A film can be great for any number of reasons. In fact, sometimes all it takes is one great performance to make the difference between a mediocre film and a film that will live on forever. That is exactly what happened with Miracle On 34th Street (1947).
By now, most everyone is aware of this imaginative story about Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn) coming to New York City on Thanksgiving to see the Macy’s Day parade. He sees that the Macy’s Santa is intoxicated, and while reporting this atrocity to the parade coordinator, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), she convinces the real Santa to step in and save the day. Of course Doris doesn’t believe that this is the real Santa, no matter how hard he tries to convince her and her young daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), of his true identity. Doris hires Santa to come be the Santa at Macy’s, and he gladly accepts.
Santa continues to mix things up with all the doubters of the world as he marches toward Christmas day. He brings together mother and daughter, neighbors, Macy’s and Gimbals, as well as the rest of the world, as his identity is questioned in the American courts.
Miracle On 34th Street is a wonderful film, and would be with or without actor Edmund Gwenn. With that being said, it is his performance that makes this film a must see, year in and year out. Gwenn was a solid actor throughout his career, but he will be remembered for Miracle On 34th Street above everything in which he appeared. He is Santa. Everything that anyone relates to Santa is embodied within Gwenn performance, and if right now a fat, jolly old man in a red suit came sliding down my chimney, I wouldn’t believe it was Santa…unless of course it was Edmund Gwenn. He won a much-deserved Academy Award for his performance, which speaks to the fact that many viewers were impressed with his abilities in 1947, just as we are today.
I don’t mean to take anything away from the rest of the cast and crew that worked on Miracle On 34th Street. Without Gwenn it is still a highly enjoyable film. It is heartwarming and delightful, leaving every viewer ready to forget about their Christmas shopping and enjoy each others company (at least for a minute). Miracle On 34th Street also won two different Academy Awards in writing categories, as well as being nominated for Best Picture.
Maureen O’Hara is her usual charming self, filled with warmth and love. Natalie Wood shows the early child acting talent that we have since seen on numerous occasions. John Payne gives his best Cary Grant impersonation as the attorney and friend of Santa, and truthfully he pulls it off rather well. Everything about Miracle On 34th Street is great, but Edmund Gwenn makes the film…well, magical.
Personally, my favorite scene in Miracle On 34th Street is when Edmund Gwenn is sitting at Macy’s, talking to the different children about their Christmas wishes. A young Dutch girl comes up, and although she can’t speak English, she still wanted to wait in line to see Santa. Her new adoptive mother explains the situation to Santa, and much to her surprise and delight, he begins to speak to the girl in Dutch. They talk and sing together as the new mother watches with tears welling in her eyes, but the highlight of the scene is in the toothless smile from the little girl the moment Santa begins to speak her language. It’s not a smile about wants, desires or presents like all the other kids, but a smile of pure joy in having someone to speak to, even if only for a minute. I know the end of the film is supposed to make me overjoyed for young Susan and her new life, but for me Miracle On 34th Street will forever remind me of the Dutch girl and her smile.
Thankfully this film is still seen every year because no matter how hard people try, the best Christmas movies will continue to be the ones from around the 1940’s. Modern Christmas movies focus on comedy situations often having to do more with commercialism than the holiday itself. The greatest Christmas movies, like It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Christmas In Connecticut (1945), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Scrooge (1951), Holiday Inn (1942) and Miracle On 34th Street focus on the “true” spirit of Christmas, without as many ridiculous situations, considerable less physical injuries and much better story lines. I guess the real difference between the classics and the followers comes right down to the stories and their scripts. But it doesn’t hurt to have Gwenn as your Santa, does it?
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