want to make my sister laugh, I do a pretty decent imitation of her saying “HELLO?” Also, I can sing the song Kris sings to the girl from Rotterdam..the girl who is so thrilled that Kris can communicate with her in her language. Susie overhearing this is beginning to think that Kris might be the real thing, and she’s a pretty hard nut to crack, for a little kid.

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See it, own it, memorize it..and pity the 31 souls in ‘User Ratings’ who gave this a ‘1’, which is ridiculous but it takes all kinds I guess.

Santa is in New York!

10/10
Author: Eric G Lunneborg from Fairview, Oregon
9 December 2003

The movie starts out in a festive atmosphere. It is Thanksgiving and the employees of Macy’s department store are busy with preparations for the annual Thanksgiving day parade. Doris. Walker (Maureen O’Hare) is in charge of the parade. She anxiously hires Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to replace the man she hired to play Santa Claus when she discovers the original Santa is too intoxicated to even get on the float. Kris does such a good job that Mrs. Walker asks him to stay on in the role and be the department store’s Santa. She soon has serious doubts about her decision when she discovers that her new Santa really believes he is Santa Claus.

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Mrs. Walker is working, single mother, who works for Macy’s Department Store in New York City. Natalie Wood plays her daughter, Susan. As the result of a failed Marriage, Doris raises her daughter to accept reality. There is no room for fantasy or make believe in her life. Susan is a quiet, child who acts more like a grown up than a 6 year old. She has difficulty using her imagination, and has become just as skeptical as her mother.

Since Kris, believes that “the important thing is to make children happy,” winning the affection of Susan and her mother is his main objective.

Whether or not Kris is the real Santa Claus, there is no doubt that he seem to have an influence on almost everyone he meets–except for Macy’s staff psychologist .Mr. Sawyer believes that Kris is delusional, and has him committed to thrown into a mental institution. In order to get out, Kris must face a court hearing, where not only is his sanity questioned, but the state of New York will decide if there really is a Santa Claus. Fred Gailey (played by John Payne) a neighbor of Doris Susan Walker agrees to represent Kris. The predictable end to the story is that Fred and Doris become attracted to each other, and as Fred works hard to secure Kris’ freedom, Doris finds herself not only believing in Kris, but also in believing in fantasy.

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Maureen O’Hara portrays Doris Walker with poise and sophistication. Although the movie is over 55 years old, the idea of a single working mom trying to raise her daughter after a bitter divorce, tells a story that is relevant by today’s standards. Natalie Wood does such a good job at playing as the bright six year old, Susan, that you can almost imagine her going straight from being a baby to being an adult. John Payne, as Fred Gailey, predictably plays the handsome attorney who falls in love with Mrs. Walker. Even though it seems a bit unbelievable, this movie is all about fantasy, so we’ll allow a bit of romance. Finally, Edmund Gwenn’s portrayal of Santa Claus is so believable, that you almost believe that truly is the jolly old elf himself!

This reviewer would give the movie a 5 out of 5 rating. It is a Christmas classic that will be remembered for years to come as one of the best Christmas movies ever filmed. The message of the movie is not about the real meaning of Christmas, nor is it about the commercialism that has overshadowed the holiday for years. The message of the movie is that make believe and fantasy play an important role in our live. Without them we would have no basis for our hopes and dreams.

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“You’d Better Watch Out, You’d Better Not Cry………………”

9/10
Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
22 October 2007

……………Santa Claus has come to town. Or at least that’s what a gentlemen appropriately named Kristopher Kringle played by Edmund Gwenn complete with full white beard is claiming. He makes his appearance at the Thanksgiving Day Parade as sponsored by R.H. Macy’s Department Store and finds the Santa hired for the occasion, Percy Helton, full of a little too much Christmas cheer already. In charge of the parade is one of Macy’s middle level executives, Maureen O’Hara, who fires Helton and hires Gwenn right then and there.

Gwenn’s obvious sincerity makes him an ideal Santa Claus for Macy’s and for us. He spreads the real meaning of Christmas around even has Macy’s declaring a holiday truce with its rival Gimbel’s. That’s a part of Miracle on 34th Street that might be lost to viewers today. Gimbel’s was Macy’s big department store rival and it’s flagship store in New York stood across 34th Street at the time. Gives a meaning to the title that is lost on today’s audience.

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But wiser and more sophisticated folks like the majority of us know there ain’t no such thing as Santa Claus. Even Maureen O’Hara knows that and imparts it to her daughter Natalie Wood. Gwenn’s just a kind old man in a white beard. But when his sanity is questioned, Gwenn’s belief becomes a matter for the courts where Gwenn is ably defended by O’Hara’s boyfriend, lawyer John Payne.

Like that other holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life, Christmas is never complete without seeing Miracle on 34th Street. Though New York has changed considerably since 1947 the year I made my earthly debut, the film has lost absolutely none of its charm.

Edmund Gwenn won the Best Supporting Actor of 1947 and in doing so, beat out his best friend, Finlay Currie, who was up that year for playing Magwitch in Great Expectations. The two had met in stock companies in their native Scotland and were friends right up to when Gwenn passed away in 1959. The Oscar was the high point of his career.

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Maureen O’Hara in her memoirs says that Miracle on 34th Street holds a special place in her affections. In fact until Gwenn died, she had hopes of doing some kind of sequel. She bonded on stage with young Natalie Wood who later played her daughter in Father Was A Fullback also and kept in contact with her right up to her death in 1981.

Maureen also had a deep affection for John Payne who she made four films with and says was one of the nicest men in the world. One story she related was on the set of another film they made, Payne was served with divorce papers right on the set from his then wife, Anne Shirley. She said he broke down and cried like a baby. If it weren’t for the fact she was married, she said she definitely could have gotten something going with Payne.

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In the supporting cast note the presence of one grinch in the person of Porter Hall who played one of his patented nasty little meanies. His meddling and general misanthropy cause Gwenn to have that trial in the first place. Look for a bit role from Jack Albertson as the postal employee who inadvertently saves the day. Also making her film debut is Thelma Ritter as the mother of a child looking to meet Santa Claus, the one official Santa Claus, courtesy of Macy’s Department Store.

Although Miracle on 34th Street has been remade several times over the years, this one is the genuine article. As genuine as the fact that Macy’s has the official Santa Claus as certified by a higher authority.

One thing has always puzzled me though. How long did it take Edmund Gwenn to grow that beard for the part?

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The Genuine Article, Still A Miracle

Author: Paul Dana (bigpurplebear@aol.com) from San Francisco, CA USA
25 December 2001

There’s a “legend” connected with this film, one which has recently gained new life via AMC: Supposedly, upon completion of principle filmmaking, 1947’s “Miracle On 34th Street” then had to be submitted to the heads of Macy’s and Gimble’s department stores who — had either man withheld approval — could have cost 20th Century Fox a small fortune in rewrites and reshootings.

Frankly, in view of the fact that much of “Miracle” had already been shot on location in Macy’s New York City store (to say nothing of the fact that studio heads of that era — or any era, for that matter — were notoriously prone not to take such financial risks), this “legend” is likely just so much “hype,” otherwise known as “nonsense.”

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Thankfully, this is the only trace of phoniness attached to this jewel of a movie. “Miracle On 34th Street” is just that, in every sense of the word: a miracle.

Take a perfectly-crafted, thoughtful screenplay. Add an impeccable cast (from top-to-bottom, by the way; catch, just as one example, Thelma Ritter’s uncredited turn as “Peter’s Mother”). Throw into this mix an on-location “shoot” (along with Macy’s, there’s the store’s actual 1946 Thanksgiving Parade, footage in a post office facility and a courthouse) which gives this film a nice sense of verisimilitude . . . just in case you’re not already prepared (courtesy of Edmund Gwenn, in a totally-deserved Oscar-winning performance) to recapture your belief in Santa Claus.

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“Miracle On 34th Street” is many things: a celebration of the Christmas spirit, a heartfelt plea against the “over-commercialism” (even in 1947)of Christmas, an examination of faith itself . . . just to name a few.

It works on every level. Every bit as well today, 54 years after its initial release, as then. Don’t waste your time with the remakes — both on TV as well as theatrical productions (and the less said about an abortive 1963 Broadway musical adaptation, “Here’s Love,” the better.)

Go for the original film. Go for the genuine article. Again and again and again.

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Although the film is set during the Christmas season, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that it be released in May, arguing that more people go to the movies in warmer weather. The studio rushed to promote it while keeping its Christmas setting a secret. Fox’s promotional trailer depicted a fictional producer roaming the studio backlot and encountering such stars as Rex Harrison, Anne Baxter, Peggy Ann Garner, and Dick Haymes extolling the virtues of the film. In addition, the movie posters prominently featured O’Hara and Payne, with Gwenn’s character kept in the background. The film opened in New York City at the Roxy Theatre on June 4, 1947. By contrast, modern home video packaging has Gwenn and Wood dominating the imagery, with the DVD release having Kringle in his Santa Claus costume.

The Christmas window displays seen in the film were originally made by Steiff for Macy’s. Macy’s later sold the window displays to FAO Schwarz in New York. FAO Schwarz then sold the windows to the Marshall & Ilsley Bank of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they are on display every December in the bank’s lobby on North Water Street.

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The house shown at the end of the film is a 1703 square foot single family home built in 1943 at 24 Derby Road, Port Washington, New York. The home looks practically the same as it did in 1947, except that the roof line has been altered by the addition of a window.

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