With all due respect to Jimmy Stewart and Will Ferrel, this is the one. All apologies to Chevy Chase and that little boy who is going to shoot his eye out, but “Miracle on 34th Street” is the greatest Christmas movie.
Sophistication, heart – comedy, romance – this movie has it all.
Maureen O’Hara stars as Doris: fierce New York single mom. Doris is working her way through upper management at Macy’s. And she just made her finest hiring decision: the new store Santa Claus.
He goes by Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) and he is perfect. He has a splendid rapport with children. In one magical scene, a sorrowful European war orphan comes up to Santa and he brightens her day by speaking and singing with her in fluent Dutch.
But what really gets people’s attention is Santa’s honesty. He is supposed to sell Macy’s merchandise as part of his script. Kris Kringle tosses the script and informs parents where they can get the toy they want for the best deal – even when it is at a rival store.
The honesty policy is a smashing success. Parents appreciate the help; Mr. Macy appreciates the goodwill.
The only problem is that Kris Kringle believes that he is really Santa Claus. This doesn’t sit well with Doris. Doris doesn’t believe in fairy tales, the supernatural, or anything beyond what she can see. And she is raising her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to be a cynic, too.
8-year-old Natalie Wood is fantastic. No wonder she became a household name.
In the film’s funniest scene, Kris Kringle grabs a piece of Susan’s bubble gum. He doesn’t consider why gum is a terrible idea for a bearded man. We never see him blow the bubble; the camera is on Natalie Wood the entire time. She watches the sticky disaster unfold with anticipation and slight amusement. The joke works because of young Ms. Wood’s perfect comic timing.
Edmund Gwenn earned an Oscar playing Kris Kringle. He has a unique take on the character. Kris is not especially jolly and he even has a bit of a dark side. I’d never seen Santa Claus smack an unarmed man with his cane before.
I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s nuanced take on Christmas commercialization. This is a far cry from the Charlie Brown special where Linus urges us to forget shopping and remember Baby Jesus in the manger.
“Miracle on 34th Street” accepts the reality that materialism and Christmas are inextricably combined. And if you enjoy the love and togetherness of Christmas, you need to accept the commerce.
This is such a sophisticated film it took me by surprise.
I was expecting that the conclusion would be that we learn that Kris Kringle is truly Santa Claus after all. But that’s not what happens. In fact, it’s almost the opposite.
The finale emphasizes that the act of believing is what matters; the spirit of Christmas is to open your heart and let some magic in. Doris goes from a hardnosed skeptic to a woman of faith. “I was wrong when I told you that, Susie. You must believe in Mr. Kringle and keep right on doing it. You must have faith in him.”
With these words, we see a smile we’ve never seen before; faith has helped make Doris deliriously happy. I am not proud to admit this, but I cried. “Miracle on 34th Street” is the best Christmas movie I’ve ever seen.