My admiration for this film grows every year. It obviously has long been a Christmas favorite, because of the lovely story of hope and transformation and its focus on Santa Claus, but on each viewing I relish more and more the excellence of the screenwriting and the directing by George Seaton, who won an Oscar for the screenplay. Seaton would win another Oscar for screenwriting for The Country Girl (1954), for which he would also be nominated for best director. Miracle on 34th Street was also nominated for a best picture but was beaten out by Gentlemen’s Agreement. Seaton turned the story of a young girl and her mother who are both skeptical of love and Santa Claus into a Broadway musical titled Here’s Love (1962) with music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson. That show contained the holiday classic, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”
So what’s so great about this screenplay? I think it is the tightness. There isn’t a wasted scene in the whole film, and the central characters are deftly established and quickly engage the viewer. And is there any movie, especially any film in the Christmas classic category, that has a broader range of more clearly etched characters? I can’t think of one, even though there is a lot of competition from Sturges, Capra and Lubitsch.
A young divorced mother has raised her daughter to be skeptical about everything and be guided only by common sense, leaving no room for imagination, faith or love. Into their world come an idealistic lawyer and a man who claims to be Santa Claus. Kris Kringle takes the place of a drunk Santa for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and then becomes a miraculously effective Santa at the flagship store on 34th Street. Accused of being insane by a bitter store “psychiatrist,” Kris is sent to Bellevue mental hospital and is about to be committed, when the idealistic lawyer steps in. The case goes to court and is decided in Kris’s favor by the miraculous intervention of the U.S. Post Office. Meanwhile both the mother and the daughter lose their skeptical common sense and start believing in love.
The film starts on Thanksgiving Day with the iconic Macy’s Parade and ends on Christmas Day with the best gift of all. What’s remarkable about the film, however, for all its focus on hope and transformation is that the Christ child is never mentioned.
Gene Lockhart (Judge Harper) is the link to yesterday’s film, A Christmas Carol (1938), where he played a rather plump Bob Cratchit. We also saw him earlier in Meet John Doe (1940). He plays a fine bumbling sheriff in His Girl Friday (1940), but I think his role as the judge in this film may be his finest work.
Percy Helton (drunk Santa) will be the link to tomorrow’s film, White Christmas (1954). While I’ll save details about his career for tomorrow’s post, he has some special links to Fred Astaire, which I will discuss today (see below).
Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle) won a best supporting Oscar for this role. Throughout his career he showed a deft comic touch but could also play roles with evil undertones. He played the genial Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (1940), a scheming department manager in The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and a would-be assassin in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940).
Porter Hall (Granville Sawyer) has already been seen in The Thin Man (1934) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943).
William Frawley (Charlie Halloran) has been seen earlier in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). We will see him two more times: Good Sam (1948) and Lady on a Train (1945).
Jerome Cowan (District Attorney) had a number of distinctive character roles, including two films with Humphrey Bogart: Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Healy in High Sierra (1941.
Philip Tonge (Julian Shellhammer) will be seen in O. Henry’s Full House (1952). He also had a role in the film Elephant Walk (1954).
Jack Albertson (the postal employee who gets the idea to send the Santa letters to the courthouse) was best known for his TV role in Chico and the Man (1974-78). He also had an extended part in Mister Ed (1961-64). His best film role was in The Subject Was Roses (1968).
Robert Gist (window dresser) played detective Hennessey in Strangers on a Train (1951);
Alvin Greenman (Alfred) played a doorman in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street with Richard Attenborough. Greenman’s career primarily shifted to behind the scenes, as he worked as a script supervisor on numerous TV shows and films.
Mae Marsh (a woman in the Santa line) had a long cinema career. She played lead roles for D.W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). She also was a member of John Ford’s stock company of character actors, appearing as Muley’s wife in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Simpson’s sister in My Darling Clementine (1946), Mrs. Gates in Fort Apache (1948), and Father Paul’s mother in The Quiet Man (1952). She also appeared for Ford in Three Godfathers (1948) and The Searchers (1956).
Snub Pollard (one of the mail-bearing court officers) will be seen as Knuckles in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961). He had a small role in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) and is the old man getting the umbrella at the end of Gene Kelly’s famed dance in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Thelma Ritter (Pete’s mother looking for the toy fire truck) made her debut as a distinctive character actor in this film. She also had wonderful roles in All About Eve (1950), Rear Window (1954) and The Mating Season (1951).
Mary Field (Dutch girl’s adopted mother) appeared in many fine comedies, including Ball of Fire (1941), I Married a Witch (1942) and The Major and the Minor (1942).
Lela Bliss (Mrs. Shellhammer) was married to Harry Hayden, who we saw as the bank manager in Double Dynamite and will see again in Good Sam and O. Henry’s Full House. Together they ran an acting school and a small theater in Beverly Hills that included Veronica Lake, Marilyn Monroe, Debbie Reynolds and Betty White among its alumna.
Jane Green (the judge’s wife, Mrs. Harper) appeared in films such as 10th Avenue Angel (1948) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).
Percy Helton sponsored Fred Astaire for his membership in the Lambs Club. Helton appeared on stage with Fred in the Actors Equity Association benefit on 5/9/1920 and the Lambs Gambol on 4/27/1930. He appeared in one film with Fred, The Belle of New York (1952).
Jerome Cowan appeared with Astaire in Shall We Dance (1937).
Philip Tonge appeared on stage with Astaire in The Bunch and Judy in 1922 at Manhattan’s Globe Theatre. He also appeared with Astaire in the Actors Equity Association benefit on 5/9/1920 and the Lambs Gambol on 4/27/1930, which also included Percy Helton.
Robert Gist played Hal Benton, the stage manager, with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953).
Snub Pollard appeared with Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951).
Thelma Ritter appeared with Astaire in Daddy Long Legs (1955).
Jane Green played the mother superior in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and appeared on stage with Astaire in the Apollo Theatre benefit on 12/21/1924. (Note: This is not the famed Apollo in Harlem, but a Broadway theatre at 223 W. 42nd St.. which was demolished in 1996.)
Alfred Newman, who was the musical director for Miracle on 34th Street, was the musical director for one of Fred and Adele’s biggest Broadway hits, Funny Face (1927-28). He also served as musical director for the Greenwich Village Orchestra, which appeared on the bill of the Apollo Theatre benefit on 12/21/1924. He reconnected with Astaire in Hollywood as the music director for Daddy Long Legs (1955).
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
Christmas in New York!
Though the script for this film is so wonderful, some of the finest elements of Miracle come without words, in the facial expressions and mannerisms of the actors. Look especially in the courtroom scene (with the glances of Frawley, Lockhart and Cowan) and the manic mannerisms of Porter Hall (echoed by his anxious secretary). Credit both the fine character actors and George Seaton’s nuanced direction for all this.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
AMC will be showing the film multiple times in the run-up to Christmas.