MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947) and the Trials of Faith
NOTE: Originally published in THE CHRISTMAS GOSPELS (2017). Photos added.
“Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Producer: William Perlberg Director: George Seaton Writer: George Season, based on a story by Valentine Davies Runtime: 96 minutes Rating: Approved
Scripture Reading: John 18:28-40
I have a confession to make. I never saw today's film until working on The Christmas Gospels, and I feel robbed! Miracle on 34th Street deserves all the praise it receives. Though the film technically stars Maureen O'Hara and John Payne, the story centers around Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle and Natalie Wood as Susan, a serious-minded little girl whom he's trying to win over while proving that he is, indeed, Santa Claus.
The film opens with the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade getting ready to kick off when Gwenn discovers its Santa is drunk. Filling in as a last minute replacement, he becomes the highlight of the parade and is asked to be Macy's official store Santa for the holiday shopping season. Susan's mother, Doris (O'Hara), is his boss, and the only thing she has less time for than imagination are the advances of her neighbor, Fred Gailey (Payne), a lawyer who is smitten with her.
Although Kris charms everyone he meets, concern is raised when it's discovered that he believes himself to be the real Santa. After lashing out at the store psychologist, Kris is put in a mental hospital. Coming to his aid, Gailey chooses to represent him in court and not only prove his innocence but also his claim that he is Father Christmas.
One of the movie's great strengths is balancing the multiple plots and finding a through-line. It's not just about Kris proving himself, it's about Doris and Susan coming to belief. It's about Gailey as a lovelorn man trying to win the woman he adores. It's about the power of generosity winning over corporate agendas. It's about a boy who's been made to feel ashamed of himself for wanting to play Santa for kids. It's about a judge struggling to do right for his career as well as his conscience.
Additionally commendable is the movie's choice to keep the film grounded in reality. We see no miracles on 34th Street, just the warmth of someone who could both be Santa or just be a well-intended old man with a delusion. There are no magical displays, nor are there elves or other trappings of the legend. In fact, were I to lobby any complaint about the movie it would be that, for a story about a court hearing trying to prove whether or not Santa is real, you'd think that some of the fantastic aspects of the mythos would come up. There's no talk of the North Pole or flying reindeer. That's one thing I would credit the 1994 remake for doing better.
One of the more unique aspects of Miracle on 34th Street is how it was released and marketed. The trailer, which is just a studio executive talking to actors around the 20th Century Fox lot about how great the film is, doesn't say anything about it being a Christmas movie. Why? Because it debuted in May, less than a month after Easter that year. The gamble paid off, making Miracle on 34th Street one of the biggest hits of 1947. It strikes me that Miracle on 34th Street might have performed better still had it come out a little sooner, because, in spite of being about Christmas, it's a perfect Easter movie.
Consider the character of Judge Harper; he wants to do his job fairly but the pressure of such a high profile case, one which speaks to intangible matters of belief, puts him in a very awkward position. The man before him claims to be Santa Claus, but everyone knows that's impossible. Even his political adviser, Charlie, warns that taking the case could be career suicide, comparing him to Pontius Pilate, a governor who found himself in a similar predicament with a man who claimed to be the Son of God. Neither defendant can prove nor disprove his claims, and both “judges” eagerly want a way out of the position that they've been put in.
It is the belief of the masses which sways each 'judge'. Pilate condemns Christ on the whim of the angry throng, but it's the faith of the world's children that moves Judge Harper to exonerate Kris. What connects the two is that they each wanted an out. The world is filled with Judge Harpers, looking for others to confirm their faith or their disbelief. The question is which crowd do our choices reflect in our mission to sway them?
- How do our actions silently persuade others?
- What's been the most effective way to “win someone over” in your life?
Get your copy of The Christmas Gospels here and enjoy reflections on this and 25 other holiday classics! It is the perfect devotional for your Advent season.
A Queens native, Jason grew up in Lakeland, FL and attended Rochelle School of the Arts before moving to Florida's Nature Coast, where he resides. He always dreamed of being a storyteller, and he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Saint Leo University with a BA in Psychology and a Minor in Religion. He has been a professional guest speaker for thirteen years, talking at churches, graduations, and as a guest lecturer at Pasco-Hernando State College.