For many, the best part of Christmas is watching the same beloved holiday movies over and over again. In turn, we’re paying tribute to our favorites by breaking down everything that makes them annual must-watches, from our favorite characters and moments, to all the ways they celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. In this Classic Christmas Movie Breakdown, we’re looking at the beloved story of a sweet old man who insists he’s the real Santa Claus, 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street.
How perfect of a Christmas story is Miracle on 34th Street, the tale about a kindly old man who must surely be crazy since he honestly believes he is Santa Claus? It has been remade four times. Rather than diminish how fantastic the original 1947 version is though, those attempts to recreate the magic of the first are compliments to how timeless and wonderful its story truly is. It might be easy to lose the spirit of the season sometimes, but every year this funny, touching film reminds us that to remember what truly matters in life we need to believe in something greater than ourselves.
Does Santa appear in Miracle on 34th Street? Is he real?
There are two “Santas” and one Kris Kringle. There’s the drunk Macy’s Santa who gets replaced right before the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and there’s also young Alfred who plays St. Nick at the YMCA and at the party at the end of the movie. Of course, there’s only one Santa who matters and that’s Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn in an Oscar-winning performance. He’s kind, wise, and very protective of others, even to his own detriment. He’s everything you’d want in a Santa, right down to the beard and the twinkle in his eye.
The question (and we do mean the question) is whether or not he is the real Santa Claus. Was Kris a sweet, harmless, slightly weird old man, or was he actually him? It really all comes down to what you believe. Us? We’re with Mr. Gailey on this one. If you want to take Mr. Sawyer’s side that Kris was a nut that’s up to you and the coal you should expect in your stocking.
Are there any magical creatures? Do they talk?
No, the movie is based entirely in the real world, which makes the question of Kris’ true identity at the end much more powerful.
Are there any religious components in this movie?
Not overtly, but a major theme of the film is “faith,” and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to view the story of Kris as a parable for God or religion.
How lovable is Miracle on 34th Street‘s main character?
The most. Kris Kringle is funny, charming, warm, considerate, smart, and selfless. It’s actually hard to overstate how lovable he really is, so we’re going to cheat a little bit and talk about Natalie Wood’s amazing, nuanced performance as young Susan. Her mother raised her not to believe in any kind of fantasy, which has led to her being an old soul.
But while she’s serious, she’s not miserable. She’s matter-of-fact, but never unkind. She is a wonderful, unintentionally hysterical young lady who is wise beyond her years; she’s just lacking an imagination. Fortunately, over the course of the film she learns, what it’s like to believe in something that doesn’t make sense, and Wood pulls off one of the all-time best performances by a child actor.
How evil is the villain in Miracle on 34th Street?
The most identifiable villain is Mr. Granville Sawyer, the cold, insecure psychologist at Macy’s. Mr. Sawyer insists Kris is crazy and dangerous with no evidence, then has him committed to a mental institute when Kris lightly bops him on the head with an umbrella. (In fairness, don’t hit people with an umbrella, even jerks like Mr. Sawyer.) There’s not a lot of sympathy for Mr. Sawyer when he loses his job. But he’s only a minor character, so while he is a bad person he’s not some mega villain.
The only other person who qualifies as a villain in any way is Mrs. Walker, who was so hurt by her ex-husband she decided to raise her daughter not to believe in anything. That leads her to briefly firing Kris after he insists to Susan he is Santa, and she says some hurtful things to Mr. Gailey about representing Kris in court at the expense of his own job. She’s not evil, though; she’s just pragmatic, and highly protective of her fantastic daughter she has raised alone while rising to an important position at a prestigious company. But eventually she comes to believe in Kris too.
How sincere or cynical is Miracle on 34th Street about Christmas?
It’s a little cynical about people. Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimble do nice things because it will help their businesses, and the judge struggles with doing his job honestly while also looking for a way to rule in Kris’ favor so he won’t lose reelection. None of those people come across as bad; they’re just not totally pure of heart.
But overall the movie is incredibly sincere about the holiday. Kris’ entire goal is to renew the spirit of Christmas year round, a spirit of giving and kindness. He accomplishes that, especially with Doris and Susan, which he thought was a great test case. However, the movie isn’t saccharine, it’s just sweet and lovely. And while Miracle on 34th Street does bemoan the pitfalls of commercialism, it recognizes the power it can have to make children happy so long as people are treated like people and not sacks of money.
Does anyone sing in this movie? Is there a big group singalong?
We’re only concerned with Christmas-related songs, so we’re not counting when Kris sings “To Market” to Susan, even though it’s delightful. In another scene, Kris stuns the adopted mother of an orphaned Dutch girl by speaking to her in her native language. The two then sing the Christmas song “Sinterklaas Kapoentje” together while Natalie Wood’s Susan looks on, in a truly wonderful moment.
What are the biggest Christmas themes and quotes in Miracle on 34th Street?
Faith, hope, and what really matters in life, “the intangibles.” Forget money or fame or “trying to beat the other fellow,” life is about taking care of each other, believing in something greater than yourself, being happy and full of love, and appreciating what life has to offer. These are Grade-A Christmastime themes.
There’s not one singular quote that stands above the rest, but these are some of the best, most memorable:
“Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind.” – Kris
“I believe….I believe….” – Susan in the car after Kris says he couldn’t get the house she wanted
“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.” – Mr. Gailey.
What is the best scene in Miracle on 34th Street?
Kris and the little Dutch girl certainly could claim this spot, as could the scene when Mr. Gailey has sacks of letters to Santa the Post Office delivered to Kris dumped on the judge’s desk. It’s funny, moving, powerful, and one of the single most famous moments in Christmas movie history.
What is the film’s most emotional moment?
Kris carries the movie, but young Susan’s transformation from wise cynic to overjoyed kid whose belief is restored is at the core of why this movie remains a timeless classic. Her screams to stop the car on Christmas when she sees the house she told Kris she wanted is an even better payoff than when the court rules in Kris’ favor. When her mother and Mr. Gailey then see the cane sitting by the fireplace it’s almost too much. What was a fun, touching story about a sweet old man trying to spread happiness becomes a story about a child’s faith.
Good people deserve to have their faith rewarded, which is why we still watch the original Miracle on 34th Street every year.
Originally published December 6, 2018.