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Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (also titled The Big Heart in the UK) is a 1947 film written by Valentine Davies, directed by George Seaton, and starring Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn. It is the story of what takes place in New York City following Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, as people are left wondering whether or not a department store Santa might be the real thing.

The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, losing to Gentleman's Agreement.

Davies also penned a short story version of the tale, which was published simultaneously with the film's release.

Plot synopsis

Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is indignant to find that the person (Percy Helton) assigned to play Santa in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is intoxicated. When he complains to the event's director, Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), she persuades Kris to replace him. He does such a fine job that he is hired to be the Santa for Macy's flagship New York City store on 34th Street at Herald Square.

Ignoring instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's wants to sell, Kris tells one woman shopper (Thelma Ritter) to go to another store, Schoenfeld's, for a fire engine for her son. She is so impressed, she tells Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), head of the toy department, that she will become a loyal Macy's customer. Kris later informs another mother that Macy's archrival, Gimbels, has better skates for her daughter.

Fred Gailey (John Payne), an attorney and neighbor of Doris, is babysitting her nine-year-old daughter Susan (Wood) and takes her to see Kris. When Doris finds out, she lectures Fred about filling Susan's mind with fantasy. Meanwhile, Susan witnesses Kris talking and singing with a Dutch World War II orphan girl in her native tongue and begins to wonder if perhaps Kris is real. (In the 1994 remake, Kris communicates with a deaf girl via sign language.) When Doris asks Kris to tell Susan the truth, Kris surprises her by insisting that he really is Santa Claus.

Fearing what he might do next, Doris decides to fire him. However, Kris has generated so much good publicity and customer goodwill for Macy's that a delighted R. H. Macy (Harry Antrim) promises Doris and Shellhammer generous bonuses, making it awkward to discharge the old man. To overcome Doris's misgivings, Shellhammer proposes a compromise: sending Kris to Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) to get a "psychological evaluation". Kris easily passes the test, but antagonizes Sawyer by questioning Sawyer's own psychological health.

The store expands on the marketing concept. Anxious to avoid looking greedy by comparison, Gimbels implements the same referral policy throughout its entire chain, forcing Macy's and other stores to respond in kind. Eventually, Kris accomplishes the impossible: Mr. Macy shakes hands with Mr. Gimbel (Herbert H. Heyes). Kris then decides to donate his resulting extra bonus money to buy an X-ray machine for the nursing home at which he lives. Macy and Gimbel generously dicker down the price of the machine to wholesale price.

Doctor Pierce (James Seay), the doctor at Kris's nursing home, assures Doris and Shellhammer that Kris' apparent delusion is harmless and disagrees with the vindictive Sawyer, who argues that Kris should be placed in a mental hospital. Meanwhile, Fred offers to let Kris stay with him so he can be closer to his workplace. Kris makes a deal with Fred - he will work on Susan's cynicism while Fred does the same with the disillusioned Doris, still bitter over her failed marriage.

Then Kris learns that Sawyer has convinced a young, impressionable employee, Alfred (Alvin Greenman), that he is mentally ill simply because he is generous and kind-hearted (Alfred plays Santa Claus at his neighborhood YMCA). Kris confronts Sawyer and, in a fit of anger, raps him on the head with his cane. Doris and Shellhammer arrive at that point and only see the aftermath; Sawyer exaggerates his injury in order to have Kris confined to Bellevue mental hospital.

Tricked into cooperating and believing Doris to be part of the deception, a discouraged Kris deliberately fails his mental examination and is recommended for permanent commitment. However, Fred persuades Kris not to give up. To secure his release, Fred gets a formal hearing before Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) of the New York Supreme Court. Warned by Mr. Macy to get the matter dropped, Sawyer pleads with Fred not to seek publicity. To Sawyer's dismay, Fred thanks him for the idea. As a result, Judge Harper is put in an awkward spot - even his own grandchildren are against him for "persecuting" Santa Claus.

Fred quits his job at a prestigious New York law firm to defend Kris and has a falling out with Doris, who has no faith in his abilities and calls his resignation an "idealistic binge" over some "lovely intangibles." He replies that one day she may discover that those intangibles are the only worthwhile things in life.

At the hearing, New York County District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) gets Kris to assert that he is in fact Santa Claus and rests his case, believing he has prima facie proven his point. Fred stuns the court by arguing that Kris is not insane because he actually is Santa Claus - and he will prove it. Mara requests the judge rule that Santa Claus does not exist. Judge Harper is warned privately in chambers by his political adviser, Charlie Halloran (William Frawley), that doing so would be politically disastrous for his upcoming reelection bid. The judge buys time by deciding to hear evidence before ruling.

Fred calls R.H. Macy as a witness. Mara pointedly asks if he really believes Kris to be Santa Claus. Realizing that denying Kris could ruin his Christmas sales season, Macy starts to give an equivocal answer, but when Mara asks him point-blank, Macy remembers the expressions on the faces of small children upon seeing Kris and firmly states, "I do!" On leaving the stand, Macy fires Sawyer. Fred then calls Mara's own young son to the stand. Thomas Mara Jr. testifies that his father had told him that Santa was real and that "My daddy would 'never' tell a lie! Would you, daddy?" Outmaneuvered, Mara concedes the point.

Mara then demands that Fred prove that Kris is "the one and only" Santa Claus, on the basis of some competent authority. While Fred searches frantically for a way to prove his case, Susan, by now a firm believer in Kris, writes him a letter to cheer him up, which Doris also signs. A mail sorter (Jack Albertson) sees it and realizes that the post office could clear out the many letters to Santa taking up space in their dead letter office by delivering them to Kris at the courthouse.

Kris receives Susan's letter and is uplifted by this breakthrough. Just then, Fred learns that over 50,000 pieces of mail have been delivered to Kris. Fred presents Judge Harper with three letters addressed only to "Santa Claus" and notes that they have been delivered to Kris. Fred nonchalantly admits he "has further exhibits." When Judge Harper demands he "put them here on my desk", the post office delivers all the bags of letters to Harper's desk. Fred then argues that the United States Post Office, a branch of the federal government, accepts Kris' claim as the one and only Santa Claus. This conveniently lets Judge Harper, now struggling to crawl out from behind the bags of letters, to rule in favor of Kris. Afterwards, Doris invites Kris to dinner, but he reminds her that "it's Christmas Eve!"

On Christmas morning, Susan is disillusioned because Kris was unable to get her what she told him she wanted most, a house in the suburbs. As they are about to leave, Kris gives Fred and Doris a route home, supposedly to avoid traffic. Along the way, Susan is overjoyed to see the house of her dreams with a For Sale sign in the front yard. (The house exactly matches the drawing she had shown Kris earlier.) Fred learns that Doris had 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 managed to do the seemingly impossible. However, when he notices a cane leaning against the fireplace that looks exactly like the one Kris used, he remarks uncertainly, "Maybe I didn't do such a wonderful thing after all."

Cast

Production

Despite the fact that the film is set during the Christmas season, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that it be released in May, arguing that more people went to the movies during the summer. So the studio began scrambling to promote it while keeping the fact that it was a Christmas movie a secret.

The house shown at the end of the movie is located at 24 Derby Road in Port Washington, New York. It looks practically the same, except the roof line has been altered by the addition of a window.

Awards and honors

The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, losing to Gentleman's Agreement. It was ranked ninth by the American Film Institute on its AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers. In 2005, Miracle on 34th Street was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

In June 2008, AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Miracle on 34th Street was acknowledged as the fifth best film in the fantasy genre.

Inaccuracies

  • There was no Mr. Macy per se by the time of the film. In 1896, R. H. Macy's was acquired by Isidor Straus, who later died on the Titanic (that ship's sinking would later inspire a couple of films produced by Fox, notably the 1997 version which made over $1.8 billion in the worldwide box office and would go on to win 11 Academy Awards).
  • In the book, Reel Justice, the authors point out that Judge Harper had an easy way of dismissing the case early without the political repercussions he feared. This was when the prosecutor rested his case immediately after Kris Kringle admitted in court simply that he believed he was Santa Claus. In doing so, Judge Harper could have ruled that prosecution had forfeited its opportunity to prove that Kringle was dangerous, the basic point of such hearings (his actual mental state itself being irrelevant), and ordered the subject immediately released.
  • When demonstrating that he has taken several mental examinations in the past, Kris Kringle says that Daniel D. Tompkins was John Quincy Adams' Vice President, but Tompkins actually served under James Monroe. John C. Calhoun was Adams' Vice President, and later Vice-President again for most of Andrew Jackson's first term of office.

Remakes

There are four remakes of the movie, as well as a Broadway musical:

1955 version

A 1955 television movie starring Thomas Mitchell as Kris Kringle and Sandy Descher as Susan Walker. Titled The Miracle on 34th Street instead of just Miracle on 34th Street. Originally aired as an episode of TV's The 20th Century Fox Hour.

1959 version

A 1959 television movie starring Ed Wynn as Kris Kringle; also featured was Orson Bean. This version of the popular Valentine Davies story was broadcast live and in color on NBC the day after Thanksgiving in 1959 and seemed to have disappeared completely. NBC made a kinescope of the program, probably for broadcasting opening night on the West Coast. The copy was in a large collection of kinescopes donated by NBC to the Library of Congress and recently unearthed by Richard Finegan, who reported his quest and experiences in the December 2005 issue of Classic Images.

1963 Broadway musical

A 1963 Broadway musical version, entitled Here's Love, was written by Meredith Willson.

1973 version

A 1973 television movie starred Jane Alexander, David Hartman, Roddy McDowall, Sebastian Cabot, Suzanne Davidson, Jim Backus, David Doyle and Tom Bosley. It was adapted by Jeb Rosebrook from the George Seaton screenplay, and directed by Fielder Cook. Mrs. Walker's first name is changed to Karen in this version.

1994 version

A 1994 feature film version featured Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, J.T. Walsh, Timothy Shea, James Remar, Jane Leeves, Simon Jones, William Windom and Mara Wilson. It was adapted by John Hughes from the Seaton script, and directed by Les Mayfield. Due to Macy's refusal to give permission it was replaced by the fictitious "Cole's". Gimbels no longer existed by 1994 and was replaced with the fictional "Shopper's Express". Alvin Greenman (Alfred in the original version) was featured as the doorman.

This remake had a more serious tone than the original and a large portion of the movie was rewritten, although the majority of the plot and characters remained intact. The characters of Alfred and Sawyer were removed entirely and Kris is instead manipulated to land himself in trouble due to a conspiracy between the drunken Santa fired at the beginning of the film and the agents of a rival store.

This version made much of the fact that the world in its current state is filled with greed and cruelty as demonstrated by how willing the people in the conspiracy were to lock up an innocent, benevolent man for their own selfish ends. This is contrasted with the number of people who support Kris, which includes an orderly at the hospital where he's placed and, apparently, the police officers who arrested him. There is a scene where Kris tells Dorey that he sees himself (Santa Claus) as a symbol of hope and compassion in a jaded modern world of selfishness.

The film also added a subtext concerning religious faith. This is demonstrated in the climax of this version, where Judge Harper rules in favor of Kris after Susan presents him with a Christmas card containing a one-dollar bill with the words "In God We Trust" circled and he declares that if the United States government can issue its currency bearing a declaration of trust in God on faith alone, then he can rule that Santa Claus exists in the man of Kris Kringle. The words "In God We Trust" were not added to U.S. paper currency until 1957, so they would not have been on the one-dollar bill when the original version was made.

The film also contains an early appearance by Allison Janney, who later played C. J. Cregg on the television series West Wing. In Miracle on 34th Street, she reprises the role played by Thelma Ritter in the original version. There is also an early appearance of Horatio Sanz as one of the hospital orderlies (This was brought to attention when Dylan McDermott hosted Saturday Night Live).

Character names in different versions

1947 1955 1959 1963 Broadway musical 1973 1994
Doris Walker Karen Walker Dorey Walker
Frederick M. Gailey Fred Gaily Bill Schaffner Bryan Bedford
Kris Kringle
Susan Walker Susan Elizabeth Walker
Cleo [eliminated]
Drunk Santa [no name given] Tony Falacchi
Julian Shellhammer Mr. Shellhammer Marvin Shellhammer Horace Shellhammer Donald Shellhammer
Mrs. Shellhammer [eliminated]
Alfred Alfred [eliminated]
Granville Sawyer Dr. Albert Sawyer Dr. William Sawyer Dr. Henry Sawyer [eliminated]
R. H. Macy Mr. Macy R. H. Macy C. F. Cole
Mr. Gimbel Victor Landbergh
Dr. Pierce Dr. Pierce [eliminated] Dr. Pierce [eliminated]
Hon. Henry X. Harper Hon. Harper Hon. Martin Group Hon. Harper Hon. Henry Harper
Charlie Halloran [eliminated]
Thomas Mara Mr. Mara Thomas Mara [no name given] Ed Collins
Mrs. Mara [eliminated] Rebecca Collins
Macy's Department Store Cole's Department Store
Gimbels Department Store Shopper's Express

References

External links

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