Monday 24 December 2012

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

I'm not sure whether I ever believed in Father Christmas, whether I simply played along, taking the whole thing to be a game of pretending.  It was a long time ago, and my memory doesn't stretch to my early childhood, but I don't recall ever believing in my heart that this mysterious figure really climbed down my chimney (but through the help of such chimney-cleaning films as 'Mary Poppins' (1946) and 'The Water Babies' (1978) I must have believed chimneys to be climbable, at least for infants - so maybe I thought it feasible).

In 'Miracle on 34th Street' - that Christmas classic - Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) doesn't believe in Father Christmas, and has raised her daughter Susan to likewise doubt the existence of the jolly fellow, never telling her any fairy-tales, discouraging her imagination.  I suspect the audience are meant to dislike Ms Walker for this sentiment - and, this being the 1940s, for being a divorcee and strong independent woman.  The 21st Century liberal in me is wary of seeing her lifestyle condemned, while the 16th Century Puritan in me (I am both these things in equal measure) commends her decision not to lie to her daughter.  How we might expect children to believe anything about Christmas if we spend their formative years insisting on Santa, I've no idea.  'I think we should be realistic and completely truthful with our children,' she says, which is reasonable enough, but Susan's life lacks fun, and even I with my puritanical streak hoped mother and daughter might soften, if not be wholly cured of their realism.  This is a magical Christmas family film, after all.

'I am not in the habit of substituting for spurious Santa Clauses'

Enter Kris Kringle (Best Supporting Actor, Edmund Gwenn), who inadvertently finds himself hired as a mall Santa for a large department store.  But as well as working as Father Christmas, he is Father Christmas.  I don't just mean to tell you the character's identity - Edmund Gwenn is Santa, if anybody has ever been so.  The performance is perfect, the sparkling wit of his dialogue, his openness to new experiences, his ready delight and his overwhelming honesty even at his own expense.  Kringle champions peace and imagination, and shows himself willing to put up a fight when justice and decency are under threat.  It seems inconceivable that a character so very good can avoid being twee or bland, but I could watch a great deal more of this St Nick, and could happily (and, I suspect, easily) befriend him.  If the legend of Father Christmas lasts another thousand years, some actor may equal Edmund Gwenn's performance as the great man, but none shall ever better it.

Hired to sit in a store's grotto and push overstocked toys on unsuspecting children, Kris Kringle openly opposes this charmless commercialism, preferring to serve the children's needs and direct overstressed parents to other stores for their needs when appropriate.  This is a Santa I can get behind.

'Maybe he's only a little crazy, like painters or composers,
or some of those men in Washington'.

Films of this era take a great glee in exhibiting over-zealous Freudian psychiatrists inhibited by great neuroses of their own, and there's a particularly churlish example here in the person of Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall).  Kris Kringle is keen to point out his respect for legitimate psychiatry, but Sawyer is a horrible and sweaty creep, too keen to diagnose and invent complexes in his patients.  Very soon, Father Christmas is on trial to prove his identity and his sanity.

I've seen a few trial movies lately (with 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' and 'M' awaiting review shortly) and it's a relief and a delight to find a court-room so full of wit and charm.  Where the film could have become tense and climactic for the sake of a little drama, it leans to its lightness and humour, with the prosecutor unable to deny the existence of Father Christmas in front of his young children, and the supreme court judge coming up for re-election and daunted by offending the Christmas goodwill of the electorate.  Kris Kringle's case seems hopeless, but far more important to him is the hope that Doris and Susan come to believe in him.

Despite considerable competition, this is my favourite Christmas movie.  I understand it's been remade a number of times (most notably in 1994), but I find it almost impossible to believe it's ever been managed so agreeably, with such a perfect Father Christmas, with the originality and flair on display here.  I stumbled on this film quite by accident, on a VHS thrown out by a housemate (hence the curious quality of the screen-captures here) and entered it with low expectations.  It's been a pleasure to rewatch it this Advent, and I'll do so again gladly.

It's still Christmas for a few days yet, and it's always Christmas in your heart (except on Tisha B'Av, the Jewish Day of mourning), so why not seek out a copy of this festive delight?

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