By Megan Bianco
One holiday classic—and it’s arguably the second quintessential Christmas movie after It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)—that continues to perplex me as a I grow older is George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street (1947). The family fantasy was a big hit in 1947, with Edmund Gwenn winning Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for portraying cinema’s most recognizable Santa Claus. Seaton also won Best Adapted Screenplay for the film.
Nearly half a century later, in 1994, a remake was written and produced by John Hughes and directed by Les Mayfield. Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003) could even be seen as a spiritual sequel to 34th Street.
The famous story line involves an old, cheery man calling himself Kris Kringle (Gwenn in the original, Richard Attenborough in the remake) insisting that he is actually Santa Claus. He quickly wins over New York City by suddenly filling in as the Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (renamed “Cole’s” in the remake) and then instantly hired as the store’s seasonal Santa.
Ironically, the store’s events director, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara in the first, Elizabeth Perkins in the second) is a big “non-believer” in the holiday season. She even goes as far as to raise her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood followed by Mara Wilson) to not believe in Santa. There is a love interest for Doris though, local attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne)—renamed Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott) in the remake — who encourages Susan to make the most of Christmas.
Kris is no ordinary store Santa. He can speak major world languages (including sign languages), knows any street address off the top of his head, and knows exactly how to care for reindeer. An eventual series of misfortunes conspired by a rival department store chain causes Kris to be arrested, with the authorities under the impression he’s unstable. The rest of Miracle on 34th Street is Fred/Bryan and Doris’ journey to convince the court he really is Santa Claus.
What perplexes me is the suggested message of the story by the end. The famous story is firmly set in a relative reality, but where Santa Claus exists the same way religious higher beings do. Except in real life, we don’t have any proof that God does or doesn’t exist, but we do have proof that [spoiler alert] Santa doesn’t visit every family’s house on Dec. 25.
The filmmakers behind Miracle on 34th Street appear to be pretty open to interpretation with their intentions. A previous hit movie of Seaton’s was The Song of Bernadette (1943), in which Jennifer Jones won Best Actress for portraying a young woman who believed to have encountered the Virgin Mary over a dozen times. Hughes wasn’t particularly religious from what can be gathered from his work and interviews, but he did appreciate holidays as seen in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and Christmas Vacation (1989).
What’s interesting is that the convincing argument to free Santa in the remake by Hughes is more spiritual than in the original. In the 1947 version, Fred convinces the judge Santa is a real person because the children’s letters are successfully being sent by the U.S. Post Office to the North Pole every year. In 1994, Susan gives the judge a $1 bill with the phrase “In God We Trust” circled immediately before the final court session. The dollar bill makes the judge realize he would be a hypocrite if he doesn’t let a man believed to be Santa Claus free, when his own government system operates under the belief in God.
As a kid, the ending is satisfying, because you’re little enough to believe God and Santa are similar but different. But as an adult? I’m not really sure how to interpret that message.
From different perspectives, my grandmother (who’s secular) and my mother (a Christian) enjoy the story for different reasons. My grandmother likes the 1947 movie because she was in middle school when the film was released and it reminds her of childhood. My mom likes the 1994 remake because she sees the argument over Santa as a metaphor for believing in God.
Belief in Santa Claus or not, the 1947 original continues to have its loyal fans after seven decades and is regularly enjoyed every December. The remake isn’t too bad itself. Attenborough may not be Gwenn, but he does bring his own flair to the role of Kris Kringle/Santa Claus, and I actually prefer McDermott’s Bryan to Payne’s Fred.
On a final note, for those experiencing Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street for the first time this year, please make sure you put on the original black & white copy and not the 1985 colorized copy that TV networks prefer for some reason.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.
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