I absolutely love a good Christmas story.
Perennial favorites of mine include the classic animated special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! along with other classics like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
On the movie side of things, I'm also a big fan of The Muppet Christmas Carol as well. To me, that's my personal favorite telling of Charles Dickens' iconic story of the holiday.
There are plenty of other stories that I love, of course, from animated specials to TV episodes or movies.
And earlier this week, a special viewing of one of those films recently bumped it up my list to "favorite" status.
So with that being said, let's talk about the original, classic Miracle on 34th Street.
Beginning on the day of the Macy's Thanksgiving parade in New York, we follow a kindly old man who gives his name as Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn, who earned the Oscar he got for Best Supporting Actor) as he goes to the parade. Incensed when he discovers that the man playing Santa Claus for the parade is drunk, he complains to the event director, Doris Walker (played by Maureen O'Hara). Needing a replacement and fast, Doris persuades Kris to take the actor's place for the parade - and he does so well that he is hired to play Santa at Macy's flagship store.
However, Kris is far from a regular department-store Santa. He ignores instructions to get shoppers to buy from Macy's, and will direct parents to other stores if need be for the toys that their children want. He converses with immigrant children in their native language.
And he insists that he really IS Santa Claus.
Doris worries about both Kris' mental health, and the effect that she feels his antics could have on her daughter Susan (played by a young Natalie Wood), who has been raised to not believe in fairy tales and such stories.
However, Mr. Macy himself ends up approving of Kris as Santa Claus, simply because of the goodwill that Kris' actions have generated with their customers. Soon, it seems, people are content to let Kris have his fantasies, since he isn't hurting anyone and everyone likes him...
At least, until the store's cynical and resentful "psychologist" Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall) tries to get Kris committed to a mental hospital. Things come to head in a big trial where Kris' lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) must prove that his client is not insane... on the grounds that Kris really IS Santa Claus.
Miracle on 34th Street is a classic Christmas film, and for very good reason. This film is masterfully constructed, with characters and subplots all connecting to and reinforcing each other... we see how they all interact with each other; Kris and Doris and Fred and Susan, and their stories all intertwine quite nicely while building off the story's themes of faith in ideals and decency.
Building on that point, let me also say that one of the things I love about this movie is its very clever and unique handling of idealism and cynicism. Kris, as I said previously, ignores instructions to direct children to buy from Macy's, and will direct them to other stores if that's where the toy they want can be found. At first this angers management - at least until they discover this is winning them loyal customers who think Macy's is caring about the consumer. So then Macy orders that they continue this goodwill policy at other stores - and this causes Macy's rival store Gimbels to enact a similar policy so THEY will look good too... until eventually you end up with bitter rivals Macy and Gimbel shaking hands and paying for medical equipment he wants for the nursing home. For entirely self-serving reasons, they end up making a lot of people very happy, and I absolutely love it. XD
Many performances in this film are top-notch. My personal favorite though would have to be Edmund Gwenn as Kris, as he is just so convincing in his part that you really do see him as Santa Claus. Few men have ever to my mind captured the sheer kindness at the heart of the character. (The scene where Kris talks to a little Dutch girl in her native language is one of the most beautiful and heartwarming scenes I've ever seen in any film.)
Maureen O'Hara and John Payne also do very strong work in their roles as Doris and Fred. Doris in particular is an interesting character, given her status as a woman in a position of authority, in a movie made in freaking 1947. Notable, also, is the fact that Doris is divorced, which is rather surprising for the era as well. What makes O'Hara's character work so well in the movie is that she is not criticized by Fred for her career or for being divorced, but for the "cold hard facts" attitude she's raised her daughter with... Doris clearly wants what's best for Susan and loves her dearly, which combined with her status as a career woman makes her a very impressive character.
John Payne plays Fred Gailey with a nice mix of friendliness, idealism and dedication. In fact, really, it's quite interesting to have the male romantic lead of a movie being the character encouraging the importance of imagination and ideals...
(Though in all honesty, O'Hara and Gwenn are the big winners of the movie in terms of acting to my mind.)
And Natalie Wood as Susan does a great job as well, especially in scenes with Kris and Doris. A particular favorite of mine involves the scene where she tells Kris what she wants for Christmas...
All in all, I just love Miracle on 34th Street. I think it's a great film, one that has a lot of heart, as well as being surprisingly ahead of its time in some ways.
Definitely one of my personal favorite Christmas movies. Highly recommended. ^_^