It’s easy to make a passable Christmas movie, but hard to make a great one.
A great Christmas has to walk a tightrope— sentimental but not saccharine. Funny but not crude. Traditional but original. Appealing to the entire family. Eminently rewatchable.
They absolutely have to stick the landing—a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas that has your heart melting and not your eyes rolling.
It’s nearly impossible.
Most Christmas movies are quickly forgotten, around for a season and only half-watched as you munch on popcorn and contemplate gifts for those hardest to buy for on your Christmas list. They’re enjoyable but predictable, a pleasant two hours passed but quickly forgotten.
But when a filmmaker manages the impossible, the results are magical.
Beloved Christmas movies become part of family Christmas traditions, watched each year as the tree is trimmed or after all the presents are opened. They are souvenirs of childhood, keys to unlock the sweet nostalgia of good times with the ones we love.
Love Actually. Home Alone. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. White Christmas. Christmas in Connecticut. A Christmas Story. All make me laugh and feel as warm inside as a Christmas hot toddy.
So does Miracle on 34th Street.
Unnecessarily remade multiple times, the 1947 original is a classic and earned Edmund Gwenn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Santa Claus.
It starts out with a setup that can be seen any night of the week on the Hallmark Channel—skeptical all-work-and-no-play Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) falls in love with her idealistic neighbor Fred Gailey. Doris hires a man to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s Day Parade and soon discovers that he believes he is the real Santa. Fred is charmed. Doris is dismayed.
Miracle gives us our first real look at Natalie Wood, who plays Doris’ equally skeptical daughter. Under her mother’s tutelage, Susan does not believe in Santa Claus or anything else that defies good common sense.
At only eight years old, one can already see the star that Natalie Wood would become in films like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story. Her Susan is charming as a girl who has not been allowed to indulge in childish fantasies and acts like a little adult.
Fred and Kris Kringle—the man hired to play Santa—work together to crack open the hearts of the stubborn Walker women.
So far, so good.
But when Kris Kringle is thrown into an insane asylum for insisting he is Santa Claus, the movie makes an unexpected U-turn from fantasy-laced romance to courtroom drama.
To get Santa out of the asylum, lawyer Fred sets out to prove in court that Kris Kringle is the one true Santa Claus.
Here’s where the movie gets original and funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but clever. Fred’s legal maneuverings are based around the idea that no one involved—not the judge, not the prosecuting attorneys—want to be quoted in the newspaper as saying Santa doesn’t exist and therefore breaking the hearts of the city’s children. (And more importantly in the case of the elected judge, his constituents.) Those involved in the case against Santa are shunned at home by their wives and children.
Meanwhile, Doris and Susan are ultimately won over by Kris Kringle.
When the post office begins delivering all the mail addressed to Santa Claus to Kris Kringle at the courthouse, Fred uses this as proof that the U.S. government officially recognizes Kris Kringle as Santa Claus.
The judge rules in his favor, Santa is released from the looney bin, and everyone makes it home in time for Christmas Eve dinner.
Little Susan gets the last scene in the film when she becomes a true believer in Santa when he manages to deliver her impossible Christmas request—a lovely house in the suburbs, which a newly engaged Doris and Fred agree to buy.
It’s a great film, and if you’ve never seen it, make a point to this week.
To all my readers, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season. I’m grateful to all those who read and support this film series in particular and my writing in general. Even with the pandemic, I have much to be grateful for this holiday season.
I’ll be back next week at the usual time and place for the last movie blog of 2020. Then it’s full speed ahead into 2021.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.