What an unlikely classic is Miracle on 34th Street. The story, seen on its own, sounds far too silly and schmaltzy to possibly work – a mall Santa Claus claims to be the real thing and spreads Christmas cheer until he’s put on trial to make good his claim – and yet, though a combination of a witty script, first-class performers, and almost perfectly-judged execution, it’s one of the all-time great ‘feel-good’ films.
It’s also, surprisingly enough, one of the great Traditionalist stories of its era (its superior contemporary, It’s a Wonderful Life, is also one), pitting ‘the spirit of Christmas’ against modern cynical consumerism.
Now, like with most ‘Christmas’ stories since Dickens, that is not the real spirit of Christmas, alas, but neither is it quite the gooey, safely ambiguous ‘good-will and general pleasantness’ of lesser Christmas stories; it’s something a bit more specific.
Consider the scene at the start of the film: we have Macy’s, the giant department store eagerly anticipating the Christmas shopping season as it opens with Thanksgiving. Their only concern in this is simply to make as much money as possible by selling as many wares as possible. This is not only out of the desire for profits, but also prestige; to beat their arch-rival, Gimbel’s. It’s a competitive, impersonal world where Christmas is just a chance to make a buck.
Embodying this competitive, ‘rational’ world is Doris Walker and her daughter Susan (Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood, respectively—I told you the film had a first-rate cast). Doris is a disillusioned divorcee who has resolved to shield her daughter from the heartbreak she’s experienced by being “completely honest and truthful” with her. That is, deconstructing and dismissing any kind of fantasy, fairy tales, or similar trappings of childhood in favor of ‘practical’ and ‘sensible’ notions.
She’s also a successful career woman occupying a high position in the Macy’s hierarchy, but shows little interest in her job as such, declining to even watch the Thanksgiving parade after being the one to organize it. Her goal, as she later puts it, is simply “to get ahead,” which abstract values like romance and faith and charity don’t help with.
The world at the start of the film, thus, is the modern world; impersonal, materialistic, and competitive, dismissive of tradition and traditional values in favor of an endless pursuit of an uncertain goal.
Into this world steps jolly old Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn, who won a well-deserved Oscar for the role), who is the complete opposite. He deals with people on a wholly personal level, speaking to them with real interest and concern, whether they’re adults or children. He makes a point of doing things properly, with due care and respect regardless of whether it’ll make a profit or even whether anyone else will notice (as seen in his introductory scene, correcting the placement of the reindeer in a store Christmas display). When he takes over as the store Santa, he begins directing shoppers to other stores when they can’t find what they want in Macy’s, or even when he thinks the Macy’s version isn’t quite good enough.
And in the course of doing this, he demonstrates a strong sense of his own authority. Being Santa Claus is not so much his job as his role, his duty (since he believes that he actually is Santa Claus). Accordingly, he thinks nothing of dismissing instructions he disagrees with, or doing the job the way he thinks it should be done without asking permission, simply saying that “as long as I’m here” Macy’s will put making the children happy above making profits.
Kringle explains his goal as trying to find a way to raise the ‘Christmas spirit’ of personal care, empathy, and so on against the commercial spirit. “Christmas is more than just a day,” he says. “It’s a frame of mind.”
In the process, he reinforces and supports those who already have a similar mindset, such as Alfred the teenage janitor or Fred Gaily (John Payne), Doris’s romantic lawyer neighbor who hopes to coax her out of her shell (as any man might if he lived next door to an unattached Maureen O’Hara) and to introduce some childhood fantasy into Susan’s life.
The ‘Christmas spirit’ here is actually a bit closer to the real thing than most Christmas movies. If not going all the way to Our Lord, it does encompass such things as tradition, charity, respect for the human person, intact families and households, and ‘laying up treasure in Heaven’ rather than on Earth. It is ultimately about pitting the personal and ‘intangible’ values against the impersonal, ‘rational’ ones of of the consumerist modern world.
This carries through even into the hearing that takes up the film’s third act, where Fred defends Kringle against charges of insanity by setting out to prove that he really is Santa Claus. Like Kringle’s own campaign, it runs completely against modern sensibilities (the prosecutor expects him to deny everything), seeking not just permission but vindication— essentially, for the modern world as represented in the court to concede that Kringle is not only harmless, but right.
To do this, Fred goes for the personal, first in drumming up public opinion on his side, then by such tactics as calling the prosecutor’s own little boy to the stand to force him to concede the existence of Santa Claus. At the same time, self-interest and politics come to his aid, as both the prosecutor and the judge fear what a misstep in this case could mean for their careers. And in a brilliant final touch, the clinching testimony – courtesy of a few jaded post-office workers – is brought about by Doris and Susan (whom Kringle had earlier described as “the whole thing in miniature”) sending him a letter asserting their belief in him.
Something that is often forgotten in this film is that it actually makes no definite statement on whether Kringle really is Santa Claus. He makes a convincing show, but there’s evidence on either side, and the film’s famous ending leaves it tantalizingly ambiguous. Because in the end, it’s not really the point whether he is or not. The point is the vindication of his perspective, of the old ‘intangibles.’
As a matter of fact, the film could be read less as a whimsically harmless bit of Christmas fluff than as a kind of modern Don Quixote, with a possibly delusional old man embracing the beautiful values that the modern world has rejected and in the process showing up how hollow that modern world really is.
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