“Miracle on 34th Street”: Best Christmas movie ever?

With its subversive anti-commercialist message, "Miracle on 34th Street" still resonates 65 years later

Topics: The Weeklings, Miracle on 34th Street, Consumerism, Macy's, Christmas, Editor's Picks, ,

"Miracle on 34th Street": Best Christmas movie ever?Scene still from "Miracle on 34th Street"
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings LAST WEEK, my wife, Stephanie, and I decided to watch Miracle on 34th Street with our kids, who are six and almost eight. As Kris Kringle strolled through Midtown Manhattan as the opening credits rolled, we realized that, although the film has been on television every December since its release in 1947, and although we’d both seen big chunks of it, neither of us had ever watched the entire movie from start to finish (and certainly not without commercial interruption). We didn’t know what we were in for.

One of the challenges with watching old movies with your kids is that the mores have changed radically in the last half century. Many old cartoons are staggeringly racist. Almost everything made before, say, 1985 is egregiously sexist; there’s one awkward sequence in Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer, for example, when Rudolph’s mother and Clarissa, his girlfriend, don’t chase after the red-nosed runaway because they are women, and they know it’s not their place. The men in old movies are forever on the verge of date rape (the old cartoons, too; I’m looking at you, Pepe LePew), always quick to resort to violence, to fix a stiff drink, to blow secondhand smoke in a child’s face, to slap a woman across the face to prepare her for lovemaking, to gay-bash. Is that how society was in the forties? I don’t know, but I’m not entirely comfortable exposing my kids to it.

Our anxiety grew as we met Natalie Wood’s character, eight-year-old Susan Walker, who resolutely does not believe in Santa Claus. “I don’t believe in filling her mind with fantasies,” her mother explains. Shit, I thought. Is this stupid movie going to blow the Santa secret in the first reel?

I’m pleased to report that our concerns were unfounded. Not only does Miracle on 34th Street not reveal the truth about Mr. Kringle, it is almost shockingly current. There were exactly three moments when I was aware of the age of the film: when Susan is allowed to watch the Thanksgiving parade with the grown man in the apartment across the hall, the attorney with the Beavis-and-Butthead-would-chuckle-at-it name of Mr. Gailey, whom her mother does not know at all; when Kringle, whom we are led to believe is in fact the real Santa, says that the company psychologist should “be horsewhipped” and then whacks him with his umbrella; and when Mr. Gailey invites Kringle to share his apartment until Christmas (“There are two twin beds!”), and subsequently fires up a cig after he brushes his teeth.



These are minor quibbles. On the whole, the film is decades ahead of its time, offering positive messages that still carry weight in the 21st century.

First, it’s almost astonishingly feminist. The film centers on a Macy’s advertising executive, Doris Walker, and her daughter, the aforementioned Susan. Doris, as we learn early in the film, is divorced; Susan’s father is a deadbeat whom the girl has not seen since he left. The trauma of this separation, we learn, is what makes the guarded Doris so reluctant to believe in Santa Claus. That a film about a divorcée was even made in 1947 is remarkable. But Doris Walker is not any divorcée. She excels at her job—which involves organizing and coordinating the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—and even though she’s the only female executive, no one ever acts like this is unusual, or treats her differently because of her gender. Nor are we subjected to some explanation for how such a job happened to be held by a woman. She just has it, and it’s presented as fait accompli, as unremarkable. Mr. Macy doesn’t pat her on the ass when the Santa Claus she hires winds up being so popular; he gives her a bonus—the same bonus he gives her male colleague. In short, Doris Walker is regarded as an equal to the male execs. A single mother who is an executive! Thirteen years before Peggy Olsen joined the secretary pool at Sterling Cooper!

Even at the end of the movie—I’d say spoiler alert, but do I really have to do that for a film that’s 65 years old?—when they see the FOR SALE sign on the house that Susan wants, Doris and her new beau, Mr. Gailey, never say that they will marry—only that they could buy the house together. The closest mention to wedding bells is a vague reference to some “plans” they’d discussed. Living in sin! In 1947!

If Miracle is pro-woman, it is also pro-kid. The film treats its children as thinking creatures, and does not dumb down the action for their benefit. Susan, in fact, is one of the smartest characters in the movie, St. Nick’s harshest critic. Only when she believes in Santa does Kringle consider himself a success. Instead of not even allowing for the possibility that the Santa story is make-believe, as would be the case today—witness Stephanie and I fearing that Miracle on 34th Street would blow our cover!—it engages with doubts kids already have. It speaks to them as real people, just as Kringle speaks to Susan.

Too, there is nothing religious about the movie. While the action centers on a figure associated with Christmas, Jesus is never alluded to. We are not told, as Charlie Brown and Linus make a point to every year, that the meaning of Christmas involves three wise men and a manger and shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Miracle on 34thStreet taps into something nondenominational and universal. This is also unusual for 1947, when the concept of religious inclusivity was more or less unknown.

Decades before Schultz and Seuss, Miracle on 34th Street rails against commercialism. The reason the Macy’s Santa is such a hit is because he tells parents where to get the best prices on toys they’re looking for, even if those best prices happen to be at Gimbel’s. Here St. Nick is a plump and jolly Groupon machine. Too often, Santa Claus is an agent of commercialism—the mythical figure who deposits piles of expensive toys under the tree, the overlord of the North Pole toy factory, the pitch man for Black Friday sales. He is a creation of Madison Avenue, after all. The filmmakers manage to extract Santa from this bit of hucksterism—a neat trick.

Then there is the way it presents the Santa myth. While the film clearly wants us to believe, as Susan and Doris wind up believing, that this department store Santa is the real McCoy, they never go all the way. They leave just enough ambiguity to force us to make the leap ourselves. We don’t end with Santa in his sleigh, ho-ho-hoing in the sky above Great Neck; we close with a cane by a fireplace that even the faithful Mr. Gailey, who has just convinced the State of New York to declare his client the actual Santa Claus, admits might be left there by the previous owners.

“When I see that cane,” my mother told me, “I always start to cry.” It is one of the great movie moments—as is the scene in the courtroom when the postal workers deliver the teaming bags of letters to Santa Claus. But my favorite part is when Doris, Susan, and Mr. Gailey are driving home at the end, and Susan recognizes the house she’d asked for. “Stop the car!” she shouts. “Stop the car!” Susan has been self-composed for the entire film; we catch glimpses of quiet tenderness, but never moments of childhood abandon, of genuine, happy surprise. And this just knocks her proverbial socks off. Santa came through! That’s the house she wanted!

Natalie Wood’s performance in the film, as I’m not the first to notice, is ridiculously good; her Susan Walker is every bit as superb as Edmund Gwenn’s iconic Kris Kringle, for which he won an Academy Award (and famously said, in his acceptance speech, “There really is a Santa Claus.”). Let me end with this bit of trivia: during the filming of Miracle on 34th Street, Natalie Wood, who was eight years old at the time, actually thought Gwenn, who on set was as kindly as the man he plays in the film, was Santa. Only when she saw him in regular clothes at the wrap party did she realize he was only an actor. In other words, she pretended to believe the man with the white beard was a fake, even though she herself felt otherwise. If that doesn’t signify an acting job well done, I’m Kris Kringle.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>