I’ve finally seen the original Miracle on 34th Street (with only three more versions to go!) and I’m pleased to say I liked it very much. The third re-make with Mara Wilson was out when I was a little kid, but somehow I missed it and all its older siblings for all these years.
Very often in Christmas media, we get a version of Santa Claus who winks, smiles, and only heavily suggests that he is in fact, the genuine article. In Miracle on 34th Street, however, Santa Claus is very open about who he is, and the movie doesn’t leave any room for the audience to guess about his authenticity, either. The man calling himself Kris Kringle, and offering his age as “as old as my tongue, and a little older than my teeth”, openly admits to being Santa, while emanating Christmas cheer, hope, and magic.
This is New York City, however, and the movie’s many adults know better: the man is a kook, who may be a danger to himself and others! And they’ll go all the way to the New York Supreme Court to prove that there is no Santa Claus–or at least, that this is no Santa Claus standing before them.
My Mara Wilson-informed bias led me to expect this to be more of a kids’ movie than it actually is; roughly half of it takes place in offices, court, judge’s chambers, etc. And while some of my favorite Christmas (or Christmas-y) movies, like It’s A Wonderful Life, aren’t especially geared toward kids, I still found myself thinking that this one really ought to be, for no other reason than I expected as much.
For what it is though, it is very, very cute. But for some producers’ nieces and nephews, there isn’t a bad performance in the film, and Edmund Gwenn is about the most perfect Kris Kringle I’ve ever seen on film. He is a very good Santa, always carrying himself with the wisdom of a world-wearier person, but none of the cynicism. He has that wide-eyed enthusiasm for everything that we are taught, growing up, that Christmas and Santa are supposed to stand for: wonder, faith, generosity, and so forth. Gwenn would make you want to believe in Santa again, and that is the biggest reason this movie works.
Maureen O’Hara is great as well as the hard-working single mother who feels irresponsible allowing her daughter to believe in Santa Claus. And while I’ve never seen John Payne in anything else, I couldn’t quit catching myself thinking he seemed like some sort of Diet Coke to Jimmy Stewart’s The Real Thing, but maybe all old, tall, doe-eyed white guy actors from the 40s look the same to me. I was also struck with some sadness to realize the little girl playing Suzy was Natalie Wood, who was probably murdered on a boat on which a number of other Hollywood notables were passengers that night. But we mustn’t go down that rabbit hole here. Do that on your own time.
This movie is simply cute. It’s a little slow, but not overly-long, and there are some good laughs and endearing characters. I particularly liked Alvin Greenman, the tragically uncredited but very lovable and well-meaning Mall Santa To Be, Alfred. It turns out he’s got a cameo as a doorman in the 1994 remake, and I’m looking forward to that. If I catch him, I’ll snap a screenshot.
While I don’t hold this in as high a regard as It’s a Wonderful Life, it is better than some older films you’ll find on lists of must-watch Christmas movies, and I firmly believe that this is the kind of movie a person who doesn’t think they like black-and-white pictures could watch and find themselves entertained. It’s very good, and in the spirit of Christmas I’m giving it a
GBU Christmas-Adjusted Holiday Rating of 8/10
As of the time of this writing, Miracle on 34th Street is streaming on Disney+.