Thursday, January 28, 2016

Santa Claus Comes to NYC

Though Christmas is now but a memory, the TCM presentation of Miracle on 34th Street (1947) on the big screen was a real treat for the holiday season.  The story focuses on Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), an elderly gentleman who takes Christmas quite seriously.  When he encounters a drunken Santa Claus at the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, he confronts the parade's organizer Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), who immediately hires him as a substitute Santa, both for the parade, and later to work in the store.  Doris is rather matter of fact about Christmas; she's raised her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to view it as a commercial holiday - Santa Claus isn't real nor are fairy tales to be regarded as anything more than silly fictions.  There is, she tells Susan, no such thing as "happily ever after," something their neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne) finds distressing, since he is hoping for a "happily ever after" with Doris.  So, when Kris announces he IS the real Santa Claus, and is labeled as mentally incompetent by Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), the Macy's staff psychologist, Fred decides to represent Kris in court - and prove Kris is the REAL Santa.

As someone who grew up in New York City, shopping at Macy's and Gimbel's, this film has resonances that cannot be escaped.  At one point, we see a shopper's book that Macy's has created to help guide customers to products they don't carry (but that other stores do - one of Kris' innovations).  Most of the stores in the book, including Gimbels - have since closed.  I've been to the Parade once, and watched it on television nearly every year - and the metamorphosis of the Parade from a "home town" event to an advertisement for New York City tourism is something this film makes very apparent.  (I'm not complaining - I like seeing the Broadway plays show their stuff).  So, regardless that this is an annual event, the film provides a time capsule view of a New York that is long gone, when the parade was a local event run by a local store, not a national pastime.  (To this day, Macy's in Herald Square uses Miracle on 34th Street as a window display at Christmastime.)
This Fathom presentation of the film was made especially poignant by the death of Maureen O'Hara on October 24, 2015.  The last survivor of the lead actors in the cast, her portrayal of Doris is on spot.  She makes the character tough, but never heartless - her affections radiate from her lovely eyes, but she is always in charge of her home and her business.  Born in Ireland as Maureen FitzSimmons in 1920, Ms. O'Hara started her career at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.  After a screen test, Charles Laughton signed her to a contract and starred her, with him, in Jamaica Inn (1939).  The rest, as they say, is history.  In 1941, she appeared as Angharad in director John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, the first of their 4 films together.  Her most famous screen partner was certainly John Wayne - a collaboration that didn't begin until 1950 in Rio Grande.  Never even nominated for an Academy Award (is that even possible), Ms O'Hara was finally given an Honorary Oscar in 2014.  With her flaming red hair and a complexion that looks like pure butter, Ms. O'Hara was so staggeringly beautiful in color films she was sometimes called The Queen of Technicolor.  Regardless of that beauty, she was an actor without compare.  
Edmund Gwenn actually appeared as Santa in the 1946 Thanksgiving Day Parade, and other members of the cast (like Ms. O'Hara) were shot in the parade to add scenes to the film  (see these TCM articles and the AFI catalog for more background on the film).  Ms. O'Hara was initially reluctant to appear in the film, as she had JUST been allowed to visit her family in Ireland (she was barred from visiting her homeland because of War restrictions.  Ireland was a neutral country during World War II), and was now being called back immediately to appear in " silly little movie about Santa Claus".  She stated that, once she saw the script, she changed her mind - the film, by the way is still #9 in AFI's 100 Years, 100 Cheers.
There have been other attempts to trap the lightning in a bottle that is Miracle on 34th Street, with limited success.  Maureen O'Hara, John Payne and Edmund Gwenn reprised their roles for the Lux Radio Theatre version on December 22, 1947.  In 1955, Thomas Mitchell appeared as Kris in a live television version (also starring Teresa Wright and MacDonald Carey) for the Twentieth Century Fox Hour.  Meredith Wilson (of The Music Man fame) wrote a musical version of the tale in 1963 entitled Here's Love, which ran for 334 performances and starred Laurence Naismith as Kris.  On December 14, 1973, another television version ran, starring Sebastian Cabot as Kris and Jane Alexander as Doris (now named Karen!).  Finally, a big screen version was again attempted in 1994, with Richard Attenborough as Kris - Macy's refused to allow their name to be used in the film!  Even star John Payne tried for many years to produce a sequel to the story, based on his own screenplay, but the attempts ended when he died in 1989.
Many character actors contribute to this film - Gene Lockhart as Judge Henry X. Harper, the man who must rule on the reality of Santa Claus; William Frawley as Charles Halloran, Judge Harper's cagey political advisor; Jerome Cowan as district attorney Thomas Mara, whose own son is called to testify as to the reality of Santa Claus (how does Tommy know there really is a Santa Claus:  "Because my Daddy told me so"), and Philip Tonge as Doris' colleague Mr. Shellhammer.  But in many senses, the film is stolen in one brief scene by Thelma Ritter as the harried mother who can't find the fire truck her son wants in time for Christmas.  This was Ms. Ritter's first role, and of course, she shines.

We'll close with the scene in which Doris asks Kris to tell Susan he isn't really Santa Claus:

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