When we think and talk about the cultural artifacts that have withstood the test of time, we occasionally have to get overly analytical, or granular, or meta. When it comes to Miracle on 34th Street, the 1947 charmer that remains one of the most beloved holiday movies (it’s been remade twice and remains a perennial – you can stream it, right now, on Disney+), the appeal is much simpler: its premise is that Santa Claus is real, and at the end of the day, we’d all like to believe that.
What’s especially clever about the construction of George Seaton’s screenplay (and his direction) is how slowly it reveals its true intentions. When we first meet Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), he’s wandering the streets of New York City on Thanksgiving Day, correcting some poor shop owner’s window display (“You’re making a mistake with the reindeer! You’ve got Cupid where Blitzen should be!”), so our first impression is not that Santa is walking among us, but that this old guy is a little batty. Even when he saves the day at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, clocking the Macy’s float Santa as a sloppy drunk who’s going to embarrass the store and stepping in to take his place – something about him seems to be a little … off.
We soon find out what it is: he considers himself the real deal, the genuine article, Santa in the flesh. We don’t really get an explanation as to why Santa Claus is wandering around NYC on Thanksgiving, or exactly how he can just take off and grab a side hustle during his busiest season; he explains it as, basically, a research expedition. “This is quite an opportunity for me,” he says, when offered the gig of Macy’s Santa. “For the last few years I’ve been very worried about Christmas.” You see, he explains later, “Christmas isn’t just a day – it’s a frame of mind! And that’s what’s been changing.”
And thus we’re introduced to the fascinating thematic contradiction at the center of Miracle on 34th Street: it’s a film that’s about the true meaning of Christmas, and against its commercialization, which it suggests solving with… more shopping! Not long on the job, Kringle is given a list of toys the store has over-purchased, and told to gently “suggest” them to kids who don’t know what they want. “That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years,” he thunders, “the way they commercialize Christmas!”
Not only does he tear up the list, but when a child asks for a toy that Macy’s doesn’t carry, he guides the parents to the competitor that does (instead of, say, telling that kid that the true spirit of Christmas is giving, not receiving – but what kid wants to hear that?). At first, of course, this does not go over so well with store management. But as word gets around, it turns into good PR. Macy’s is about the spirit of the season, not about lining their pockets, the buzz goes, and soon other stores are following suit.
So what we’re seeing, in Miracle on 34th Street, is a model for the capitalist Christmas movie – a thematic undertone that ties it less to holiday films of its era, like It’s a Wonderful Life, and more to contemporary pictures like Home Alone 2 and Elf. Sure, the true spirit of Christmas is kindness and family and understanding; it’s also gifts and gift-buying, the bigger the better (up to and including, at the film’s conclusion, an entire-ass house).
There’s much to enjoy in Miracle – the spirited spunk of little Natalie Wood’s performance, the sparkle of Gwenn’s (you really don’t doubt for a second that he’s who he says he is), and the kick of the character actors (especially a pre-Fred Mertz William Frawley). The sly smoothness of its transformation into a courtroom movie is kind of mind-boggling, its heaping praise of the U.S. Postal Service proves unexpectedly timely this particular holiday season, and the way the USPS ends up saving the day remains delightful. All of which is perhaps helpful in distracting from the strange tension between what the film is about, and what it’s actually celebrating.
“Miracle on 34th Street” is streaming on Disney+.