This review originally ran on December 20th, 2011. My thoughts on the film itself haven’t changed, and have only grown. Natalie Wood continues to astound me, and the film has such love embedded in it.
How can I say I’m a film fan, and actually write reviews for a living, if I’ve only just now watched the original Miracle on 34th Street?! I honestly have no excuse for this error in judgement, and the sad thing is I’ve seen the 1994 remake which is….lackluster to be kind (it’s Christmas). I’ve heard tell that this is a classic and by golly it is! The movie is sweet, heartwarming, and filled with some of the best performances ever committed to celluloid. Don’t be like me and make this year first year viewing it, watch it immediately and be awed by the joy found in a child believing in Santa!
Eight-year-old Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) has been told by her staunch mother Doris (Maureen O’Hara) that there is no such thing as fairy tales, or Santa Claus. When Doris hires a strange man to fill in for Santa during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade it turns into a permanent position as Santa…but the man (Edmund Gwenn) believes he truly is Kris Kringle. When a smarmy psychiatrist (Porter Hall) wants Santa committed, an idealistic attorney named Fred Gailey (John Payne), decides to take on the case and prove Macy’s Santa is the real deal!
What can be said about this movie that hasn’t already been said by the greatest critics out there? This is a gem! I’m a huge fan of Wood and O’Hara and I’m still slapping myself in the head that I have only just watched this film. I’ve always had it on my Netflix, but never had the impetus to watch it (for shame, I know). This is a timeless classic about two cynical people learning the magic of Santa. It also follows said Santa as he tries to prove to the world of cynical adults that there is still magic and belief not limited just to children. Gwenn, appropriately, won an Oscar for his role in this, coming out after the horrors of WWII. Gwenn plays the role of Santa with heart, warmth, and a fun whimsy that can’t be recreated (even though Richard Attenborough did try). When he’s teaching Susan to be a monkey, you believe it; not just because he has phenomenal chemistry with Wood, but because he believes it.
Wood herself steals the show as Susan. There’s a striking difference in watching her play a child trying to be wise beyond her years, and similar characters played by the likes of Dakota Fanning. Where Fanning and others are like automatons, Wood is a child trying not to believe in childish things. She doesn’t want to grow up fast, but she doesn’t want to believe in elements which won’t pan out, like seeing her father. O’Hara also plays a character who doesn’t believe in magic because she’s still coping with her divorce. The fact she’s a divorcee in 1947 I’m sure was extremely shocking; both characters are attempting to mask their vulnerability and a simple belief in Santa could derail all that.
The Blu-Ray release could be better, but it’s a must for fans who want to see the film in the best possible way. The disc only contains the black and white version, which I think is the only way to watch this. I could see fans who are a bit disappointed this set isn’t complete, though, by not having the color version included. The blacks are lush and the whites are striking, but the bonus features are obviously not formatted to Blu so flesh tones of the actors in the AMC documentary look shiny and garish at times. The features are light, but give a nice overview to the film’s creation. Maureen O’Hara herself provides DVD commentary on the film, but she goes long stretches without talking and praises the actors a lot. It’s always great to watch a classic film with a legendary actor who was a part, but it feels like O’Hara is uncomfortable recording, or has little to add to it. AMC Backstory: Miracle on 34th Street is a 22-minute feature (originally aired on AMC) detailing the conception of the film, the casting, the filming of the parade, etc. It’s a solid look at the movie with a lot of the actors discussing it. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: Floating in History is a truncated copy of the AMC Backstory feature, looking at the parade filming tacked onto the real Macy’s Parade. Fox Movietone News: Hollywood Spotlight is an archive newsbrief featuring speeches from the actors when they went to the Academy Awards. It has little rewatch value, but it is fun to hear Edmund Gwenn say “Now I know there’s a Santa Claus” after winning an Oscar for the role. The poster gallery has nine posters from the film’s marketing, and the five minute promo short for the film provides an interesting look at the difficulties of marketing a Christmas film in the summertime.
The movie has both humor and drama, and all boils down to questioning whether seeing is believing? I’m not afraid to admit by the end when Susan gets her wish, I was ready to squeeze out a few tears. The acting is just so astounding that it has to be seen in order to truly appreciate it. The Blu-Ray is fantastic, albeit lean on features, but it’s all about the movie isn’t it? This is in my Christmas film collection ASAP and I recommend it go into yours!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.