Wrinkly Film Club* 14/12/17: Miracle on 34th Street

*I’ve been running a film club at the Grove, Gosforth, branch of Abbeyfield residential care homes since June 2017.

In a special festive film club, we watched the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street written and directed by George Seaton and starring Maureen O’Hara and John Payne. To my surprise, the DVD included a colourized version, which we collectively decided to have a go with. As vision is an issue for many residents, colour is easier for them than black and white film. Being a joyful story about the spirit of Christmas, the colour (first added in the 1980s) was full of vibrant hues of red, green and gold, and rarely was its addition discernible.

Six residents attended, and we were joined by two relatives. I was surprised that not only had no one seen this version before, but they also hadn’t heard of the story at all. It has experienced quite a few incarnations in theatre, radio, television, novelization and film since the original story was written by Valentine Davies. The 1994 remake was fairly popular and I remember it being released when I was 10, but I also must remember as a life-long cinephile to recalibrate to the experiences of the general non-cinema-going public. Plus, the point has been to introduce the residents to films and different stories they would like but may never have come across before, and it feels good when that works out, and even better when I have a few things to say about them!

Everyone enjoyed the film very much. Well, the lady whose relatives were there says little – and little positive at that – so believe me when I say I was delighted when I asked her what she thought, and she replied that it wasn’t too bad. I said I’d take that as a win. Her visitor laughed and said it was the most positive response I could hope for. Others expressed that they thoroughly enjoyed it and found it funny and cheering.

The film opens as Doris Walker (O’Hara) oversees the Macy’s department store Thanksgiving Day parade which culminates in Santa Claus’s arrival at the store. However, their Santa Claus (Percy Helton) is drunk and passes out. An elderly passersby who stopped to berate him is asked by Doris to replace him, and Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) – who claims to be the real Santa Claus – gets the job. While there are concerns about Kris’s sanity, his honesty and warm-heartedness secure loyalty from customers.

Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that Doris is the divorced mother of young Susan (Natalie Wood) who has befriended their neighbour, the attorney Fred Gailey (Payne), who has deep affections for the Walkers but wishes they were less serious. He soon enlists Kringle’s help in igniting imagination and blind faith in Susan who has been taught by her mother to be truthful and sceptical, which in the story are synonymous with seriousness. In the process, Doris’s emotional armour against further heartbreak dissolves, and she gives in to loving Fred and believing in Kris.

While the film is funny with sharp, harmless humour, there are of course issues that a film of this nature – and a film made in 1947 – raises. However, in comparing it with the 1994 remake, I find the 1947 version to be less problematic. 1990s single working mother Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) seems to rely on free childcare from her neighbour Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott) and the elderly Kris Kringle (Richard Attenborough) who she's just met and thinks is delusional while her 1940s counterpart has hired help in Cleo (Theresa Harris). Although minimal, it is refreshing to see a person of colour fully present in the ’40s film and with expository lines, particularly when – if memory serves – the remake presents a white-washed New York City and an erasure of anyone working in menial or subservient roles. Moreover, the men in both films spend much time alone with six-year-old Susan, but in Cleo’s first appearance she has a line of sight through the Walkers’ and Fred’s apartment windows via which she has keeps an eye on Susan watching the parade from Fred’s better view. She is also present and nearby when Kris speaks with Susan in her bedroom. While the subtle layers of surveillance in the earlier film might suggest post-war social paranoia, it also demonstrates some characters’ concerns for the safety and wellbeing of others, which to my recollection the remake does not, or at least not to the same extent.

Cleo's point of view from the Walkers' apartment into Fred's

As Kris spends time with Susan, he convinces her that myths and legends have their place, as do stories and imagination. And of course, they do, but the danger is conflating these with truth and reality. Susan seems to appreciate this distinction and shows no interest in anything other than fact and truth. Fred and Kris join forces to persuade her otherwise. Meanwhile, company psychologist Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) claims that Kris harbours ‘latent maniacal tendencies’. As aspects of his life and character emerge, it is likely that he is projecting his own malcontent onto Kris. And yet, Kris is persistent and prepared to go to great lengths to persuade rather than prove to Susan that he is who he says he is, and imposes his help on Doris and Susan whom he sees condescendingly as ‘two lost souls’. What really is so wrong with preferring facts to play, or honesty to make-believe? Disruption of gender normativity is what.

In both films, the ultimate goals are to assure faith in the unquestioned unknowable – the violent defence of which is apparently sanctioned – and to restore the hetero-patriarchal middle class normative order by reinstating the ‘natural’ family unit. Having blind faith and imagination is affirmed as what’s best for a girl’s wellbeing, at least until she is old enough to herself fulfil motherly/wifely duties. The ’94 version conflates these with religion. What wins the day in ’47 is the authority of the US postal service, whereas in ’94 it is the blind faith in the Christian god appearing on US currency that dispels the court case – a trial held after Kringle commits assault but in both cases tenuously becomes concerned with proving/disproving the existence of Santa Claus.

When I first saw the remake, I was old enough to not be shocked by mild violence, but the ease with which a man supposedly the embodiment of peace, kindness, generosity and goodwill could be provoked to strike someone never sat right with me. The same goes for the 1947 version; however, it came quite soon after a war in which the USA helped the allied forces combat fascism and injustice, so perhaps in that sense, Gwenn’s Kris – and both movie versions were played by Englishmen – can be tenuously excused by contextual moral standards. Importantly, the ’47 Kris was standing up for the young, kind and impressionable Alfred (Alvin Greenman) who was being bullied by Sawyer, while the ’94 Kris defends himself and his/Santa’s existence to his provocateur, the drunk Santa he replaced (Jack McGee) now working for a rival store.

Which brings me on to the solid foundation of capitalism on which these systems are laid. When against company policy Kris advises parents on where to find the gifts the children want instead of marketing what needs to sell, it works in Macy’s favour, and a sort of friendly rivalry emerges between the store and its biggest rival, Gimbels, who copy the idea. The stores set aside differences to share publicity and are rewarded for their profit-motivated goodwill with trade and happy customers. The ’94 approach is cynical, perhaps reflecting the post-80s ‘greed-is-good’ philosophy. ’47 Kris is committed to a mental institution after hitting Sawyer with his cane for insisting that Alfred’s kindness is an indicator of mental instability. This act is a catalyst for a personal vendetta against Kris that Sawyer regrets too late when it works to his own detriment. However, in ’94 the provocation is an act of personal revenge incited by associates of the Cole’s store’s biggest rivals, Shopper’s Express, to damage the sales and lasting reputation of Cole’s to improve their own. Even still, it is a bit rich to hear ’47 Kris complain about Christmas’s commercialization when Santa personifies it and ensures that the festive efforts of the primary givers of childcare go unappreciated for years.

World War II is never referred to directly in ’47, but instead alluded to through looks and loaded silences after half-uttered introductions. For example, the scene in which Kris communicates in sign language with a deaf girl in ’94 was originally with a non-English speaking Dutch adopted orphan. Reading between the lines, she is likely her family's sole survivor of the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. I could speculate further, but the purpose of this encounter is Susan witnessing Kris conversing in the first language of a displaced and traumatized child, which suggests to her the possibility that he may just be Jolly One.

Post-war renewal is perhaps why politics is mentioned overtly in ’47. Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) worries about the trial’s impact on his re-election and mentions that he is a democrat while District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) who presents the prosecution case is a republican. This indicates Judge Harper’s leftist, liberal and perhaps socialist leanings. When he is buried in mail addressed to Santa Claus delivered to the courthouse by the truck-full, he accepts the argument that if the mail service believes Kris to be Santa, then he must be. This puts Harper in a win-win situation with children and voters alike by declaring Santa to be real and showing tremendous faith in the robustness of a federal system.

To edge into review territory, the intricacy of the original story in the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street is partly why it won many awards and has been preserved by the Academy Film Archive while the 1994 remake may well fade in time. It is also much less cynical, and has much more potential to cause hearty laughter in the young and old alike.


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