Miracle on 34th Street

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

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On Thanksgiving, I watched the Macy’s Parade on television. There, I followed the floats and marching bands and giant balloons as they trailed down 34th Street to pause in front of Macy’s Department Story for a viewing by the TV audience. I used to stand in the cold and watch it live.

This annual event – it’s the world’s largest parade – started in 1928.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade quickly became a holiday tradition. And by 1947 it was immortalized in a movie called “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Written and directed by George Seaton (“The Country Girl”), this Christmas comedy stars Maureen O’Hara as the mom who works at Macy’s, Natalie Woods as her cynical daughter, John Payne as the nice lawyer next door, and British actor Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle. Valentine Davies penned a short novelization of the tale, which was published by Harcourt Brace simultaneously with the film’s release.

The movie starts off with the Parade. This old guy named Kris (Gwenn) complains to the Macy’s events director (O’Hara) when he discovers that the man portraying Santa is drunk. Next thing Kris knows, he has been hired to take the man’s place. After all, he looks the part with his white beard and portly physique.

Things turn topsy-turvy when Kris (now dressed in a Santa costume) advises a customer that she can find the gift she wants across the street at Gimbel’s. Being a savvy merchandiser, Mr. Macy adopts this as his store’s new policy. Kris is a hit.

But things take a downturn when Susan (O’Hara) decides to fire Kris for insisting to her daughter that he’s the REAL Santa Claus. And things get worse when Kris gets sent to Belleville for his delusional fixation. But the nice lawyer, now Susan’s suitor, takes up the old man’s defense. After all, what’s wrong with spreading Christmas cheer and encouraging children’s belief in Santa Claus?

The high point is the courtroom scene where the lawyer uses the U.S. Post Office to “prove” his case. What we call heartwarming. And all ends happily for Susan and her daughter.

No doubt you’ve seen the movie a hundred times on TV. But it’s worth a rewatch … for we all need to have our faith in humanity renewed from time to time. And there’s nothing like seeing it on a big screen.

Tropic Cinema is getting us in the holiday mood with a special showing of this classic next Monday night. Be there if you don’t want to wind up a grump like the Macy’s psychologist, Granville Sawyer.

As for Edmund Gwenn, he prepared for the role by appearing in the actual 1946 Macy’s Parade as Santa Claus – his identity unknown to the crowds. He’d gained 30 pounds for the role.

During the filming, 8-year-old Natalie Wood thought Gwenn really was Santa. It wasn’t until she saw him out of costume at the wrap party that she realized his was an actor just like herself.

The kid who played the prosecutor’s son said of Gwenn, “He was a really nice guy, always happy, always smiling. He had this little twinkle in his eye.”

And Maureen O’Hara added, “By the time we were halfway through the shoot, we all believed Edmund really was Santa Clause. I’ve never seen an actor more naturally suited for a role.”

“Miracle on 34th Street” won three Academy Awards: Edmund Gwenn for Best Actor in a Supporting Role; Valentine Davies for Best Writing, Original Story; and George Seaton for Best Writing, Screenplay. Also the film was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to “Gentleman’s Agreement.”

When Edmund Gwenn accepted his Oscar, he said, “Now I know there’s a Santa Claus.”

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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