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Ever since I first saw "It's a Wonderful Life" back when I was a teenager, I've only really had room for one Christmas film in my heart. I have watched some others over the years, but none has ever touched me the way Frank Capra's classic did. I somehow never quite managed to see "Miracle on 34th Street" however, being put off by an aversion to Maureen O'Hara that I've never quite been able to shake off.
The film was re-made in 1994 and my daughter has the DVD but I have never watched that version either.
I was shopping in Morrison's recently and came across the DVD of the original 1947 release of the film for just £4. I was intrigued because it contained both the original black and white version of the film and a colourised version.
Colourised films used to rightly be derided by film fans but having bought a recent colourised version of It's a Wonderful Life and being rather pleased at how well it was done, my feelings have softened towards the process these days so I decided to watch the film initially in colour.
Doris Walker is a special events manager at Macy's 34th Street store in New York City. As she arranges the store's annual Thanksgiving Parade she is informed by a kindly man who goes by the name of Kris Kringle that the man dressed up as Santa Claus is drunk. Walker asks Kringle if he could stand in at short notice and he agrees. He is so good in the role he is offered the job of Santa Claus in the store itself but his unorthodox manner unnerves Doris, who has become cynical since her marriage broke up.
Doris's cynicism and "common sense" has been passed on to her six year old daughter Susan who firmly refuses to believe Santa Claus exists. Doris' neighbour Fred Gailey, a lawyer, takes a shine to her and through Susan the pair become closer and eventually it is agreed that Kris will move in with Fred while working at Macy's.
Following an altercation with a store employee who questions Kris' mental health, Kris is taken off to the local mental hospital. He can only get out with the help of Fred, who has to somehow prove to a judge in the most cynical city on earth that Kris isn't mentally ill because he really is Santa Claus.
"Miracle on 34th Street" was released in 1947 and incredible as it is to believe now, was actually released not in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas - but in May, because the studio executives believed more people went to the cinema then.
"It's a Wonderful Life" was released the year before and both films have a very distinct post-war feel about them with a suggestion that perhaps children talk more sense than adults following the untold devastation and destruction wreaked by adults during the war. So instead of laughing at the suggestion a man with a long white beard is Santa or a bumbling old man could really be an angel, there is a suggestion that believing in such things has to be better than getting into a fight about it.
What makes "Miracle on 34th Street" work is the deftness of the whole cast. While top billing at the time went to Maureen O'Hara as Doris and John Payne as Fred, the real star of the show is Edmund Gwenn as Kris, with Natalie Wood - in her first starring role - doing a pretty good job of stealing almost every scene she is in, as good child actors are prone to do.
O'Hara is perhaps the weak link in the cast - her acting is very much of the period and in some scenes it's hard to stifle a guffaw at some of her over dramatic facial expressions. I really found it hard to warm to her even when her character's cynicism started to ebb away. To be fair to her she does look lovely, and is impeccably styled throughout.
John Payne is far more likeable as Fred, and his scenes with Natalie Wood are a delight, revealing a natural chemistry between them. Payne also works very well with Edmund Gwenn, who won an Oscar for his part and is completely believable as the man who claims to be Santa.
The supporting cast are excellent too and it's a joy to see Thelma Ritter, complete with thick Brooklyn accent, appear as a harassed shopper and Porter Hall squirm as the man who accuses Kris Kringle of being crazy.
Once the film reaches the court scenes the character roles come in thick and fast and I really have to mention Gene Lockhart's role as the Judge - he doesn't have to do much to bring on laughs and his facial expressions - particularly those in response to his political advisor played by William Frawley - are a joy to behold.
However it's worth noting that although this film is funny, it's also got it's heart wrenching moments too and while I didn't find myself reaching for the tissues as I watched, there are a few moments that definitely tugged at my heartstrings. Fortunately there's nothing too mawkish about the film and the overall sense is this is a feelgood movie, which is what you want in a classic Christmas story. Director George Seaton isn't quite in the same league as Frank Capra but he generally gets the best out of his cast and the courtroom scenes in particular stand out for me - perhaps due to the absence of O'Hara.
The colourisation on the film is excellent too. The outdoor scenes at the start of the film are particularly good in colour and convey the light one would experience on a cold but sunny Thanksgiving in New York City. The only thing that could be improved upon is skin tone, with poor Natalie Wood looking a little too orange in places. It should be said that the process isn't distracting however and more importantly it's believable overall.
There's not much on this disc in the way of extras. There is a clip of Edmund Gwenn receiving his Oscar for the role of Kris Kringle, where he famously declared "now I know there really IS a Santa Claus", along with a promotional film for the movie which fans of old Hollywood may enjoy as Rex Harrison, Anne Baxter, Peggy Ann Garner and Dick Haymes turn up in it. What interested me even more was learning the word "groovy" was in use in the 1940s, although it is spelt "groovey" here.
Finally there is a slide show of advertising posters for the film which all feature Maureen O'Hara and John Payne with barely a mention of Christmas at all - a deliberate ploy by a studio releasing a Christmas film in spring. These are interesting only as they bear out how differently the film is marketed these days with both Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood generally being the cover stars of any DVD or video release.
This is a well packaged release of the original version of "Miracle on 34th Street" as it enables purists to view the film as it was originally shot but also opens the story up to those who want to view in colour.
Whether you view in black and white or colour however the film ostensibly remains the same - a story which is in places a little whimsical but one which is full of, to quote Doris in the film, "lovely intangibles". What makes this film a classic is the strong performances, an excellent story and script and a director who knows exactly when to make you laugh - and cry.