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Miracle on 34th Street

Posted by martinteller on February 9, 2014

I don’t need to do a plot summary here, do I?  Everyone knows this story.  It’s one of those films that I’ve always felt like I should see, but never got around to because it’s as if I already have seen it.  I’ve seen all the iconic scenes: the tugging on the beard, the delivery of the mail sacks, the discovery of the house.  Pop culture has told me everything about the battle between Macy’s and Gimbel’s.  In fact, it’s likely I’d already seen 90% of this film in dribs and drabs over the years just from channel surfing.

But this was the first time I actually watched the whole thing from start to finish (with the wintry weather outside, it felt appropriate).  While there weren’t any surprises as far as the plot goes, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  While I am fond of movie magic and as susceptible to sentimentalism as the next guy, the cynical realist in me — the Doris Walker — had his arms defiantly crossed at the outset.  And that cynical realist does have some protests.  The courtroom drama of the third act is laughable.  And how can we take the idealistic concept of “Santa Claus” to heart when children are starving, dying, or abused physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually?  Natalie Wood gets her dream house, what does some third world child sold into sex slavery get?  What lovable senior citizen will be jolly ol’ Saint Nick for that child?

And yet — and this is not to discount the objections of that inner cranky cynic — the film does pack a lot of charm.  Writer/director George Seaton has a Frank Capra-like ability to craft sentimental moments and back them up with solid social critique.  I’m not made of stone, people, I got some watery eyes at the ending.  The first time I choked up was quite unexpected… when Kris talks to the little Dutch orphan in her own language.  As Doris later explains to Susan, it can be waved off rationally as coincidence, but something about that moment hooked me right into the premise.  And in all fairness, I never thought the sentimentality of the film was mawkish, nor the social commentary too broad or heavy-handed.

On top of that, it’s just a tight little picture.  No scene feels superfluous (maybe the bit with the bubblegum), none of it is repetitive or boring.  It moves like clockwork, every scene advancing the story just enough.  And of course, Edmund Gwenn is irresistible.  When we see that everyone in the film likes him — everyone, that is, except the villainous Sawyer, a character I felt was rather overdone — it’s not the slightest bit hard to believe.  John Payne is rock solid, too, delivering an affable performance that’s a far cry from his noir work.  Maureen O’Hara once again is a total nothing for me.  No matter what she’s in, I’m never excited to see her and she always fails to leave any kind of impression.  But I had no problems with the rest of the cast, and even little Miss Wood is quite fine as the precocious Susan.

“My” holiday classic will always be It’s A Wonderful Life, but I was pleased that this one was so much more enjoyable (and well-written) than I anticipated.  Rating: Very Good (84)

IMDb
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