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Miracle of a movie

Friday, December 4, 2009

For many, the quintessential Christmas film is Miracle on 34th Street

by Erik J. Martin

“Faith is believing 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.”—Fred Gailey (played by John Payne).

Like Santa Claus himself, the film “Miracle on 34th Street” seems to defy age as a Christmastime classic. Since 1947, it has been delighting audiences of all ages and winning over new generations of viewers, many of whom consider it every bit the equal to “It’s a Wonderful Life” as the ultimate yuletide flick.

Directed by George Seaton for 20th Century Fox, “Miracle” was a box-office winner thanks to a heartwarming script, seasonally sweet music scored by Cyril J. Mockridge, and an impeccable cast that includes Edmund Gwenn as the quintessential yet-to-be-topped Kris Kringle, Maureen O’Hara as Doris Walker, a very young Natalie Wood as her idealistic daughter Susan Walker, and John Payne as lawyer Fred Gailey.

Originally titled “The Big Heart,” “Miracle,” written by Valentine Davies, tells the story of a Macy’s store Santa Claus who converts the customers into believers of St. Nick and the altruistic Christmas spirit. Convincing the skeptical Doris and her daughter Susan, however, isn’t so easy, especially when he is put on trial to settle once and for all whether or not he is the real Kris Kringle.

In the end, the film’s moral shines through in Doris’ self-learned advice she imparts to Susan: “If things don’t turn out just the way you want the first time, you still have to believe.”

Interestingly, Maureen O’Hara was ultimately forced into her role as Doris against her will, as the Irish actress had just returned to the Emerald Isle before being recalled back to America for the film. After reading the script for “Miracle,” however, her resentment changed to excitement.

Even though the picture is set during the Christmas season, 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that it be released in May. His argument? Summertime brought in bigger movie crowds. Consequently, the studio raced against the clock to promote “Miracle,” all the while trying to keep secret the fact that it was a Yuletide film.

“Miracle” won Oscars for best supporting actor (Gwenn), best writing: original story and screenplay (Davies/Seaton), and the film was nominated for best picture. Its lasting appeal was demonstrated by two remakes, a 1973 made-for-TV movie, and a 1994 feature film starring Richard Attenborough as Santa.

The original, meanwhile, like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, continues to be re-run ad nauseam on TV and cable every holiday season, including a colorized version.

Here’s a bit of “Miracle” trivia: Amazingly, Oscar-nominated actor Cecil Kellaway was first offered the role of Kris Kringle, but declined, saying “Americans don’t go for whimsey.” Fifty-eight later, “Miracle on 34th Street” continues to prove him wrong.

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