This piece – about my perennial pick for the most appropriate first Christmas film to watch each year – was originally published in December 2001 in the Messenger Post papers.
Quick – name the first old-fashioned Christmas movie that comes to mind. (No, don’t look at the photo.) You’re thinking of It’s a Wonderful Life, right? Sure, that’s the classic, the Jimmy-Stewart-George-Bailey-broken-down-building-and-loan-dance-by-the-light-of-the-moon-angels-get-their-wings holiday weeper. Fifty-one years old, that one picture carries on the Frank Capra legacy almost as effectively as all the other films he made combined.
But if that film is the Hertz Rent-A-Car of holiday films, Miracle on 34th Street (unrated, consider it PG) is Avis: number two, and – especially in this, its own golden anniversary year – trying harder. “It’s a Wonderful Life” will make its annual appearance December 20 on NBC-TV, and millions of viewers will tune in, as usual. But the following night, take a break from wrapping presents and head over to the George Eastman House, where an 8pm screening of Miracle will be presented – an early present if ever there was one.
Based on a short story by Valentine Davies, Miracle on 34th Street has at its heart a fable of such simple, incorruptible sweetness that it actually improves with the passage of time. (Compare that to the labels of “Capracorn” periodically thrown at Capra’s work – cynical snickers in the face of Midwestern homilies.)
The story begins as Doris, an independent career woman – and single mom (!) – who organizes the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, catches her parade Santa Claus tippling from a hip flask minutes before his float is set to ride through midtown Manhattan. As luck would have it (uh huh), another white-bearded fellow happens by just in time for Doris to recruit him. He’s such a hit as jolly old saint Nick, in fact, that she hires him on for the rest of the season – and only raises an eyebrow when the old man starts telling people that he really is the one and only Kris Kringle.
If there’s a downside to living in the shadow of an undisputed titan, it might be that everyone holds the top dog in reverence but assumes number two is easy pickings – hence the untouchability of the original It’s a Wonderful Life, while Miracle has had to endure two ham-handed remakes (so far). Twenty-six years after the original was released, a made-for-TV version cast a bland Jane Alexander as Doris; more-mannequin-than-man David Hartman (once of “Good Morning, America”) as Bill, her would-be boyfriend; and an unknown Suzanne Davidson as Susie, Doris’ daughter.
Every version of the story pivots on the relationship between Kris and Susie – the old man who teaches the young girl how to be a young girl, by using her imagination – and the 1973 edition at least had a strong Santa in Sebastian Cabot. With him in charge, the wobbly remake managed at least to keep its heart in the right place.
Not so, sadly, for the more recent big-budget version. 1994’s Miracle, perhaps fine for folks who’d never seen the first two, discards the amiable sentimentality of Davies’ story for a two-dimensional good-vs.-evil yarn. This time, Kris’ temporary downfall (no one believes he’s really Santa, so the lovable coot is shipped off to a sanitarium) is staged by a rival department store chain, and masterminded by a hand-wringing Euro-accented villain (Joss Ackland) who’d seem more at home fighting James Bond than Santa Claus.
No, it’s the 1947 film – with its marvelous synthesis of acting, directing, and script – that stands the test of time. Maureen O’Hara brings just the right balance of steel and vulnerability to Doris, while a young Natalie Wood and a grown John Payne offer flesh-and-blood takes on Susie and Bill. As Kris, Edmund Gwenn found the role of his life, and won an Academy Award for his trouble (along with Davies and writer/director George Seaton).
Accept no substitutes: For melodrama-free family fare, the original Miracle on 34th Street is as worthwhile as they come. I’ll bet even Jimmy Stewart watched it once or twice – after his movie, of course.