Miracle on 34th Street is one of the most iconic Christmas films out there; probably only A Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life might have it beat. While it reinforces the Christmas spirit message pretty thoroughly, it does it in a truly heartwarming way, and at the same time representing the commercialism that comes with how Christmas is celebrated.
Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is an old man who believes himself to be Santa Claus. The film opens with him walking down the street and stopping to correct a shop keeper who set up his reindeer display incorrectly. He’s perfectly nice about it, and then just walks on. Then he walks up to the annual famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and notices that the guy they got to play Santa Claus for it is shamefully drunk out of his mind. When he brings this to the attention of Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the drunk is fired and Kris gets the job.
Back home, we see Mr. Fred Gailey (John Payne) looking after Doris’s daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). Doris is very cynical and has trained her daughter in the same way; she’s never heard fairy tales and most definitely does not believe in Santa Claus. This doesn’t sit too well with Fred, and he tries to get her to loosen up and enjoy childhood, while also trying to get invited to Thanksgiving dinner. He succeeds on the second objective anyway, and starts becoming a big part of Susan’s and Doris’s lives.
Kris quickly becomes the best Santa Claus that Macy’s has ever had. He plays Santa Claus in an unorthodox way: instead of just listening to the kids and telling them that if they’re good they’ll get whatever they want and so forth, he helps the parents out by telling them where they can buy the toys that their kids want, even if “Macy’s don’t got any.” At first this causes quite a panic with the management, but after they realize that many customers are willing to convert to shopping at Macy’s because their salespeople aren’t going to shove Macy’s products down their throats, the management gets on board. Kris also becomes roommates with Fred, and they start on a campaign to help Doris and Susan get more out of life, and it seems to be working.
However, there’s always something. Even though he’s really nice and seems harmless, Doris is a bit concerned that Kris thinks he’s actually Santa Claus. And if this wasn’t a movie, anybody in that position would be concerned as well. She acts pretty responsibly, and has him checked out by the company psychologist Mr. Sawyer. Mr. Sawyer is your classic Christmas movie grouch that won’t let anybody else have any fun. Though Kris answers all of the test questions correctly, he still tries his hardest to get him fired and declared insane. Even though this guy’s personality sucks, he’s got a legitimate point. Kris thinks he’s Santa Claus for crying out loud! But it is apparent throughout the film that Sawyer’s doing this more because of what is wrong with his own life rather than anything that may or may not be wrong with Kris.
This all leads up to the “trial” part of the film, I say “trial” because it’s technically a hearing, but it’s all in court and very official. The court scenes are my favorite scenes in the film, hands down. The prosecutor thinks this is going to be an open and shut case, he “didn’t know anything about a protest” to declaring Kris insane. There is a big one, and soon Fred gets the whole city involved. The way he eventually proves that Kris is actually Santa Claus is fantastic in my opinion, of course it wouldn’t work in real life but that’s not the point.
My favorite part about the court scenes are the judge, Henry Harper (Gene Lockhart). He and the prosecutor both are not painted as bad people, they’re just doing their jobs. We see their lives outside the hearing too, and they’re taking a lot of flack for it. The judge’s grandchildren won’t say goodnight to him and the prosecutor’s wife tells him off for taking the case. Anyway, Lockhart has a very expressive face and he definitely uses it in this film. We always know that he is on the side of Kris and Fred, perhaps against his better judgement. Just watch him say “overruled” and try not laugh.
My favorite part in the film is when the prosecutor asks the judge to rule on whether Santa Claus exists, and the judge and his re-election adviser (William Frawley) go in the back room and talk it over. There is no way anyone up for re-election could get away with ruling that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, there’d be way too much cultural upheaval, the economy would tank etc etc… and people would probably just get generally depressed. The reason I love this scene so much is it offers an accurate description of how Christmas is celebrated, but also why we can’t just get rid of the Santa Claus myth. When I hit that childhood crisis that comes with finding out your parents were actually Santa Claus all along, I wondered why we just didn’t tell everybody the truth. It’s because adults buy into it too. That totally mystified me in my “I’m a kid so the world revolves around me” period. Every parent is Santa Claus, and they don’t want to give it up.
What Kris does is he helps parents do what he does. He tells them where they can find the toys that their kids want, so they can see their kids be happy. Everybody’s happy, everybody wins. The little harm that Kris does is far outweighed by the good, even if the truth gets a little bent. Santa Claus literally existing or not existing is not really the point, all that matters is for everyone to be happy and have a good time on Christmas.
“But you go ahead Henry, you do it your way. You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there is no Santy Claus. Go on. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes, your own and that district attorney’s out there.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars