Magic on 34th Street

3 January 2011

Seasonally, I picked up a copy of Miracle on 34th Street in a pile of second-hand DVDs just before Christmas – the 1947 original with Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, not the 1994 version in which Richard Attenborough plays Kris Kringle, or Santa. It has a charm that is lacking in the remake, or come to that in the Santa-on-the-Shopping-Channel version that I stumbled across recently on daytime TV, with Whoopi Goldberg as the doubting sales exec played by O’Hara in 1947.

Looking at the 1947 film from 2010, it’s interesting to see that even then – a decade before the post-war consumer boom really started to accelerate – part of of the rationale for the story was that Christmas had become over-commercialised. But in its original incarnation, Miracle on 34th Street is about the rise of the rational and the decline of magic: Weber versus wizardry, as it were. It is presented as quite reasonable that Doris Walker (O’Hara) should want her daughter (the young Natalie Wood) to grow up without believing in things which are untrue.

Susan, the six-year old, didn’t need to be brattish to move the plot along, and Maureen O’Hara doesn’t need the leaden backstory visited on Whoopi Goldberg to explain why she holds her views. (Come to that, not a line of script is given to explaining why she is a single parent; we could guess, but we don’t need to, and the plot doesn’t need us to either).

No matter how reasonable rationality is, it gets corrupted in the wrong hands. Here, these hands are given to the store’s psychologist, Granville Sawyer. Seven years after Freud’s death, forty years after the work which made his name, Sawyer, unqualified, interprets the pleasure that a young employee gets from playing Santa at his local YMCA as being a psychiatric disorder, rooted (inevitably) in his childhood. When confronted by Kris Kringle, Sawyer uses a mixture of his positional authority and some deception to despatch him to New York’s notorious Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

The courtroom scene that follows is a masterpiece, treading a fine line between the processes of the court, the stories we tell ourselves, popular sentiment, and self interest. The judge, nearing re-election, is desperate not to rule that Santa doesn’t exist; the Macy’s store boss is about to say – rationally – that Santa isn’t real, before seeing in his mind’s eye – equally rationally – his Xmas sales slump.

Eventually (spoiler alert) the lawyer who’s believed in Santa all along – a lawyer is the good guy – gets the proof the court needs: a ‘competent authority’ which believes that Kris Kringle is Father Christmas. The moment that makes this possible is a flash of the blue-collar in the sorting office, rarely seen in films. As it happens, Miracle on 34th Street is unusually deft and knowing all the way through about the way that organisations work. The rational world, it turns out, needs a bit of magic to get along.

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