Most Christmas movies for and about children revolve around Santa Claus. Miracle on 34th Street is the original one about the big guy himself, and some would say the very best one. Yes, there is another Miracle movie you've probably already seen, the '90s remake starring Mara Wilson and the great Richard Attenborough, but the first will always be the definitive one that everyone should see during the holiday season.
The plot is simple and charming: an old man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) gets hired to play Santa Claus at Macy's New York City store. The only issue is he actually believes he is the big guy. It's especially a problem for Macy's executive Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) and her little girl Susan (future movie legend Natalie Wood). Doris is a working single mother who has raised her child not to believe in 'fairy tales.' This has left poor Susan without much of an imagination and no belief whatsoever in Santa. That all changes when the girl's lawyer neighbor and unofficial babysitter Fred (John Payne) takes Susan to visit Santa at Macy's. Upon hearing Kris Kringle speak Dutch as if it were his first language to a little girl who does not speak English, Susan starts having doubts. Could he really be Santa? Does such a magical person truly exist?
Meanwhile, from the first moment he meets mother and daughter, all Kris wants is to get them to believe, even if it sometimes feels like an impossible task. When circumstances make Fred take in Kris as a temporary roommate, he truly believes what this man says, thus causing friction with his crush Doris. He decides to defend Kringle in court when the discouraged old gentleman is deemed insane after failing a mental examination on purpose because he thinks everyone is against him. With such an unbelievable case before him, will Fred make believers out of everyone in NYC?
There are quite a few reasons why I love this movie. First and foremost, one of the main characters is a single mother with a lucrative job who stands on her own, even if there is romance in her life, a million kudos for that! Secondly, Miracle on 34th Street takes the Santa idea and turns it upside down in a brilliant way. Susan is a complete skeptic and makes Kris Kringle work for her belief by asking him for a house. Obviously, she doesn't believe he can give her what she wants, but when she starts thinking he could be who he says he is those doubts hold the magic that carries the film all the way to the end. It's such an absurd idea and it's a miracle (no pun intended) that everyone involved make it work. I must add how much I love the way Doris and Fred are written. George Seaton and Valentine Davies, the two men responsible for this film, threw all convention aside and made something truly unique and wonderful.
There has never been a more perfect Santa Claus than Edmund Gwenn, who won an Academy Award for being a genius with this role. Natalie Wood is the cutest child ever and is the heart of the orchestra. She would go on to become a film icon, appearing in many classics, including Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass. Maureen O'Hara is perfect, just like she is in everything, and you can tell she had real affection for her on-screen daughter that resulted in a friendship that would end with Natalie's untimely death. John Payne is wonderful as Fred, and he once said that his favorite movie of all-time was this one. The man had good taste. Other cast members worth mentioning are British actor Philip Tonge as Doris's quirky co-worker Julian and the great character actress Thelma Ritter making her first film appearance as a Macy's shopper. As always, with what little dialogue she has, she is perfect.
Miracle on 34th Street went on to win three 1948 Oscars, including one for Gwenn, Best Screenplay, and a nomination for Best Picture. All of the recognition that the film got was well-deserved. It's an extravaganza like no other, and it will forever be a classic and Christmas tradition.
Valerie Frederick, a typical young woman who just happens to be in love with classic films and French Fries, writes about the golden age of cinema from a teen's perspective.