This is another in my ongoing classic film review segment I’m writing in NZ vintage lifestyle magazine Glory Days. It’s a really cool mag, so be sure to check it out here.
I’m often asked what it is about classical cinema that I find so constantly enthralling, and while there are myriad reasons I could give, perhaps my favourite is the sense of surprise that comes from peering through a window on a bygone era. Miracle on 34th Street is a good example; a film made famous for its wholesome representation of Christmas, but beneath its festive wrapping exists a revealing study of social instability and modern anxiety.
“Christmas is a frame of mind.” So says Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), an elderly gentleman employed by lavish New York department store Macy’s to fill the role of Santa Claus, a position left empty by the drunken incompetence of his predecessor.
Kris however believes himself to be the real Santa, appearing at a time when the meaning of Christmas has been forgotten, buried under the onslaught of crass commercialism. What better place than a department store to remind everyone what the holiday is about?
Kris takes it upon himself to convince non-believing Doris (Maureen O’Hara) and her precocious young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) that he is in fact Santa. Yet his habit of sending shoppers to competitor Gimbels in search of gifts lands him in hot water with Macy’s management and the nefarious store psychologist Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall), who insists Kris be committed.
Like so many films of the era, Miracle on 34th Street ends up in a courtroom, that bastion of American freedom, as Kris fights to prove his true identity. With the aid of do-gooder lawyer (and Doris’ love interest) Fred Gailey (John Payne), and culminating in a now iconic scene involving the delivery of thousands of letters to Santa into the courtroom, all is wrapped up with a neat, inevitable little bow.
With the gift of hindsight, some troubling issues about the social climate in 1948 are what make Miracle on 34th Street such a pleasure to unwrap. The film is ostensibly about reclaiming the meaning of the season, and representing the cynicism of modernity we have Doris, an apartment dwelling single mother with a high-powered job, the very antithesis of family values at the time. Sure she’s successful, but her unconventional situation offers an uneasy portrait of female societal roles, and the film is constantly berating the audience about how wrong she is.
Most tellingly, young Susan’s Christmas wish is a house in the suburbs away from the fast-paced world of her mother’s job, obviously with new father Fred as part of the package. In the end Miracle on 34th Street isn’t about whether Kris is in fact the real Santa Claus, but about the restoration of a more acceptable family equilibrium for the time. It can be enjoyed for its seasonal sweetness, but there’s a dash of bitterness in this Christmas treat.