Holiday Classics: “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street,” which opens during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and concludes on Christmas day, this the perfect movie to kick off the holiday season. So it’s a little surprising that when it debuted in 1947, it was released in theaters at the beginning of May. That was the doing of 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who believed that it would turn a larger profit in the summer because more people went to the movies when the weather was warm (personally, I would think more people would want to engage in an interior activity when it’s cold out, but I’m not the head of a major movie studio during Hollywood’s golden age). So when you look at the original marketing materials for one of the best and most enduring Christmas movies ever made, you’ll notice that no elements indicating that it is a holiday movie are present; the posters emphasize Maureen O’Hara and love interest John Payne, while Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn, playing Kris Kringle himself, are smaller figures in the background.

Despite the fact that it wasn’t a seasonally-appropriate summer movie, “Miracle on 34th Street” was still a box office hit, and it’s easy to see why. The film finds skeptics Doris Walker (O’Hara) and her young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) opening themselves up to the possibility of love and magic after meeting Kris, who Doris— an event director for Macy’s department store in New York City— casts the man who looks just like Santa Claus as a last minute replacement for their actor in the Thanksgiving Day parade. Kris goes on to become Macy’s in-store Santa for the holiday season, inspiring awe and goodwill in everyone who visits him with his generous gift suggestions, but his insistence that he is the real Santa Claus causes some to believe he may be senile. It all culminates in a trial to determine whether or not Kris belongs in an institution. Susan learns to be a kid again, and Doris, jaded by past failed romances, opens up to neighbor Fred Gailey.

Maureen O’Hara and Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street”

“Miracle on 34th Street” was filmed on location in NYC, including during Macy’s 1946 parade, which found writer/director George Seaton and his cast and crew scrambling to get the shots that they only had one chance at. It’s a wonderful capsule of the holiday season in the big city circa the mid-1940s, on top of being funny (occasionally darkly so) and inspiring. The entire cast is great— Thelma Ritter makes her film debut, while Gwenn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his lovable turn as Kris— but child star Natalie Wood makes the most impact. Her cynicism at the start of the movie is believable (she’s like a mature adult in a tiny body), but the way her face and manner subtly changes as she gradually starts to believe in Kris is remarkable. Wood went on to be one of the few child stars to successfully transition to teenage and later adult roles, staying active in the film industry until her untimely death in 1981. In addition to being a commercial success, “Miracle on 34th Street” was a critical one as well, and was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (it lost to the drama “Gentlemen’s Agreement”). It was remade for a new generation of viewers, in 1994 from a screenplay adapted by a John Hughes, but the original remains an enduring family classic to this day.

“Miracle on 34th Street” is currently streaming on HBO Max. Runtime: 96 minutes.

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