Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Miracle on 34th Street (1947 and 1994)

Like most children, I was in 8th grade when I finally learned there was no Santa Claus (what do you mean 8th grade is a bit late to find out?). If my parents hadn't spilled the beans, I may have made it to high school believing in Jolly Saint Nick. I was devastated by the news. We tend to not want children to learn Santa Claus isn't real early in their formative years and yet what is wrong whether you are 8 or 48 with believing in a benevolent chubby man who brings good cheer around the world.

Which brings CrazyFilmGuy to MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Maybe CrazyFilmGuy is a tad late but what better holiday film about the spirit of Christmas then the original MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947) and the age old question of whether Santa Claus is real or not. Next to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET might be the second most famous Christmas film ever made and I had never seen it before. As I prepared to watch the 1947 version a few weeks ago, one of my favorite movie channels HDNET had the 1994 remake of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET on.  I had forgotten that someone even had the courage to remake the original.  But after avoiding AMC's colorized version of the black and white MIRACLE over the holidays, I decided to watch the remake as well, even watching it before I viewed the original.  The remake very closely follows the original and has some inspired casting but it still won't make anyone forget the first one.

Although Maureen O'Hara and John Payne get top billing in the 1947 MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, the real star of the film is Edmund Gwenn. Gwenn steals the film and makes us believe in Santa Claus with his winning performance. Written and directed by George Seaton based on a story by Valentine Davies, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET begins with a long tracking shot as we follow a man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), wearing a black coat and hat, walking amongst the tall skyscrapers of New York City. Kris stops to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. He notices the Macy's Santa (Percy Helton) is drunk and scolds the impersonator. He reports it to Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), a Macy's employee in charge of parade talent. Noticing Kris's white beard and twinkling eyes, Doris asks if he would mind taking the other Santa's place. Kris obliges and becomes such a huge hit that she offers Kris a job as the Macy's Santa Claus in their New York department store.

Kris is struggling with the commercialism of Christmas, feeling society has taken the Christmas spirit for granted. "Seems we're all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle, " Kris laments. When the store manager Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge) asks Kris to steer undecided kids toward Macy's overstocked, expensive toys, Kris instead tells kids and parents where the best priced toys are even if it means going to Macy's rival Gimbel's. This public service makes Kris and Macy's even more popular. Kris also tries to bring back the spirit of Christmas to Doris and her young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood, in just her third film credit). Susan doesn't believe in Santa Claus, even though their handsome neighbor, attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne) tries to change Susan's mind by taking her to meet Kris. Although impressed Kris can speak multiple languages and has a real beard, Susan will only believe in Santa if he gets her a house in the country where she wants to live with her mother.

But Kris gets on the wrong side of the store psychiatrist Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) who wants Kris committed, believing Kris is delusional because he says he's from the North Pole and his next of kin include Prancer and Vixen. After Sawyer dispenses some poor advice to Alfred (Alvin Greenman), a young man Kris befriended who also enjoys dressing up as Santa at the local YMCA, Kris scolds Sawyer and raps him on the head with an umbrella. Sawyer with a reluctant Shellhammer has Kris sent to Bellevue Hospital for observation. Kris is resigned to staying there, even deliberately failing a test. Gailey comes to visit Kris and decides to take up Kris's case. Gailey's a believer. "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to," Gailey says.

The case falls into the lap of Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart), who happens to be up for reelection soon. District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) tells Harper it should be an open and shut case until Gailey walks in, representing Kris Kringle. The case goes to court, "Santa  Claus on trial for lunacy!" exclaims one newspaper's headline. Gailey defends Kris and to a greater extent, the spirit of Christmas.  "It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles." In the end, Harper has to make a decision that all children in New York and around the world await.  Is there or is there not a Santa Claus? Harper will make the right decision.

Because MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET is in black and white, the film takes on a documentary-like feel that makes the story more realistic. Director Seaton shoots many scenes on the sidewalks of New York, inside bustling Macy's Department Store, and even amongst the hundreds of mail sorters at the U.S. Post Office giving the film an organic authenticity. Seaton treats Santa Claus as a real human being.  There is no magic, no flying reindeer, no special effects, just Kris Kringle with his white beard, twinkling eyes, and red suit.

Director Seaton was a screenwriter before adding directing to his resume. Seaton wrote the Marx Brothers comedy A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) and MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET has many memorable pieces of dialogue and jokes. But the film is very well structured and takes its topic seriously, never resulting to slapstick. The film's conclusion where Gailey defends Kris from being institutionalized and comes up with how to save the case against Kris is clever. After watching many Maureen O'Hara films where she's always the tough, strong woman, her performance in MIRACLE as the disbelieving Doris Walker is refreshing. O'Hara can play vulnerable just as well. The rest of the cast is fine with Gwenn playing the role of a lifetime as Kris Kringle. John Payne as Gailey isn't the typical strong leading man but he's at ease with comedy and his friendship with Kris even letting him live with him is touching.  Look for William Frawley (I LOVE LUCY'S neighbor Fred Mertz) at the end of the film as Judge Harper's campaign strategist Charlie Halloran.

I had entirely forgotten that director Les Mayfield and Producer John Hughes (yes, the John Hughes of THE BREAKFAST CLUB and FERRIE BUELLER'S DAY OFF fame) had dared to remake MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET in 1994. I barely remember any reviews but my guess is Hughes (who gets a screenwriting credit with George Seaton) was probably attracted to the young Susan Walker character. Cast in that role was a spunky newcomer named Mara Wilson who previously had been in MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1994). Wilson is no Macauley Culkin in HOME ALONE (another Hughes penned film) but Hughes writes some humorous lines for her that sound like they're coming from a young Ferris Bueller. Although little Natalie Wood was a cuter version of Susan in the original, Mara Wilson's big eyes and interesting voice coupled with Hughes' dialogue make her stand out in this updated film.

The 1994 version of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET doesn't veer too far away from the original. Once again, Kris Kringle (Richard Attenborough), semi-retired and living in Manhattan, is recruited by Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) to replace a drunk Santa (Mike Bacarella) at the last moment at the Cole's Thanksgiving Parade. Dorey is a single working mother who lives with her daughter Susan Walker (Mara Wilson) in a nice but small New York apartment. Living next door and seemingly always available to watch Susan is handsome and single lawyer Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott). Kris is a huge hit as Santa Claus at the parade that Dorey asks him to be the Cole's Santa at their department store. Kris accepts.

The subplot in the newer version has Cole's rival store Shoppers Express looking to takeover the struggling Cole's. Victor Landbergh (Joss Ackland), Shopper's CEO sends his two top executives Jack Duff (James Remar) and Alberta Leonard (Jane Leeves) to close the deal. When Kris comes up with the idea of Cole's helping shoppers find toys even at their competitors, Duff and Leonard try to woo Kris away, first offering him more money to be Santa at Shoppers Express. When Kris turns down their offer, they set Kris up, causing him to strike the drunk Santa who's job Kris took.  Kris is locked up, considered a threat to harm others.

Naturally, Bedford comes to Kris's rescue.  He believes in Kris and knows Dorey and Susan were slowly coming around to the old man as well. Bedford represents Kris in court, the trial presided by  Judge Henry Harper (Robert Prosky) with D.A. Ed Collins (J.T. Walsh) reluctantly prosecuting the man who says he's Santa Claus. This MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET takes a slightly less compelling approach to proving Kris isn't Santa Claus but don't worry kids. Santa does not get locked up in Sing Sing.

The casting of this MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET is very clever and in some instances, the new actors slightly resemble the original ones.  Elizabeth Perkins as Dorey seems to channel the aura of Maureen O'Hara and their facial structure even struck me as similar (although Perkins doesn't have O'Hara's red hair). Dylan McDermott as the lawyer Bedford (his last name a wink to Bedford Falls, the town Jimmy Stewart lived in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is tall and lanky like John Payne and again, their long faces and dark hair are similar.  Richard Attenborough seems born to have played Kris Kringle with his gentle laugh. Both Attenborough and the original Gwenn are English and it seems right that Santa should have that dignified accent.

The best casting is saved for the villains and director Mayfield chooses wisely with a Rogues Gallery of heavies including Joss Acklund (LETHAL WEAPON 2), J.T. Walsh (THE GRIFTERS) , and James Remar (48 HOURS). They are the perfect bad guys to try to corrupt or put Santa behind bars. Even Robert Prosky as Judge Harper, given the tough task of ruling if Santa Claus exists or not has played baddies before like in THE NATURAL (1984) so we're not quite sure of his intentions although Prosky plays him as a gruff but ultimately kind-hearted judge.

The new MIRACLE doesn't play it too sentimental which is refreshing. Hughes and Mayfield treat the source material with respect. One small pet peeve is how cinematographer Julio Macat photographs the actors with a backlight, giving everyone's head a Christmas glow. He's going for a romanticized effect but I found it irritating. Interestingly, the real Macy's refused to allow their name to be used for the remake so the name Cole's was chosen as it's replacement. I don't think I blame Macy's as the original MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET is so interconnected with them.

When you get the opportunity to watch MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, watch the original 1947 one and make sure you're watching it in black and white. Imagine that Santa's suit is red. For those who don't like black and white films (like my teenage children), the 1994 MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET will give you color and a decent remake of a classic holiday film.  In either case, the answer is yes Virginia and New York and Holland and London and Oregon and all around the world, there is a Santa Claus. Don't ever stop believing it.

1 comment:

  1. Joss Ackland's name doesn't appear on the credits (beginning or end) of the 1994 version. Very strange!