Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Miracle on 34th Street.

criterion logoHired by Macy’s flagship store at Herald Square to be its department store Santa, a jolly, white-whiskered man calling himself Kris Kringle soon has everyone in the Christmas spirit, all except his no-nonsense boss Doris Walker and her skeptical daughter Susan. Kris proves himself a valuable asset to Macy’s until the store psychologist has the kind old man committed to a mental hospital and he becomes the subject of a public trial. With his lawyer Fred Gailey at his side, Kris sets out to prove himself to be the one true Santa Claus, defending himself against Scrooges and skeptics alike. Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and a winner for Best Original Story, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Edmund Gwenn’s performance as Kringle, Miracle on 34th Street was a summertime hit for 1947 and holiday classic ever after.

Disc Features:

June might seem like an unusual time of year to promote a holiday classic like Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947) for one of the Criterion Collection’s wacky “Cs,” but it’s surprisingly timely. Miracle was originally released in May 1947, hiding its Christmas setting from the film’s promotion (and resulting in its rather unusual trailer). Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck believed that more people went to the movies in the warmer weather and he may have been right as both critics and audiences welcomed 20th Century Fox’s wintery wonder. Part yuletide fantasy, part comedy of remarriage, part courtroom contest, George Seaton’s film is and remains a heart-warming confirmation that, yes dear viewers, there is a Santa Claus.

Miracle on 34th Street commences not with Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) filling in as a last minute replacement for a drunken Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Rather, it begins with writer Valentine Davies contemplating the commercialization of Christmas while standing in a long department store line and actor John Payne becoming dissatisfied with his roles at 20th Century Fox and buying the rights to Davies’ story as a future project starring himself. The project went quickly into production, with Zanuck calling back Maureen O’Hara from a long delayed trip to Ireland in order to commence shooting at the actual Macy’s Parade in late November. Edmund Gwenn served as the Santa Claus for the 1946 parade (unbeknownst to onlookers), but the film crew had to scramble to get their shots as there was to be no interference to the event’s progress.

Both Macy’s and its chief rival Gimbels were made aware of the impending film, but consent to use the stores’ names was not pursued until the movie was finished. Macy’s cooperated with the production by allowing George Seaton and his team to shoot in the Herald Square store and its offices at night, giving Miracle a wonderful sense of authenticity. From his seat in the store’s fabricated Santa’s village, Kris Kringle resists the commercialization of Christmas by referring parents to other stores to get the perfect gifts for their little ones. The public’s reaction to Kringle’s magnanimous actions are uniformly positive and Mr. Macy himself, as well as his competitors, are quick to implement this customer-first initiative on all fronts, aiming to bolster the bottom line with a reputation for caring service.

Kris Kringle’s charm and generosity leaves his overly serious boss Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) somewhat at odds. While beloved by Mr. Macy, Kris’s heartfelt belief that he is Santa Claus and his determination to convince Doris’ daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) of the same conflicts with Doris’ efforts to raise her daughter without any belief in fantasy and only a grounded appreciation for practical realism. Kris manages to make headway with these two faithless hard cases with the help of the Walkers’ neighbour, a lawyer named Fred Gailey (John Payne) who has eyes for Doris, but it all falls apart when the store psychologist Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) gets Kringle committed to a mental hospital after “assaulting” him. At a hearing on the old’s man commitment presided over by the Hon. Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart), Kris admits under examination to believing himself to be the one true Santa Claus and District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) rests his case. Fred, acting as Kris’s counsel, advances an unusual defence by proposing that the jolly old man with the twinkle in his eye is the one true Santa Claus.

Miracle on 34th Street‘s central conflict concerns faith.  It’s not faith in some religious, “lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them”-sense, but an earthly transcendence achieved in love and kinship. The film’s primary contest of faith relates to Susan’s belief in Kris and to Doris’ trust in Fred, but the movie dramatizes this conflict in Kringle’s commitment hearing by sidestepping the easily answered question of whether Kris is potentially harmful to himself or others and instead focusing on the fantastic question of whether he is Santa Claus. Reading law and film scholarship is sometimes a tedious process as much of it is preoccupied with how accurately a film represents the trial process. It’s a rather disappointing and uninspiring approach, especially when cinematic courtrooms are more concerned with dramatizing the law’s values than it is with presenting a manual of its procedures. Miracle on 34th Street succeeds as great legal cinema by explicitly revealing the intrinsic place of fantasy in achieving the law’s values and producing justice.

In his essay “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” Jacques Derrida distinguishes between legal-thinking, where the law is mechanically applied like a formula that generates a specific result, and a manner of analysis concerned with justice-making. He states:

In short, for a decision to be just and responsible, it must, in its proper moment if there is one, be both regulated and without regulation; it must conserve the law and also destroy it or suspend it enough to have it reinvent it in each case, rejustify it, at least reinvent it in the reaffirmation and the new and free configuration of its principle.

Derrida suggests that justice is produced only where creative thinking exists; where law is known but forgotten long enough to be recreated fairly in each case, as only then can the law address its own ideals and intentions. Miracle is an amazing example of legal cinema because it foregrounds the place of imagination.  Kris explains to Susan:

To me, the imagination is a place all by itself. A separate country. Now you’ve heard of the French nation, the British nation. Well, this is the imagination.

In this tiny throwaway sequence, Kris not only expresses to Susan the importance of the imagination, but describes it legal terms. He conceives of the imagination as not just a place, but as a jurisdiction that implicitly carries with it a series of values and systems that defines it and provides it with an identity. Said this way, the imagination becomes a legal idea and a legal ideal.

Most trial films understand that it’s hard to think imaginatively when answers seem obvious. Judges, jurors, and prosecutors take for granted that there is no Santa Claus, that of course Tom Robinson raped Mayella Ewell, or that an 18 year-old boy stabbed his father to death after fighting with him in their slum apartment. Trial films use ostentatious action that break through the stimulus shields of conventional, unimaginative thinking and cause us to scrutinize what we understand without question. Judge Harper’s desk is buried under letters addressed to Santa and delivered to Kringle, confirming his status as Santa Claus in the eyes of the US Government; Atticus Finch tosses an apple at Tom, revealing his crippled arm; and Juror #8 dramatically produces a duplicate version of the murder weapon to deny its alleged uniqueness. Courtrooms and the production of evidence rarely works this way in reality, but in legal cinema they are conventions of the genre, sensory shocks that reassert our objectivity and restore in us the creative engagement necessary to produce justice.

Faced with the burden of an unpopular case, Judge Harper happily endorses the legal identity recognized by the US Postal Service, letting Kris return to Macy’s and complete his yuletide mission. Fred, Doris, and Susan live happily ever after in their suburban home (presumably found by Kris in answer to Susan’s Christmas wish). Altogether, Miracle on 34th Street makes for a heart-warming holiday film, so much so that it can be neglected as a quintessential example of the golden age of legal cinema and the era of the hero lawyer. And it’s worth noting that Natalie Wood’s superb performance is even more impressive when aware that she quickly came to believe that Edmund Gwenn was Santa Claus, yet still managed to play the skeptical youngster.

Jonathan Burton Wizard of OzIn many ways, Miracle is a Hollywood product at its finest – sweetly sentimental, charmingly acted, romantically mismatched, generously idealistic – and that makes it a gem of classical narrative cinema and a Criterion-worthy film. We’d like to see illustrator Jonathan Burton provide a cover treatment for a Criterion edition of the film, as his retro-commercial style would fit well with the film’s 1940s retail context.

Credits:  We’ve brought to this proposed Criterion title various special features spread between the DVD and Blu-ray editions of Miracle on 34th Street – the black and white and colourized editions, the commentary by Maureen O’Hara, the promotional short, and the 3 featurettes. To those we’ve added the various other productions of the story and the novelization of the film’s story by Valentine Davies. Unable to find any scholarly discussions of note nor any strong endorsements of the film by current critics, we chose Chuck Stephens as a frequent contributor to the Collection and a frequent writer on New York cinema.

courtroom-banner-inherit-windA lot of sources influenced this post and we recommend TCM’s page of articles, Greg Olear’s article for “The Weeklings” (where Olear celebrates Miracle‘s feminist, pro-kid, anti-commercialist message), and The Bowery Boys’s “21 Great Historical Details from New York City’s Most Famous Christmas Movie.”

Big thanks to Theresa of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch and Lesley of Second Sight Cinema for letting us participate in the “Order in the Court! Blogthon.”  Hey, why not head over and check out some of the other contributions to this great topic right now!?!

12 thoughts on “Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947)

  1. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) June 11, 2016 / 4:34 pm

    One of my favourite things about blogathons is the titles selected by participants. Despite the courtroom, I don’t think I would have thought about “Miracle on 34th Street” and I am so pleased that you did. From now on I will be considering “the creative engagement necessary to produce justice.”

    I usually start the holiday season by reading Valentine Davies story and the remarkably faithful film then follows. It is most comforting.

  2. Quiggy June 11, 2016 / 8:24 pm

    Still like this movie 45 or so years after having seen it as a youngster on Christmas Eve in the early 70’s. Nice movie for the blogathon.

    • spinenumbered June 11, 2016 / 10:38 pm

      Thanks! For some reason I can’t get my comment to publish on your blog, but I love My Cousin Vinny, particularly for how uncynical it is about the legal process. You’re absolutely right about how these are well-intentioned people looking for justice, not villains looking to railroad the two accused. Plus, it’s hilarious! A great post!

  3. CineMaven June 12, 2016 / 7:55 am

    This is a perennial favorite you’ve chosen for our blogathon. Ha…what better way to prove the existence of something by bringing it to a court of law. Santa on trial. LOL! Thanks again for joining in the fun.

  4. Silver Screenings June 12, 2016 / 5:20 pm

    I’m another one who would never have chosen Miracle on 34th Street for this blogathon, but it’s brilliant.

    You raised some good points about portraying trials in moves, especially when talking about the value of law vs. a “manual of its procedures”. (Great way of putting it!) I also agree that this film represents some of Hollywood’s best film making.

  5. Simoa June 13, 2016 / 3:50 am

    I still haven’t seen this (was nice to read about its production from Maureen O’Hara’s memoir!) but this is a really thoughtful and engaging piece. I loved reading about how the law/courtroom worked into this film and the role imagination plays.

  6. Le June 14, 2016 / 7:11 pm

    I imagine this must be a very pristine copy of the movie. I watched a “meh” copy on TV some years ago on Christmas, and suddenly I want to rewatch – I think I need a bit of Christmas spirit in my life right now.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

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