So, it’s Christmastime. Considering the fact that I have hit my recent “Great American Screenplays” saga pretty hard over the last few months, I think it is plenty fair to take a break and indulge myself—and you—a little holiday liberality.
At least two holidays in America (I do not speak for the rest of the world) are so associated with film as to fairly be called movie-holidays. These are Halloween and Christmas. But, there is an important differentiation between the two when it comes to the types of film that they inspire us to watch. With Halloween, it is style over substance; playing to the basest of emotions (you can get even the most stoic of men to flinch and flail when you jump out at them in dark places), Halloween movies perpetually have to outdo themselves in order to keep the scares coming despite the consuming public’s perpetual desensitization. This leads us to watch more recent, usually cheaper-made films on an ongoing, yearly basis.
But Christmas, on the other hand, Christmas “makes you feel emotional…it may bring parties or thoughts devotional…whatever happens or what may be….”Christmastime means all the smells, sounds, and feelings of our childhood. Religion aside (and I do not cast that aside lightly, but this is a movie blog, after all), Christmas is about doing everything you can to feel the magic again. Because of this, Christmas movies aren’t subject to that same digressive perpetuity as their Halloween counterparts. As a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite. We go back to the movies of the “good old days.” We watch the classics, the musicals, and the late-night TV specials of yesteryear as we strive to feel that nostalgic grace of Christmas past. Even Ebenezer Scrooge was brought to life by that specter of Christmases gone by.
As we get older, we get farther and farther removed from that glorious time of our youth when the smells of pumpkin pie and peppermint propounded and Christmas tree lights glowed in our darkened family rooms. We forget that Santa was very much a real person to us. We could hear his reindeer prancing on our rooftops. Our parents couldn’t hear it, but of course they couldn’t, they weren’t like us; they could actually sleep Christmas Eve. But no, not us…we were awake all night.
Adulthood at yuletide (and adolescence, to be honest), is all about getting that magic back. I have seen adults do everything they can—from decorations to music to sitting on Santa’s lap themselves—to feel, again, the way they felt as children, but I don’t think they ever really get that festivity back. In my experience, there are only two ways that an adult can feel the magic of Christmas. It’s a different kind of magic than the magic we embraced as kids; it feels different, and it causes us to behave in slightly different ways. But it is magical nonetheless.
First, we start to focus on the spiritual. We focus on the virgin birth, and the nativity of our Savior in Bethlehem. We think about His life and ministry, we worship Him, and we reflect on how we can better allow Him into our lives. We are full of love for Him and gratitude for His atoning sacrifice. As a result, we begin to enjoy the giving aspect of Christmas more than the receiving part. We start to take pleasure in the spirit of service.
Second, we start to focus on the children around us. We find joy in watching true believers in Santa Claus rush to bed on Christmas Eve so that Christmas day can come ever faster. We smile as we watch them act out the nativity and read from the Bible on the days leading up to that eventful morning. We sing with them and take them to see lights. We go sledding with them and throw snowballs. We watch as the sights, sounds, and smells of the season bring excitement and happiness to our kids.
When we think about these two routes to continuous Christmas jollity in conjunction with what I said earlier about Christmas classics, one need not go much farther than George Seaton’s classic Miracle on 34th Street to see this all in action. In this movie, we see how adults can lose the Christmas spirit, and we see also how they can find it again.
This is not an uncommon plot in the realm of Christmas films. As a matter of fact, practically every good Christmas movie has this fundamental archetype as its central dilemma. But, in Miracle on 34th Street, it is done with an unparalleled grace. Only Dickens could have written a better screenplay to tell the story of disillusioned adults embracing the faith, spirit, and light of a child’s Christmas.
The movie focuses on two non-believers, a mother/daughter pair named Doris and Susan Walker. These two main characters are played beautifully by Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood, respectively. O’Hara was already one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood; the Irish performer had made films with such stars of acting and directing as Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and John Ford in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Black Swan, and How Green Was My Valley. Natalie Wood, on the other hand, was destined for great fame, being only eight years old when she made Miracle. Considered one of the greatest child performances in American cinema, Natalie stole the show sufficiently to propel her career into stardom. She would later star in successes like West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause, and Splendor in the Grass.
The dynamic of these two female characters is one of teacher and student more than just mother and daughter. O’Hara’s Doris does not desire Susan to be well-grounded for her own protection so much as she has a desire to convince her daughter to subscribe to her same level of thought. For Doris, a life of fantasy is a life of disappointment, and around Christmastime the fantasies all around her get to be too much to handle. So, she “takes it out”, in a way, on Susan. Susan, a kind-hearted and intelligent little girl, completely falls for her mother’s convincing take on the real world.
What results with Doris is a lack of both the routes to Christmas joy that I described earlier. She loses faith, the opportunity to believe in something, and she loses the Christmas spirit of the children (or child) near to her. She can’t place her hope and love in a higher being (Santa, in this case), and, therefore, lacks that spirit of service and giving that makes Christmas so happy. As a matter of fact, it’s quite to the contrary: she views Christmas as an opportunity to get gain. She is the quintessential working woman of the 1940s, still out of place, and desperate to prove herself. Nor can can she find joy in the elaborations and dreams of her child. Her life is a life devoid of Christmas.
From this comes born a fantastical and fun adaptation of the Scrooge archetype. Only her ghosts are not three specters, but rather a cooky and sweet old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus and an upstart lawyer desperate to not only win her love, but redeem her and her daughter.
Kris Kringle—the man who would be St. Nick—is played profoundly and enjoyably by Edmund Gwenn. Alongside John Payne, playing the lawyer named Fred Gailey, the two try to get the mother and daughter to believe in Santa again. Kris will work on Susan. Fred will work on Doris. This is an important thing, for “believing in Santa” (at least in this movie’s context) is a symbol for feeling the true Christmas spirit. It’s not the prerogative of Doris to necessarily believe in the white bearded symbol of giving. She must merely start to have faith again: faith in humanity, faith in love, and faith in the magic of the season. Fred, as a romantic counterpart, can help her to find that. Susan, though….Susan had to believe in the fantasy. She had to get caught up in the imagination, and the excitement of a young person’s ability to see a world that is not our own. For her, it was important that Santa was real, if only to help her to realize her childhood.
The imagination of a little child is a fragile thing. It is so easy for us to dictate their imaginations by limiting their exposure and forcing upon them an adult interpretation of the world around them. But children are not adults. They are malleable not only by coercion from their elders, but also by their attempt to make sense of a brand new and seemingly disordered world around them. For them, looking at a single object or event can lead them to innumerable conclusions as to how that object or event occurred. There is an infinite amount of ways to view how the world works. As we get older, though, our worlds become more finite. We start to see the options for how our reality is formed as increasingly limited. While we learn, we become less flexible, and less absorbent. But a child has no limitations. If anyone knows that, it is Santa Claus.
Watching Susan embrace that childish part of herself, and allow Doris to have that ever-important extension in festive Christmas spirit, is a pleasure to behold. It takes a lot of effort on the part of Kris and Fred. Not only does it take intimate one-one-one discussions and admissions, but also some very involved and very public legal procedures to actually prove the existence of Father Christmas in a court of law. The urban fantasy adventure is fun, comedic, sweet, and clever.
This movie does a superb job of helping us see how it is a child is able to observe the season so well. It also shows us, in touching ways, how entwined Christmas is with our faith and emotions as adults. And it does all of this in the context of the 1930s and 1940s…a period that I have quite thoroughly described as the period of “Great American Screenplays.” Seaton’s screenplay in Miracle on 34th Street is not exempt from the quality of its contemporaries; rather, it is one of the shining examples of the fast-paced, witty screwball masterpieces of the 1930s and 1940s. Right from the outset, we see the banter between Doris and her Macy’s coworkers. We see the funny little inserts about psychoanalysis and Tammany Hall politics.
This is why Miracle on 34th Street—the version in question—is better than the remakes that followed. Of all the remakes, one in particular has seen some legitimate success: the 1994 remake starring Dylan McDermott, Richard Attenborough, and Mara Wilson (of Matilda fame). This is a great remake, made alive by Wilson’s cuteness and sharpness. Interestingly enough, though, it lacked the ingredient that truly gave life to the 1947 version. Despite the fact that it was directed by John Hughes, who had great success making substantive comedies throughout the 1980s (with such movies as National Lampoon’s Vacation; The Breakfast Club; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; and Home Alone), his interpretation of the classic story was darker, and lacking the ever-important humor. When it comes to analyzing the original, one cannot ignore the film’s surprisingly lofty wit and jollity.
In conclusion, I want to share a quick anecdote. As the children in my family got older and started moving out of the house, Christmas traditions became a little more difficult to follow through completely. This happens. Eventually, my parents, realizing that we couldn’t watch all the Christmas movies that we used to watch, decided that, on Christmas Eve, we would get out all the movies in our collection and take turns picking our favorite scenes from each. I picked the “lasso the moon” scene from It’s a Wonderful Life. My mom picked the “We’ll Follow the Old Man” scene from White Christmas. My wife picked the scene from Elf when Buddy the Elf helps Bob Newhart fix Santa’s sleigh. My dad picked the scene from Miracle on 34th Street when Kris speaks Dutch to the little girl in Macy’s. There is a special magic in that scene when the little Dutch girl’s eyes get big and her toothy grin splits her face. Even in black-and-white, we can see her cheeks redden with excitement. That is when we, as adults, start to feel Christmas bloom, when children’s hearts are filled by the tradition around them, and we, in turn, are filled by their magic.