Wednesday, 23 December 2015

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | DAY 10: "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947)

Original release poster
Directed by George Seaton, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) begins when Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is persuaded by Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), the special events director at Macy's, to play Santa Claus in the store's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He does such a good job that he is hired as the Santa for Macy's New York City store. While he is successful, Doris learns that he has been directing clients to other stores and claiming that he is Santa Claus. Meanwhile, Doris's neighbor and friend, attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne), takes her skeptical daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to see Santa at the store. Doris has raised Susan not to believe in fairytales, but Susan's lack of faith is shaken when she sees Kris conversing in Dutch with an adopted girl who does not know English. 

Although Doris asks him to stop telling people that he is not really Santa Claus, Kris continues insisting that he is. Worried that he is delusional and might harm someone, Doris decides to fire Kris. However, since Kris has generated so much good publicity for the store, R. H. Macy (Harry Antrim) arranges instead for Kris to undergo a mental status examination from Macy's psychologist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall). After an altercation with Sawyer, Kris in sent to a mental hospital and a court mental compentency hearing follows on Christmas Eve. Defended by Fred, Kris is declared to be Santa Claus when the U.S. Postal Service delivers thousands of letters to Kris at the courthouse. When Fred, Doris and Susan visit Kris on Christmas morning, the young girl is disappointed to find that he could not get her the dream house she wanted. Taking a route home recommended by Kris, Susan discovers a particular house for sale and insists that it is her house, that Kris meant for her to have it. Fred learns that Doris has encouraged Susan to have faith and suggests they get married and purchase the house. He then boasts that he must be a great lawyer since he did the impossible by proving Kris was Santa Clause. When they spot Kris's cane standing by the fireplace, however, Fred is not so sure he did such an impressive thing after all.

Kris Kringle: Oh, Christmas isn't just a day. It's a frame of mind. And that's what's been changing. That's why I'm glad I'm here, maybe I can do something about it. And I'm glad I met you and your daughter. You two are a test case for me. If I can win you two over, there's still hope. If not, then I guess I'm through.

The inspiration for what would become Miracle on 34th Street first came to writer Valentine Davies when he was standing in line at a large department store during the holiday season. With the realization that Christmas was becoming increasingly commercialized, Davies outlined the story of a disillusioned woman, her skeptical daughter and a mysterious old man who insists he is Santa Claus, filled with love, Christmas spirit, generosity and the magic of believing "when common sense tells you not to." Davies then took his rough draft to longtime friend George Seaton, a screenwriter and director at 20th Century Fox, who turned it into a touching screenplay that the titled The Big Heart. Fox's head of production, Darryl F. Zanuck, loved the idea and immediately greenlighted the project.

Before filming could start, however, a potential problem needed to be resolved. Macy's department store and its real-life rival Gimbels figured prominently in the story and are referred to by their real names. In order to get away with it, both stores would have to eventually grant their approval. Fox made Macy's and Gimbels aware that the film was going into production, but representatives from neither store would be allowed to see anything until it was completed. It was a big risk on Fox's part to begin making The Big Heart without either store signing off on it beforehand, but Zanuck was confident that they would be pleased with how they would be represented.

Maureen O'Hara and John Payne
Meanwhile, in October 1946, Maureen O'Hara had just arrived in her native Ireland to visit family members she had not seen in seven years. A few days into her vacation, she received a telegram from Fox requesting her presence back on the lot to begin work on a new film. O'Hara was "heartbroken, furious and reduced to tears" at Fox's impatience, but if she did not return at once, she was out of the picture. So she signed for The Big Heart without knowing anything about it. When she reached the studio a few days later, she read the script and decided, "I'm not so mad after all."

The reason why Fox was wanted to begin production on The Big Heart right away was because it was a low-budget film, so the studio could not afford to lose any time. In addition, Seaton, who had also signed on as director, had decided to incorporate the actual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, an annual New York City tradition since 1926, with his actors in the middle of the action. Since the event was coming up in a matter of weeks, the studio had to prepare quickly. Macy's had granted Fox permission to film the parade, on the condition that it could not be halted to accommodate the shooting. With filming scheduled to begin in late November, the rest of the cast was quickly assembled. John Payne was hired to play O'Hara's love interest in their third of four films together; the other three were To the Shores of Tripoli (1941), Sentimental Journey (1946) and Tripoli (1950). To play O'Hara's precocious daughter, Fox selected eight-year-old Natalie Wood, while British character actor Edmund Gwenn was assigned to the central role of Kris Kringle.

Natalie Wood and John Payne
With a new working title of It's Only Human, filming began in November 1946 with the cast and crew travelling to New York City to capture real shots of the Macy's Parade. Seaton did his best to shoot as many scenes as he could, but it was not an easy task. "It was a mad scramble to get all the shots we needed, and we got to do each scene only once," recalled O'Hara. "It was bitterly cold that day, and Edmund and I envied Natalie and John Payne, who were watching the parade from a window." Following the parade, the cast and crew remained in New York to film as much as they could on location, in order to capture a realistic feel of the city during the Christmas season. 

With the department store's permission, scenes were shot inside the real Macy's Herald Square throughout the month of December. "When Natalie and I shot the scenes in Macy's," O'Hara later remembered, "we had to do them at night because the store was full of people doing their Christmas shopping during the day. Natalie loved this because it meant she was allowed to stay up late. [...] I really enjoyed this time with Natalie. We loved to walk through the quiet, closed store and look at all the toys and girls' dresses and shoes." Indeed, Wood spend a lot of time around O'Hara on the set and the two created a special bond. "She called Mama Maureen," recalled O'Hara, who in turn called the young actress Natasha, her birth name. O'Hara felt Wood "absolutely loved" acting and was "a very happy little girl" despite the watchful (and sometimes punitive) eye of her overbearing mother Maria. "Mama was always there," recalled Maureen O'Hara. Robert Hyatt, who played a small but important part in the film as a seven-year-old boy who testifies for Kris Kringle, saw Maria "tear Natalie to shreds" if she happened to miss a cue, forget a line or did not hit her marks.

Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn
Everyone on the set was fascinated by "One-Take Natalie," Wood's new nickname. Seaton in particular was impressed by her "instinctive sense of timing and emotion." In fact, Wood herself would later describe her technique as a child actress as instinctive. First, she would read the script; if she had any questions about her character or the story, she would ask an adult. Then, she would re-read the script "many times" and the night before a scene, she would memorize the next days's lines, "visualizing the whole page." When she went before the cameras to play her scene, she would deliver her dialogue the way she instinctually felt her character would. What's more, if the adult actors forgot their lines, she would even cue them. 

Edmund Gwenn was loved by everyone in the cast as well. They all described him as a dear, happy man who was always smilling. "Edmund Gwenn was Santa Claus," said O'Hara. "I mean that literally. He believed he was Santa Claus." And so did young Natalie. In the signature scene in the film, Wood (as Susan) tugged on Gwenn's beard and discovered it was real, concluding he must be Santa Claus. "I still vaguely believed in Santa Claus," she later recalled. "I guess I had an inkling that maybe it wasn't so, but I really did think that Edmund Gwenn was Santa. And I had never seen without his beard because he used to come in early in the morning and spend several hours putting on this wonderful beard and moustache. And at the end of the shoot, when we had a set party, I saw this strange man, without the beard, and I just couldn't get it together."

Under the new and final title of Miracle on 34th Street, the film was finally screened (separately) for the high ranking Macy's and Gimbels executives, who still had veto power if they did not like what they saw. Luckily, the famous department stores gave their blessings with enthusiasm. Believing that more people went to the movies in the summer, Zanuck arranged for Miracle on 34th Street to premiere in May 1947 instead of at Christimastime. As a result, Fox launched a most attractive publicity campaign that deliberately kept secret the film's holiday setting.

Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood and Maureen O'Hara
Miracle on 34th Street was a critical and commercial success upon its release. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote: "For all those blasé skeptics who do not believe in Santa Claus — and likewise for all those natives who have grown cynical about New York — but most especially for all those patrons who have grown weary of the monotonies of the screen, let us heartily recommend [...] Miracle on 34th Street. As a matter of fact, let's go further: let's catch its spirit and heartily proclaim that it is the freshest little picture in a long time, and maybe even the best comedy of this year." Another reviewer noted that "Miracle on 34th Street is, in short, something of a miracle in picture-making." But it was Variety who summed it up best, saying: "So you don't believe in Santa Claus? If you want to stay a non-believer, don't see Miracle." 

Natalie Wood was universally praised for her performance as the skeptical Susan Walker. The reviewer for the New Yorker was very impressed: "The most appealing of the lot, it seems to me, is a girl named Natalie Wood, who turns in a remarkably accurate performance as a progressive-school indoctrinated against the whole idea of Santa Claus. My guess is that you'll find youself refreshed by this neat little lassy." In addition, The Hollywood Reporter praised her as "a totally unactorish child [who] will bring an honest lump to audiences' throats when she goes aroud muttering, 'I believe. It's silly, but I believe.' Strangely enough, you are likely to believe too." 

At the 20th Academy Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in March 1948, Edmund Gwenn won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Valentine Davies took home the statuette for Best Story and George Seaton was given Best Adapted Screenplay. Miracle on 34th Street was also nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement (1947). On receiving his Oscar, Gwenn remarked, "Now I know there's Santa Claus!"

Maureen O'Hara: The Biography by Aubrey Malone (2013) | Natalie Wood: A Life by Gavin Lambert (2004) | Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad (2002) | The Christmas Encyclopedia, 3rd edition by William D. Crump (2013) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. Can't wait to read this later! Just wanted to say Merry Christmas!!! :)

    1. Aww, thank you, Phyl. Merry Christmas to you too. :)