Thursday, December 6, 2012

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1947) Fox Home Video

In preparation for his 1994 remake, the late John Hughes went on record as saying that he simply could not understand why George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street (1947) had endured all these many years; a foolhardy comment, indeed. For even with color and stereo to its benefit, Hughes’ remake became a joyless excursion incapable of holding even the faint flicker of a candle to Seaton’s original B&W masterwork – itself a minor miracle for 20th Century-Fox.  Based on a concept by Valentine Davies and scripted by Seaton himself, Miracle of 34th Street was one of Fox’s biggest and brightest money makers of that year. At a time when most movies ran for only a few weeks at best, Miracle on 34th Street played for more than half a year to sold-out crowds.
What makes its success even more remarkable is that ‘Miracle’ had its American premiere in May of 1947 – 7 months before the holiday rush! Indeed, Fox’s publicity men were sent into a tailspin when mogul Darryl F. Zanuck announced its release date. While Fox’s PR machinery fumbled to produce an ineffectual poster campaign heralding “the man who made the miracle” and an obtuse trailer in which not a single clip from the movie was revealed, Zanuck instinctually suspected that the film might play better during the peak summer months. Neither he nor Fox could have predicted the tidal wave of critical plaudits and overwhelming public response Miracle on 34th Street would immediately receive.
As is so often the case, in hindsight it all seems so perfect. How could it miss? Valentine Davies conceived the idea during Christmas 1944 after doing some last minute shopping inside a Macy’s department store. Over the next three years he repeatedly pitched his concept to directors and executives, only to have his hopes infrequently dashed and/or overlooked. But Seaton was a gambling man – a trait shared by Zanuck who perceived the publicity such a film could garner if properly managed and carefully timed.
Zanuck green lit the project as a B programmer, then bumped the budget after seeing some early rushes to make it an A-list film. In an unprecedented venture, Seaton was allowed to take his cast and crew to New York City in the late fall of 1946 to shoot principle sequences live during Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. Interestingly, the parade’s popularity had dwindled between 1940 and ’46. At one point Macy’s even contemplated discontinuing it. After Miracle on 34th Street triumphant premiere, the streets were packed to maximum capacity. New Yorkers and tourists alike have been lining the curbs with giddy excitement ever since. As for Macy’s; the custodians of this grand affair – they willingly opened their doors as well as their hearts to the production; allowing Seaton and his stars unprecedented access; not only to the department store floor during and after peak hours of operation but also to the ‘behind the scenes’ upstairs offices – creating a verisimilitude that remains pretty hard to top.
The film’s linchpin is of course its casting of the perfect Santa Claus – a universal character beloved by millions, yet so easily identifiable to North American audiences via the refined Santa iconography first introduced by graphic illustrator Haddon Sundblom for the Coca-Cola Corporation in 1929 that no mere substitute in the film would suffice. Hence, casting Edmund Gwenn sealed Miracle’s’ fate. Today, few remember the Coca-Cola story. But many regard Gwenn’s diminutive jolly fellow as the one and only Kris Kringle. Indeed, observing Gwenn’s expertly nuanced portrait as the man with the bag one is immediately struck by how seamlessly he manages to ensconce himself into our collective consciousness. His lithe manner and benevolent spirit are nothing short of spot on. He not only looks like Santa Claus – an absolute must – but also manages to satisfy our collected perceptions of a person none of us has ever met in real life. That is a remarkable achievement.
It goes without saying that the rest of the cast are exceptional as well; Maureen O’Hara’s vivacious marketing executive, John Payne’s agreeable attorney at law, and, Natalie Wood’s plucky and occasionally pert nonbeliever strike just the right chord. Even the supporting cast excel at their bits. Who can forget Porter Hall’s Granville Sawyer, a fidgety fussbudget who compounds the mad frenzy of the holiday season by setting into motion a plot that will have Santa Claus tried for lunacy? Or Philip Tonge’s officious marketing exec’ Julian Shellhammer; Harry Antrim’s benevolent R.H. Macy; William Frawley’s behind the scenes political muckraker and Gene Lockhart’s playfully frazzled Judge Louis Harper? In fact, in reviewing Miracle on 34th Street today one is dumbstruck by how immediately identifiable even the cameos are: Alvin Greenman’s sad-eyed custodian, Alfred and Thelma Ritter’s harried shopper adding subtle jabs of pleasure to the overall milieu.
Enough cannot be said of Natalie Wood’s old soul: a superbly aged pint sized wunderkind well versed beyond her diminutive ten years. Wood’s interaction with Gwenn is charming. More than that – it speaks to the child in all of us, our desperate desire to believe in miracles – great or small – as a matter of blind faith…even when common sense suggests otherwise. Indeed, Wood was to have her own illusions shattered on Oscar night when Gwenn arrived to the ceremonies with his beard shaved. Having convinced the child of his own credibility throughout the shoot, Wood’s surviving sister, Lana would suggest that Natalie never entirely forgave Gwenn his moment of truth. Audiences, however, were anything but critical of the actor’s performance. In fact, Gwenn won a Best Supporting Academy Award for his Kris Kringle; proof positive that with or without the whiskers we all know the real thing when we see it!
For those not yet acquainted with the magic of this timeless tale: the plot concerns a kindly old man, Kris (Gwenn) who firmly believes he is the one and only jolly fat man in the red suit. Kris is accidentally discovered by Macy’s parade coordinator Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) after the man (Percy Helton) she has hired to play Santa in the Thanksgiving Day Parade is found intoxicated. Replacing the drunken Santa, Kris is immediately put on salary at the department store where toy supervisor, Julian Shellhammer is certain he will become a ‘born salesman’. But Kris confounds the sensibilities of Doris’ precocious and intelligent daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood) after he manages to sing and speak to a little Dutch refugee (Marlene Lyden) in her native tongue.
The film is also rather progressive in its portrait of the single mother; herein exemplified by Maureen O’Hara’s elegant matriarch who manages to balance work and home while falling hopelessly in love with attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne) who just happens to share the apartment unit next door. Coming to realize that Kris actually believes he is Santa Claus, Doris worries about the safety of having a delusional interacting with impressionable children. Her fears are compounded by staff psychiatrist Granville Sawyer’s snap analysis, that Kris is apt to become violent if confronted, but quelled by the more kindly advice of Dr. Pierce (James Seay) a geriatric specialist at the Brook’s Home for Old People where Kris has been living for some time.
To alleviate Doris’ concerns, Pierce suggests that someone in town rent Kris a room for the holidays while he is employed at Macy’s. Doris hopes that Julian will oblige. But although he does indeed convince his wife (Lela Bliss) – after a few triple strength martinis – to rent Kris their spare room, the offer is intercepted by Fred who has decided to have Kris move in with him. Fred’s invitation is hardly philanthropic. Having admired Doris from afar, it is Fred’s hope that her daily interaction with Kris, as well as Susan’s, will soften both of their ‘matter of fact’ outlooks on life and love.
Unfortunately, Kris comes in conflict over Sawyer’s mean-spirited psychoanalysis of Alfred – an impressionable teenage custodian whom Sawyer suggests is suffering from a guilt complex. Kris confronts Sawyer with his balderdash, threatening to go to R.H. Macy and report him as a contemptible fraud. Instead, Sawyer lies to Julian about the crux of Kris’ anger toward him; the two plot to have Kris committed to the state asylum. Believing that Doris was complicit in their decision, Kris gives up hope and deliberately fails his psychological exam. His case comes before Judge Louis Harper. But Kris’s defence launched by Fred isn’t going to be easy. After all, what authoritative proof can he offer to support the claim that Kris is Santa Claus?
The D.A., Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) is certain he has an airtight case against Kris. But in a gracious whim of fate a New York postal employee (Jack Albertson) decides to redirect all of the dead letters sent by children for Santa Claus to the county court house instead. Since misdirecting mail deliberately is a federal offense, Fred uses the arrival of the bags and bags of mail as an excuse to suggest that the U.S. federal government has certified Kris as the one and only Santa Claus.
His case dismissed, Kris invites Doris, Fred and Susan to the Brook’s Home for Christmas dinner. Susan races to the tree in search of a gift she hopes Kris has managed to arrange for her. Earlier, Susan had shown Kris a picture of a house from the real estate pages, declaring that her greatest wish would be to leave Manhattan for a ‘real home’ in the suburbs with a front porch and a swing. But there is no indication beneath the pine bowers that Kris has managed to fulfill this wish. Wounded by what she perceives as Kris’s betrayal of her faith in him, Susan’s disappointment is quelled by Doris who explains that sometimes we must believe in people and things even when common sense denies us our expectations.
Afterward, Kris sketches out the details of a ‘faster’ route home for Fred and Doris who have become slightly estranged in their relationship since before the trial. But while driving back to Manhattan Susan suddenly spies the home from the picture she gave Kris, ordering Uncle Fred to stop the car. Racing into the empty house, its front door unlocked and a ‘for sale’ sign out front, Susan is at first disciplined by Doris. But the child’s faith in miracles has been restored. No amount of cajoling or explaining will dissuade her from believing in Kris now. And it almost makes sense that she should so implicitly trust him – especially after Fred and Doris eye Kris’s cane – the same one he always carried – propped up against the wall near the fireplace. Did he simply arrange their arrival with some cleverly deliberate directions, or did he really get Suzie the dream house she has wished for? We’re never entirely certain and it’s probably just as well. Our faith in Gwenn’s kindly old gentleman has remained intact ever since.
Miracle on 34th Street is a perfect film – period. Beyond being a certified holiday classic, it remains one of the most heart-warming melodramas ever conceived. Over the years others have tried to recapture its magic without success. John Hughes’ totally charm-free clunker starring Richard Attenborough as Kris and the sugary sweet sickening Mara Wilson as Susan is perhaps the most painfully conceived of all the various incarnations, but it really doesn’t matter. So long as the original endures – and in all likelihood it will for many years to come – the legacy of Santa Claus will forever be married to Edmund Gwenn’s galvanic performance. He is the real deal in a poetic masterpiece.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is a tad disappointing in that it has been minted from flawed digital files used for Fox’s DVD, instead of a complete ground up rescanning of the original film elements.  We get a darker image, occasionally to the detrimental loss of fine details, but one that also continues to be marred by edge effects and shimmering of fine details. These annoying distractions were more obvious on the DVD Fox gave us, but the Blu-ray ought to have been a miracle of loveliness. It’s not, and that’s a genuine shame! Film grain is more naturally reproduced and that’s a definite plus. The image also tightens up thanks to its 1080p upscale. But again, we need a new re-master to really make the image pop. The audio is mono as originally intended and quite acceptable.
Fox has thankfully spared us the inclusion of the colorized version of the film, included as a separate DVD in the aforementioned standard release. I will just go on record here to state my general objection to colorization. You wouldn’t repaint the Mona Lisa with a blonde body wave and piercing for her cheek to contemporize her for today’s audiences, would you? Movies are art – or were, at least during Hollywood’s golden age. They deserve no less consideration and very much more preservation efforts applied than they have received in more recent times. There! I’ve made my point.

Extras on the Blu-ray are direct imports from the previously issued DVD and include an episode of Hollywood Back Story on the making of the film – which is rather short on detail but does contain some good interview snippets with surviving cast members, and, a featurette on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Maureen O'Hara's recollections on making the movie have also been preserved in the audio commentary – an exceptionally fine listening experience. Bottom line: Miracle on 34th Street is a movie of immense charm and immeasurable holiday delights. It will surely endure as long as the spirit of Christmas does.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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