Skip to main content

Madam, I am not in the habit of substituting for spurious Santa Clauses.

Miracle on 34th Street
(1947)

(SPOILERS) Chances are, if you ask a random person who isn’t twelve years old to name three classic Christmas movies, one will be It’s a Wonderful Life, and one of the other two will be this evergreen tale of upholding the “right” kind of seasonally materialistic values. More recently, Chris Columbus attempted to inject a degree of commentary into his rewrite of Jingle All the Way, and cynicism towards the push-pull of a supposedly hallowed festival providing a chance to over-indulge and imbue kids with the qualities of greed and possessiveness crops up in most modern takes on the subject. Miracle on 34th Street has an especially canny take on the consumerist angle, and an honest one; when it comes to telling the truth about Santa Claus, the answer is whatever is best for business. Even cannier is that it inevitably means it’s also whatever is best for winning votes.


Naturally, the filmmakers were in the same bind as their fictional figureheads of business and justice, so they couldn’t offer a non-affirmative response when it came to whether Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is actually Santa Claus, a Santa who just happens to be slumming it right now at Brooks Memorial Home for the Aged on Long Island. In fairness to them, though, they didn’t do the likely route of anything Santa-related today and unequivocally have him shown to be the real deal. Everything that happens gift-wise relates to circumstance or likely parental purchase, and about the most amazing talent Kris displays is fluency in Dutch.


Kris Kringle: Madam! I am not in the habit of substituting for spurious Santa Clauses.

Gwenn’s Kringle is a jolly nice chap, of course, but not impossibly or wretchedly so. He’s only roused to ire when – probably the first of many inspirations that led to Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa – remonstrating an intoxicated Santa during a parade. Consequently, there’s little real tension in waiting to see him denounced or vindicated, particularly when he’s given to spouting homilies such as “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind” (a frame of mind that rarely occurs on other days, probably because said mind hasn’t been massaged into a stupor from all those goodies and grog). It’s a fait accompli that we assume his right to be the bona fide Santa or a bit mad and simply claim he is.


Fred Gailey: Don’t you see? 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.

Writer-director George Seaton instead focuses on the importance of what Kris symbolises, and while there’s no mention of the religious meaning of Christmas herein, for all the essential sincerity of the message, the film does trump up faith in something other – not Jesus, admittedly – as essential to the human spirt. As defence attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne) says, “Faith is believing in a thing when common sense tells you not to” (I’m not sure that’s exactly the definition, but what the hell, let’s go with it).


Which underpins both the movie’s strongest suit (Santa on trial!) and its more laboured side dish, the dilemma of winsome moppet Natalie Wood, brought up by mum Doris (Maureen O’Hara, only 27, but believably a decade older in her no-nonsense eschewing of frivolity) to hold fake news in contempt. Fred, realising that she has “No Santa Claus, no fairy tales, no fantasies of any kind” in her life, and being hot on her mum (a divorcee; perhaps surprisingly there’s no judgement on her status, or on remarrying and finding happiness, except from the Catholic League of Decency in their response to the picture), is very keen to have Kris interpose himself on their lives as much as possible, with his emphasis on the power of imagination (“That’s when you see things but they aren’t really there” defines Susan over maturely) rather than cold, arid facts.


It’s a cute dichotomy to grapple with, whereby Doris thinks one should be completely truthful with children, which of course one should… Except that telling the truth rather depends on knowing the truth in the first place, and then whether it’s in the moppets’ best interests to withhold or reveal it. Doris could have come across as rather cold and unsympathetic, so it’s lucky the makers managed to secure O’Hara’s services (she had moved back to Ireland at that point). Doris is empathic even when she’s being ruthless regarding the facts. It’s a typical Hollywood cheat too, that it’s the men promoting escape into fantasy but the oppressive women are guilty of holding them back (“Whatever I want, my mother will get. If it’s sensible and doesn’t cost too much, of course” comments Susan, who most wants a house to live in, something it seems might be outside of Kris’ powers to provide). As such, Doris’ suddenly coming on board with the merits of fantasy is a little on the inelegant side, the screenplay failing to focus sufficiently on her journey, but O’Hara inhabits the part such that she makes you believe she might.


Thomas Mara: Do you believe that you are Santa Claus?
Kris Kringle: Of course.
Thomas Mara: The State rests, your honour.

It’s Payne who makes the most of a gift of a part, though (he has few other notable roles), since Fred espouses all the most virtuous principles, identifying precisely where Doris is wrongheaded and proving it to her and winning her, indulging Kris without a hint of doubt, and only practising law in the first place for underdog cases like this (leading him to quit his employer when he’s accused of “jeopardising the integrity of an old and established law firm”).


Fred Gailey: I intend to prove that Mr Kringle is Santa Claus.
Thomas Mara: He’s crazy too.

The case succeeds due to equal parts Fred’s deft defence and Judge Henry X Harper’s (Gene Lockhart) Pilate-like desire to go whichever way public opinion will vouchsafe his re-election (plus, even his family is shunning him for agreeing to try the case). The latter’s attitude is essentially the corridors-of-power equivalent to RH Macy (Harry Antrim) coming on board with Kris’ altruistic approach to Christmas, beguiled by the idea of “The store that places public service ahead of profit… And consequently, we’ll have more profits than ever before”. Harper’s looking for a quick exit and finds it, despite the interjections of District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan).


Thomas Mara: Your honour, the state of New York concedes the existence of Santa Claus.

There are two standout defence manoeuvres, the first as Fred calls Mara’s son Thomas Jr (Bobby Hyatt), who unreservedly announces that his father told him there was a Santa Claus, and “My daddy wouldn’t tell me anything that wasn’t so, would you daddy?” The second comes by way of the logic that it’s a criminal offence to wilfully misdirect mail and so, since the US postal service, an arm of the US Government, is delivering mail to Kris Kringle, the Government must be implicitly accepting of his veracity.


The movie includes a number of other notable asides adding to an air of playful irreverence, dampening its sincerer impulses. Despite a cautionary line that he is non-representative of his profession, there’s clearly a desire to paint psychology as a promulgator of all life’s ills, with the instigator of the case, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall, who’s great in the role), an unrepentantly meddlesome and misery-inducing individual, one who even resorts to pretence to make his mark (and ends up fired when his plans don’t suit his corporate boss). Then there’s Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), the Macy’s man initially persuaded to put Kris up, but who knows Mrs Shellhammer (a very funny Lela Bliss) will need some inducement; a couple of double-strength Martinis after dinner should put her in a more receptive frame of mind. “I’ll call you as soon as my wife’s plastered” he announces. When he does, she has already knocked back triple-strength ones.


The Hon. Henry X HarperSince the US Government declares this man to be Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed. 

Miracle on 34th Street is ultimately in the same tradition as Harvey a few years later, where escape to a benign fantasy world is inarguably a better place to be, and even allowing a slight caveat that this delusion may not be delusion at all. It’s a good sell, certainly, although the level at which Miracle initially hit the spot with audiences varies by the source (45th in Variety’s contemporary list of top grossers, based on distributors’ rentals, but ultimatemovierankings.com gives it third position, and the equivalent of $167m gross, by whatever special formula they’ve been taking). Releasing it in June probably wasn’t the best way to ensure its success, mind, the decision based on Darry F Zanuck’s logic that more people go to the movies in warmer weather. What probably clinched its status was the Oscar attention, garnering four nominations including Best Picture and winning Best Supporting Actor (Gwenn), Original Story and Original Screenplay. And yes, it’s a picture that ought to be in anyone’s pantheon of Christmas favourites; it’s easy to see why it was remade, and easy to see why it didn’t deliver second time. Perhaps if they’d cast a yukking Tim Allen rather than Sir Dickie…


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.