Miracle on 34th Street
I thought for a long time that my devotion to this movie was just a personal thing. But, it is actually celebrated as a great movie, and not just a great Xmas movie, by others besides me. In fact, not that awards mean all that much (after all, doesn’t Britney Spears win sometimes?), but, sometimes they are an indication that something special is going on.
Miracle was nominated for four Oscars and won three – best supporting actor (Edmund Gwenn, who played Kris Kringle), best original story (Valentine Davies) and best screenplay (George Seaton, who also directed). It was nominated, did not win best picture. But, consider the winner, Gentleman’s Agreement (a Gregory Peck film) which I sure never heard of, and the other runner ups – Boomerang (never heard of it), Crossfire (never heard of it) and Great Expectations. Naturally, we’ve all heard of because of Dickens’ book. I was once forced to watch the film Great Expectations in my youth and was bored to bloody hell and back. Let me take a wild guess and say that Miracle has been broadcast a hundred times or more on television than the other four movies combined.
The academy is, though, but one word on achievement. The American Film Institute, which was created by a federal program to celebrate great movie making, comes out with numerous lists of the best movies in various categories, including, one for the most inspirational movies of all time. Frankly, I frequently and violently disagree with many of the institutes choices, but I do like them putting Miracle at number 9 in the inspirational category. It should have been number one (their number 1 was Its a Wonderful Life, a great Xmas movie in its own right, but not, in my mind, in the same league with Miracle). The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, also includes Miracle among its list of notable films.
There are so many great things about this film, one of which is the cast, which includes,
Edmund Gwenn – Kris Kringle
It’s hard to believe this guy was born 131 years ago, but he was. Rutherford B. Hayes was president, for goodness sakes and neither FDR, Hitler or Churchill was even thought about at the time. He is so old time that George Bernard Shaw cast him in one of his biggest plays in the 19th century. At the time Miracle came out he was 70 years old, which, of course, is perfect for playing Santa Claus. Of all his roles, this is the one he received his sole Oscar for, after which he said, “Now I know there is a Santa Claus”. I remember him in a late Hitchcock movie, The Trouble with Harry. Although Miracle was made great by its ensemble acting and writing, Gwenn’s range of emotion, including merriment, sorrow, anger, compassion and even Xmas spirit was the glue that made this movie. I think he was the one indispensible actor.
Maureen O’hara – Doris Walker
Probably the most famous of the group. She could’ve had a successful career just in the John Wayne movies she was starred in, including, The Quiet Man, which contains one of the best fights ever filmed (with Wayne, not her). However, leaving aside her legendary acting career, my favorite thing about her in Miracle is the absolutely awful double take she does when she reads what Kris wrote on his application for the job as Macy's Santa. It’s probably not fair to blame her completely as there was also bad directing and editing involved. She reads the application, looks up, and only then does the double take. What were they thinking? According to legend, O’Hara had returned to Ireland and was forced to return to make the movie for the studio, angering her. However, supposedly once she returned and read the script, she was happy to have come back. So they say. I take all movie trivia with a big grain of salt.
Natalie Wood – Susan Walker
I know she starred in West Side Story, and she was an adorable child actress in Miracle, playing the precocious child of a mother whose broken heart led her to ban all fantasy for her daughter, including Santa Claus (O’Hara’s character was not the world’s greatest mom in my humble opinion, as the male lead and Kris Kringle also clearly recognized).
But the most interesting fact for me is that Natalie drowned while she, her husband's, actor Robert Wagner, and guest Christopher Walken (young then) were on the Wagner's boat near Catalina Island in California after an argument filled night laced with alcohol, anger and jealousy.
In his autobiography, just out this year, Wagner claims that nothing sexual or bizarre happened despite all the rumors, but, by his own version, there sure was a lot of anger on board the boat that night. Christopher Walken was aboard as a guest, the other guests having canceled. Wagner believes his wife had been “emotionally” unfaithful with Walken during the filming of a movie together. I didn't read the whole book, just the part about her death, so I can't tell you whether she had been unfaithful to Wagner after they remarried (Warren Beatty may have taken her away during the first marriage; Wagner doesn't know when that started); however, he admits always being jealous of her and believes that is just part of dating a beautiful actress. At least once before her disappearance, she and Walken had gone to land by themselves while Wagner was sleeping, although she left a note for her husband asking him to join them when he woke.
The three of them were dining onboard the "fateful"" night. They were drinking. The coroner, according to Wagner found her blood alcohol level to be 1.4, above the legal driving limit of 1.0. He says a little above, but, that is a significant amount. Walken suggested over dinner that Natalie make more films rather than spend all her time raising the kids. Not surprisingly, this angered Wagner, and they argued about it. Wagner himself says he broke a smashed a wine bottle on the table. She left them arguing and Walken and Wagner tried to talk it out, but Wagner says it was getting heated and was possibly leading to a fight (sure, I smash bottles all the time during heated arguments).
Wagner briefly spotted his wife brushing her hair in her room and he believed she was getting ready for bed. She closed the door. Supposedly, neither man, nor the captain saw her again. The two men went upstairs to talk and calmed down. She was missing from the room. Eventually, looking for her on the boat, Wagner saw that the dinghy they used to get to land was missing. It was later found after a search, although in neutral, with the oars tied down as if it hadn't been used, and sometime later, her floating body was found.
Wagner believes that she heard the dinghy banging against the boat and went to re-tie it. If she had started the engine on it, everyone on the boat would have heard it roar and no one did. He believes she slipped and knocked herself unconscious while the dinghy was untied and rolled into the water. He doesn't believe that she would have tried to take it to escape the men fighting over her because, although she had to some degree conquered her fear of the water, enabling them to use the boat, she did not like to be in or too close to the water and was terrified of dark water. However, he admits it is all just speculation.
Wagner has kept his story close to his vest all these years despite all the rumors of murder or a sexual tryst leading to violence. He says he appreciates that Walken stayed with him all during the wait and that he acted like a gentleman ever after, never getting into the gossip game regardless of what people thought. Possibly we've all seen too much news and too many movies to just accept it all on faith, but there have been many doubts over the years. I believe him, but I'm pretty easy about these things. When I get to heaven, however, I intend to look her up and report back.
Porter Hall – Mr. Sawyers
There were so many great small roles in the movie, but his was perhaps the best. He played the cranky, incompetant, pompous, obsequious and nervous store psychologist; the creep who caused all of Kris’s problems in the movie. Hall often played these irritating characters in his long career, usually the bad guy or the obnoxious clerk type (in Going My Way, gasp, he play an atheist). Hall’s Mr. Sawyers may be the film's villain, but he is so pathetic that you actually feel sorry for him in the movie when he gets his -- at least I did. Which means, of course, great acting on Hall’s part. Not surprisingly, although a creep in films, Hall was well known for having a generous and fun loving off screen personality .
Thelma Ritter – Appreciative shopper
If you are old enough, you would know her if you saw her. In Miracle, her first movie role, she merely played a shopper who was stunned by Kris, who, although working for Macy’s, sent her over to another store to find what she wanted for her kid. She was very grateful. She usually played a maid or assistant, and was her New York accented voice was quite distinctive. Given the seemingly unimportant characters she played, it is a little hard to believe that she was actually a great actress, who was nominated for Oscars four years in a row (almost the record and was nominated six times in twelve years, a record which she shares with one other actress. She is also a Tony award winner. Here’s my promise. See her in Miracle or as the maid in Rear Window, and you will never forget her.
William Frawley – the judge’s political mentor
Yes, the same guy who played Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy, as in Fred and Ethel. Here he plays a cigar chomping politico trying to keep his client, the judge, from pissing off the electorate by declaring there is no Santa.
Gene Lockhart – The judge
Not quite as famous as some of the others, his characterization of a decent, kind, and mostly honorable Judge Harper was exquisite. His mannerisms were so charming, I can’t think of a better word. My favorite Judge Harper moment occurs when his mentor, William Frawley, tells him that if he rules that there is no such thing as Santa Claus, he can count on only two votes in the coming election, his own, and the DA’s. Judge Harper says sadly “Just one. The DA is a Republican”. If you are old enough, you know his daughter, June Lockhart, as the mom on Lassie and Lost in Space.
Those are my favorites among a spectacular cast of leads and character actors. I left out a slew of them who were quite successful and recognizable, like Jerome Cowan (the DA), Philip Tonge (Mr. Shellhammer) and the movie's lead, John Payne, but, I couldn't remember their names and had to look them up. You'll recognize the actors when you see them, though. Even Jack Albertson, then a young actor, had a small role as a mail handler.
I’m not sure whether the acting made the writing, the writing the acting, or some combination, but, I can tell you this, the writing was great. I still tear up three times during the movie – the first time when Kris speaks Dutch to the little orphan girl, the second time when Doris adds a postscript to her daughter’s letter to Kris and the third time at the movie’s conclusion when the romantic leads spot a very recognizable item in the house into which Natalie Woods had run. I won’t spoil the movie more than that. It wouldn’t matter much anyway. I’ve seen possible 30 to 50 times and I still get choked up.
The director/writer was George Seaton. I’d have to say that Miracle was the best thing he ever did in his life. He was actually president of the Academy for years, but other than direct a few other stars to Oscars, I don’t know anything he did great (unless you count Airport – I don’t). I’m just happy he wrote and directed this one.
There were three small items which seem mistakes, the type of which are so unimportant in movie land. The most obvious mistake occurs when Kris is showing off his knowledge of the mental competency examinations given by psychologists, and, mimicking a test giver, asks himself the name of John Quincy Adams’ vice president. He then gives the answer – Daniel D. Tomkins, and even rhetorically bets that the store psychologist doesn’t know that. I hope not. It’s wrong. Tompkins’ was VP for Adams predecessor, James Monroe. Adams’ VP was John Calhoun, who also served under the next president, Andrew Jackson. I am curious how that mistake came about, but, I guess we will never know.
The second mistake is just noticing an unlikely occurrence. Little Susan Walker's (Wood) mother (O'hara) is concerned that Kris is crazy and might even become violent if someone challenges his Santa Klaus delusion. She knows full well that Susan doesn’t believe in Santa Klaus (as she herself has taught her) and has no problem saying so. Yet, when Kris visits with the family the same night she learns he might be violent, she allows him to put her young daughter to bed alone in a room with the door closed. Even if you are not the most attentive mom, this scenario is not likely to happen. And don't argue that she believed in Kris -- she wasn't there yet.
The third one is just me being an attorney. Kris’s physician knew him for years and believes he is harmless. Why didn’t Kris's lawyer, Mr. Gayley, put him on the stand to testify as to Kris's delusion being harmless, as he claimed. And why not also have Kris himself testify himself why he bopped Sawyers on the noggin and prove that he had deliberately failed the exam? I would have figured that one out as a first year student, and I was pretty clueless.
I always give this caveat when writing or speaking about this great movie. DO NOT! DO NOT! SEE ANY VERSION OF THIS FILM BUT THE 1947 ORIGINAL. THE REMAKES ARE HORRIBLE. HOR-RI-BLE.
I’m ending this post with a few words about another Xmas movie (sort of) with the word "Miracle" in the title -- The Miracle at Morgan Creek. I caught this one afternoon on tv and loved it. If you just don’t like old movies, well then forget it, but this '44 film has a rather unusual plot for its time, dealing with a teenager who gets impregnated at a party. However, the plot isn’t really important. The movie was just so funny, particularly a young actor named Eddie Bracken, who plays the bumbling, stuttering (sorry, it’s funny) hero/suitor in the Barney Fife mold, named Norval Jones. Only a few other actors/actresses have stood the test of time from this movie, Betty Hutton (Trudy Kockenlocker), whose real life ended up being rather sad, William DeMarest (you know, Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons) who played her father, and Porter Hall, who plays the same kind of irritating stick-in-the-mud here as he did in Miracle on 34th Street. Diana Lynn, who played Trudy’s snarky sister, was pretty enough to later play the female lead in a remake of The Philadelphia Story, a role previously played by beauty queens Katherine Hepburn (stop thinking of the older Audrey) and Grace Kelly, who makes my top ten list of most beautiful actresses ever.
I’m not going to go one and on about it, but, hokey as it was, it was also laugh out loud funny, and by that, I mean laugh out loud while you are alone, which is a tougher test. See it if you can and tell me if I’m wrong. It got one Oscar nomination for the writer/director, Preston Sturges, and has made the Library of Congress's Film Registry, as well.
Have a great holiday. I am probably on hiatus the rest of the year but will be back the first week in January to continue my reign as America’s Most Popular Blog beginning with the letters dei (and I'm not even sure about that).