Classic Film Guide

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

This film is not just a kids' movie. Indeed, much of the dialogue and several subtexts within the film are too advanced for many children younger than ten (and a lot of it would bore a seven year old).

The script is very well written which undoubtedly accounts for the fact that it won two Oscars for Best Writing, Original Story and Screenplay. Precise wording and deliberate interruptions (e.g. of characters who are about to do or say something "wrong") are techniques cleverly utilized throughout the picture enabling it to be viewed by children who still believe without upsetting them. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Zanuck's Gentleman's Agreement (1947) (a story about anti-Semitism, ironically). Also notable is the fact that it was originally released in May. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2005. #9 on AFI's 100 Most Inspiring Movies list.

Though the basis of the film is belief in Santa Claus, the conflicts (e.g.) from the wannabe psychiatrist, responsible for institutionalizing Kris, and within the judge & district attorney as they try to at once uphold the principles of law and their reputations without alienating voters & their families contribute much (amusingly so) to the story. These story-lines are seamlessly combined with the "love" story between the two main adult characters, parenting philosophy, the theme of faith ("believing when common sense tells you not to"), and the commercialization of Christmas. The plot's only flaw, in my opinion, is the lack of any real on-screen development of the love between the adults (who presumably are married after the film ends).

Particularly memorable is young Natalie Wood's character's transformation from "practical", loner child to one that learns for the first time to pretend (to be an animal in a zoo), and the (sanity hearing) courtroom scenes including the DA being completely "disarmed" by his own son and, of course, when postal workers pour 50,000 letters on the judge's desk which prompts his well worded ruling "if a branch of the United States government recognizes this man as the one and only Santa Claus, I'll not dispute it ... case dismissed!".

The acting is also superb. Edmund Gwenn won the Best Actor in a Supporting Role Award, probably in part because it was more of a Best Actor role given his screen time. FYI, Ronald Colman (A Double Life (1947)) beat out John Garfield (Body and Soul (1947);-) and William Powell (Life with Father (1947)), among others, for the Best Actor award that year. I've seen each of these performances as well and would definitely recommend them, though I'd have given the nod to William Powell (that Irene Dunne was not nominated for her performance in that film is a mystery unless they were trying to give someone else a chance for a change, but I digress).

Maureen O'Hara is excellent as always (of course, I've only seen a little more than a dozen of her films) but I think John Payne's (underrated?, certainly under appreciated) "Fred Gailey" is what holds the film together. The incredibly talented supporting cast of character actors includes:

  • Porter Hall (who also played memorable bits in Preston Sturges' films) as the "psychiatrist"
  • William Frawley (Fred in I Love Lucy; Bub in My Three Sons) as the judge's campaign manager - remember this marvelous scene with veteran actor Gene Lockhart as judge
  • Thelma Ritter's debut film as the skeptical mother, and even
  • Jack Albertson as the postal sorter

    I think that, compared to other more recently released comedy-fantasy "kids" movies also made for adults, it stands up quite well today. Wouldn't you agree?

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