Today is the second day of January and the ninth day of “The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code” here at PEPS. I’ve reviewed eight Christmas classics from the Breen era so far. I have written about some secular movies and some religious pieces. I have reviewed some films that are all about Christmas and some that just have a few holiday scenes. Today, I am going to write about a movie that is entirely dedicated to the most popular secular figure of Christmas, Santa Claus. Today’s film choice is Miracle on 34th Street from 1947, a lighthearted picture which starts on Thanksgiving Day and ends on Christmas. Read along to find out about the miraculous thing which happened on 34th Street during a holiday season over seventy years ago.
A jovial old man with a white beard is walking down a bustling street in New York City. He tells a young man decorating a store window that he is making a mistake with the miniature figures of Santa Claus and his reindeer. He tells him where he should put the different reindeer, referring to their placement as if he were Santa Claus. The man humours him but obviously thinks the old man is insane. After setting that young man straight, the jolly fellow continues down the street, swinging his cane and whistling “Jingle Bells.” Meanwhile, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the coordinator of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, is frantically trying to get everyone organized. Amid the chaos, the cheerful bearded man is surveying the displays. He comes upon the float with Santa Claus’s sleigh. He sees that the goofy man playing Santa Claus (Percy Helton) is intoxicated, and he is appalled. He finds Mrs. Walker and reports her employee’s shameful behavior. She is horrified. When the bad Santa Claus passes out, Doris asks the bearded man (Edmund Gwenn) to do her a special favor and play Santa Claus in the parade for them. He agrees, saying that the children mustn’t be disappointed. Doris’s co-worker, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), is thrilled by the extremely realistic Santa Claus she found, since he didn’t even need any padding. Mrs. Walker goes home to relax. Her maid, Cleo (Theresa Harris), informs her that her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), is in the front apartment with Fred Gailey (John Payne), a young attorney who has been very kind to Susan recently. He invited Susan into his apartment so that she could see the parade better. Doris goes over to his apartment to retrieve her daughter and meet Mr. Gailey. Before Mrs. Walker arrives, Fred and intelligent young Susan discuss the various features of the parade, including a giant baseball player balloon. Fred is surprised and dismayed to realize that Susan has no fantasy in her life. When Doris arrives, Fred makes her some coffee, and they begin to get acquainted. Doris explains that she thinks that children should be raised with honesty; telling them a lot of silly fantasies such as fairy tales and Santa Claus myths only leads to disillusionment later on. Susan invites Mr. Gailey over for Thanksgiving dinner that day, and he accepts. The substitute Santa Claus is a huge success, so he is hired as the store Santa Claus for the holiday season. He provides his own costume, understands the children with marvelous authenticity, and demands integrity toward the Christmas spirit. He quickly befriends a young janitor, Alfred (Alvin Greenman), who likes to play Santa Claus as the YMCA. They share a feeling about how wonderful it is to give presents to children and see their faces light up. One day, Mr. Shellhammer is observing Santa Claus interacting with a child and parent. He is horrified when he hears him direct the parent to go to Gimbel’s to buy roller skates, since they have a better product than Macy’s has. Before he can reprimand the employee, however, several grateful mothers commend him on Macy’s excellent new policy of sending customers to other stores if they don’t have what they want. They are impressed that Macy’s is putting the true spirit of Christmas ahead of making money. Mr. Shellhammer doesn’t know if Mr. Macy will like the idea, but he is afraid to ask him. Meanwhile, Fred Gailey brings Susan to the store to see Santa Claus, who talks with her; she makes it clear that she doesn’t believe he is real. She is impressed, however, that he has a real beard. When Mrs. Walker appears, she is very displeased that Fred brought Susan to see the jolly old elf. While she is expressing her concerns about confusing Susan to Fred, the young girl observes Santa Claus speaking perfect Dutch with a little Dutch girl. Later, Mrs. Walker is trying to convince Susan that her realistic employee is just “a nice old man with whiskers.” Susan wants to believe her, but she keeps remembering the way he spoke Dutch. To remove all of Susan’s doubts, Doris brings in Santa Claus and asks him to tell Susan who he really is. However, he keeps insisting that he really is Santa Claus. She keeps asking him to tell the truth, but he replies that he is amid inquiries about Susan’s schooling. Finally, Doris gets out his employee card to show Susan who he really is. She is shocked when she sees that his name is listed as Kris Kringle, and his next of kin are the eight reindeer! She nervously asks him into her office and makes up a story about a Santa Claus from a few years ago coming into town again. He good-naturedly accepts the excuse for being discharged, then Doris is called up to Mr. Macy’s office. When she arrives, R. H. Macy (Harry Antrim) congratulates her and Mr. Shellhammer on their excellent marketing tactic of sending people to other stores. Although he says that they should have consulted him first, he is thrilled by the wonderful results of the gesture. He promises a bonus for them and the Santa Claus who started it, saying that he is spreading the policy to every department of the store. Doris is confused but pleased. Mr. Shellhammer explains the situation to her as they walk down the hall, but she dismally says that she fired Santa Claus. He says that she has to get him back right away. She tells him that he’s crazy, since he thinks that he really is Santa Claus. Mr. Shellhammer says that he has to be kept on anyway, but they agree that he should take a mental examination with the store’s psychiatrist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall). Doris tells Kris that they can keep him on after all, and he agrees to take the mental examination. The nervous psychiatrist dislikes the fact that Kris wants to ask him questions, too. The jolly Santa Claus is concerned by Mr. Sawyer’s nervous habits, such as pulling on his eyebrow and biting his nails, but Mr. Sawyer is snappish and rude. The latter goes to Mr. Shellhammer’s office to report about Kris. Dr. Pierce (James Seay), a geriatrician from the elders’ home where Kris lives, is there at Mrs. Walker’s request. He says that Kris’s delusion is one which is perfectly safe. He thinks that he is Santa Claus, but other than that, he is completely normal. Mr. Sawyer says that Kris failed the test. When pressed, he admits that Kris did answer all the questions correctly, but he was completely unfocused. He suggests that he be dismissed, warning that he probably has latent maniacal tendencies. Dr. Pierce, who has known Kris a long time, argues that he has no such tendencies; his is an illusion for good. They agree that Kris should be kept out of trouble by living with another employee, who can drive to and from work with him. Mr. Shellhammer says that he can live with him and his wife; he will make the martinis double-strength that evening to make her more receptive to the idea. That night, Kris and Fred have dinner with the Walkers. Before dinner, Kris teaches Susan how to play make believe. He shows her how to be a monkey so that she can play zoo with the other children in the building. Fred, who heard that Kris was looking for a place to live, invites him to move into his apartment. Mr. Kringle happily accepts, since he will have a chance to see Susan often. Just then, Mr. Shellhammer calls, saying that, because of triple-strength martinis, his wife feels wonderful. She tells Mrs. Walker that she would love to have Santa Claus come live with them. When Doris tells that to Kris, he says that he has already agreed to live with Fred. She is annoyed at this change in plan, but he moves in that night. Meanwhile, Kris Kringle’s goodwill campaign has spread to Macy’s and Gimbel’s stores all over America. He is part of a lot of publicity, including a photo shoot of Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel standing with Santa Claus and shaking hands! It seems that his traditional ideas about Christmas are contagious. Unfortunately, there is one employee at Macy’s who doesn’t have holly in his heart, Granville Sawyer. Alfred tells Kris that Mr. Sawyer has been analyzing him every day, and he has found that he has a deep-seated guilt complex, which is manifested in the fact that he likes to give presents to children as Santa Claus. He is analyzing him every day to find out the cause of his guilt. He also says that he hates his father, which Alfred didn’t know until he told him. Kris is furious that the bitter old man is trying to stick complexes on the normal, generous seventeen year old. He angrily goes to Mr. Sawyer’s office and says that he is a fraud, a fake, and a disgrace to the psychiatric profession, of which he is not a legitimate part. He says that he is going to tell Mr. Macy what a fraud he is, and Mr. Sawyer angrily orders him out of his office. Before he leaves, Kris raps him soundly on the forehead with his cane. When Mr. Sawyer sees Mr. Shellhammer and Mrs. Walker approaching his office, he lies down and pretends that he’s unconscious. He later says that he did nothing to antagonize Kris. All he did was mention Santa Claus, and he became violent. Unfortunately, the other employees believe the lie. Mr. Sawyer demands that they take him to Bellevue immediately for examination, but he really just wants to get rid of him before he can tell Mr. Macy what a fraud he is. Doris says that she cares about Kris, and she won’t betray him like this. At Sawyer’s suggestion, Mr. Shellhammer tricks Kris into getting into a taxi with the two of them by telling him that they are going to take pictures with the mayor. After Kris realizes he’s been deceived, Mr. Sawyer says that Doris agreed that this was the best thing to do. He is so crestfallen that he purposely fails his mental examination. Soon, Fred Gailey visits him in Bellevue and tells him that Doris didn’t know anything about the deception of taking pictures with the mayor. He convinces Kris that he can’t give up and just stay in a mental hospital, since all the people of the world need him. He agrees to defend his sanity in a court case. It won’t be easy, though. An unlucky assistant district attorney, Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan), has to prove that Mr. Kringle is insane. He doesn’t think it should be hard, since all mature people know there is no such person as Santa Claus; in the process, however, he may become widely known as a monster “who tears wings off butterflies.” The judge trying the case is Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart), a responsible judge who considers it his duty to try the case, despite the advice of his campaign manager, Charlie Halloran (William Frawley). Charlie warns him that this Santa Claus case is dynamite, and he shouldn’t try it because he is coming up for reelection. Judge Harper doesn’t take his advice; before the case has been going on long, he regrets it. Fred Gailey is taking full advantage of all the publicity to prove that Kris is not insane because he really is Santa Claus! In the process of the case, he quits his job at a law firm, endangering his future and thus making Doris end their relationship, since he threw away his career. Despite all this, Fred is determined to stick by Kris no matter what happens, since he believes in him. Even with all that determination, can Fred really legally prove that Kris is Santa Claus or that there is such a person at all? You have to watch the movie to find out!
There is excellent acting in this movie. Edmund Gwenn is very believable as Santa Claus. His soft British accent and lovable charm make him a truly authentic Kris Kringle. Maureen O’Hara is sweet and beautiful in her role. She plays Doris very convincingly. John Payne is grand in his role of the determined young lawyer who is eager to make the embittered working woman believe in something again. A very young Natalie Wood is a huge addition to the cast. She is intelligent, cute, sparkly, and charming in her role of Susan. She is filled with the wonder of youth. Her acting is really excellent. She responds very well to Kris Kringle. Maybe that is because she really thought that he was Santa Claus. She believed that he was his part all through the filming of this picture. It wasn’t until she saw him without his costume at the end of shooting party that she realized that he was only an actor.
This movie is filled with warm holiday scenes from beginning to end. There are Christmas songs, holiday decorations, and a lot of focus on Santa Claus. The spirit of generosity which this film shows is one from which we all can learn. Kris says, “Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind.” He wants to make sure that people always have that frame of mind. This story also teaches the important lesson that you must never stop believing in something, since “faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.” Also, Fred displays the sort of determination that really gets things accomplished. Even though it seems impossible to win, he won’t stop fighting for the thing in which he believes. That sort of determination and faith made the Code a success during the Golden Era of Hollywood. If we have that same determination now, we can made the Code a success again!
This movie is a lighthearted picture which will please all sorts of film lovers. Even if you don’t believe in Santa Claus, you have to love Kris Kringle when he is played by Edmund Gwenn. You have to watch the original 1947 version, since the remakes just aren’t the same. As you enjoy these old movies, never forget the miracle in the 34th year of the century which made them what they are. Be sure to look at the seal in the corner of the credits and acknowledge all the hard work which went into the self-regulation of Code films. Without that seal and the hard work behind it, this film, like all Breen films, wouldn’t be the marvelous classic that it is. Come back tomorrow for the tenth day of Christmas with the Code!
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