Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Who Is Your Santa, Part II: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

For many of us, our first movie experience of Santa Claus is in the holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  This film has been heralded as a classic for a variety of reasons – its sweet and humane nature, its wonderful performances, and its simple message of faith.  It was written and directed by George Seaton (1911-1979), who also wrote for the Marx Brothers and provided the voice of the radio’s Lone Ranger, and was based on a story by Valentine Davies (1905-1961). 

For those who came in late – Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) comes to New York to see if there are any vestiges of the Christmas Spirit to be found in then-contemporary America.  She gets a job “playing” Santa at Macy’s – where he sends customers to other stores if it is in their best interest.

He also becomes involved with Macy’s employee Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), a divorcee raising her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood).  Walker is a hard-headed realist; not only doesn’t she believe in Santa Claus, but thinks Susan should not clutter her head with irrelevant intangibles. 

Santa playing himself at Macy’s turns out to be a tremendous coup for the store, and Kris takes a spare room in the apartment of Fred Gailey (John Payne), Walker’s beau.  Before long, people come to doubt Kringle’s sanity, and he is put on trail in Manhattan court.  Gailey comes to his defense, and this leads to a great deal of wrangling over the questions of reality, of sanity and the nature of the Christmas Spirit by the Judge, (Gene Lockhart), the District Attorney (Jerome Cowan) and the Judge’s political advisor (William Frawley).

By any critical yardstick, Miracle on 34th Street is a magnificent picture.  Gwenn won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and the film captured Oscars for Best Writing/Original Story for Valentine Davies and Best Writing/Screenplay for George Seaton.  Though nominated for best picture, it lost to Gentleman’s Agreement – yet another instance of the good folks at the Academy getting it wrong.

There are many reasons the film works so well on so many levels.  First off, the performances are spot on.  Not just Gwenn (1877-1959), O’Hara (born 1920) and Wood (1938-1981), but the other supporting cast, as well.  Payne (1912-1989) plays the honest lawyer hero as an American Everyman, a type that was recognizable in countless films of the era, but now gone thanks to the corrosive effects of multiculturalism.  His easy charm, sense of decency and commitment to ‘the little guy’ were all tropes of what it meant to be an American Everyman, and it’s a delight to watch him. 

However, for your correspondent, the best performances were from supporting players Lockhart (1891-1957), Cowan (1897-1972) and Frawley (1887-1966).  Lockhart, as a decent judge in an uncomfortable position, is a joy to watch – in fact, he elicits our deepest sympathy.  Cowan, as the hard-bitten DA, is a delight.  This fine actor was in countless movies of the era (for example, as Humphrey Bogart’s partner in The Maltese Falcon), and his breezy playing and city-slicker veneer are superb.  However, acting honors must go to Frawley, as the Judge’s advisor.  An old New York type not seen anymore, Frawley is an operator and wise guy.  Here, for example, is Frawley and Lockhart before a possible ruling on Santa’s sanity:

Frawley: All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus.  It’s all over the papers. The kids read it and they don’t hang up their stockings.  Now what happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings?  Nobody buys them.  The toy manufacturers are going to like that; so they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees.  Now you got the CIO and the AF of L against you and they’re going to adore you for it and they’re going to say it with votes.  Oh, and the department stores are going to love you too and the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. Ho ho. Henry, you’re going to be an awful popular fella.  And what about the Salvation Army?  Why, they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they’re taking a fortune.  But you go ahead Henry, you do it your way.  You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there is no Santy Claus. Go on. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes, your own and that district attorney’s out there.

Lockhart: The District Attorney’s a Republican.

And that, more than anything, I think, is why this film works so wonderfully well.  It’s not just a warm-hearted fantasy, it’s a hard-bitten screwball comedy.  Screwball, in the 1930s and 1940s, was a delicate mixture of the sentimental and the cynical.  One could not overwhelm the other, but both must be present in the brew.  In fact, it’s important to remember that no Christmas miracle rides in to save the day.  Rather, harried New York postal workers (at one time, it seems that they actually did something), send their Santa letters in the dead letter office to Kringle at the courthouse simply to get rid of them, and a grateful Judge finds that sufficient to acquit Kringle while still saving face.  Or, if you would … a cynical miracle.

Even better, Seaton’s screenplay is written in that delicious – and vanished – American idiom of the time.  That patois had a distinct, rat-a-tat-tat rhythm, and anyone listening can catch the cadence in classic screwball comedies.  American English, like American movies and music and radio and fiction of the time, had a distinct voice – breezy, confident, smart-alecky and down-to-earth.  We lost that rhythmic poetry in the 1960s, when we seemed to lose so much of our national identity along with everything else, but it is one of our great contributions to language.  (My favorite line?  This: But maybe he's only a little crazy... like painters or composers... or some of those men in Washington…)

As Alfred, the janitor at Macy’s laments, Yeah, there's a lot of bad 'isms' floatin' around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.  Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it's the same - don't care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck.  What Miracle on 34th Street says is that even in this jaded, cynical and commercial world in which we find ourselves, intangible mysteries surround us.  And if a bunch of hard-boiled Gothamites believe… so should you.

Tomorrow: The Santa Claus of William Joyce!

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