Movies of my Yesterdays: Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

I had intended to do another movie on the basis of a current meme, but I didn’t really feel up to that and then the week got away from me, so instead I’m going to share my thoughts on rewatching one of my favorite Christmas movies.

I vaguely remember when this was new, even if I don’t directly remember it coming out. We got around to it eventually on video, probably the next year. Movies are available at home the next month now somehow, but they still had a very long embargo then, and of course they wouldn’t release a Christmas movie in the summer, so I’m sure I saw it the next year. I do recall reading the novelization a few years later, though while I remember it being the first time I noticed scenes in a novelization not from the book, I don’t really remember more than that. I especially like to watch this toward the beginning of the season since it begins with the end of the Thanksgiving Parade. I wouldn’t say it’s ever been a foundational tradition of the season, but it’s almost always been there, and it carries innocent nostalgia in my mind, so it’s time to see if it holds up to a modern cynic.

Miracle on 34th Street. 20th Century Fox 1994.

Dorey Walker is a very guarded and practical single mother and teaches her young daughter Susan the same, including that there is no Santa Claus to put any childish faith in, something their neighbor friend, lawyer Brian Bedford, finds concerning. Dorey’s employer, old fashioned department store Cole’s, prepares to go into an incredibly important holiday shopping season, as if they don’t make enough to pay off the debts they incurred evading a hostile takeover from Victor Landburgh’s soulless megacorp Shopper’s Express, they’ll default and Landburgh could buy up the company for cheap. This year, Cole’s will have a new Santa at their flagship 34th Street store thanks to an emergency hire of a charming old man named Kriss who was very particular about the portrayal of the character for the Thanksgiving Parade. Dorey, Susan, and Brian soon discover that this man, isn’t just a very good Santa, he believes he is the legendary Kriss Kringle. Brian and Kriss make it their mission to make believers out of Dorey and Susan, but while the family wrestle with their personal faith, Kriss’s unexpected habit of giving parents advice on what other stores have items Cole’s doesn’t have or charges too much for is paying off in brand loyalty and inspires Cole’s to introduce a dedicated “find it for you” concierge service, pulling in an unprecedentedly fantastic sales season and foiling Landbergh’s plans, unless he can scheme a way to get Kriss out of the way. Also Dorey suggests that doubting Susan can test Kriss with the kind of Christmas wish she’d never ask her mother for, and Susan tells him her most impossible private wish: a father, a brother, and a big house upstate.

I’m coming back to this movie with a lot more context. I’ve since seen the original movie, and I had thought this carried through the old real life rivalry between Macy and Gimbel. Of course, few remember Gimbel’s anymore, or anything of that rivalry. It’s actually a pretty clever translation into an outmoded business from a friendlier time fighting for its life against the modern mercenary corporate raiders. While the pacing and tone is much more approachable here, I do have to say I prefer the resolution of the earlier version, in which the judge decides to uphold the decision already made by the US Mail to accept Kriss’s identity, rather than taking the extra leaps of “if the government can trust in God on faith to the point they print it on their money, this court can accept on faith that Santa Claus exists”, and further “Santa Claus exists and therefore this court trusts that Mr. Kringle is who he says he is.” But then, better legal experts have torn these movies apart on the court proceedings.

I had always taken the narrative intent to be that Kriss is indeed Santa Claus, so I was surprised a year or two ago to see someone arguing that the point is that we don’t know and it shouldn’t matter. That might be more the case for the earlier version, but this treatment gives us every reason to believe Kriss short of seeing him do a scrap of supernatural magic. My current take is that, while anyone can embody the spirit of Santa Claus, Kriss has so dedicated himself to it that he might as well be the man in the flesh, but the most important thing is the spirit he inspires in others, and which the public reciprocates in the support that is unfortunately nerfed down to not much more than a montage of signs in this telling, moving to the audience but not to the plot.

The warm feelings of this movie persist. It’s the inspiring story of a man who gives himself to the world, and most of the world, on learning he’s in trouble, responding in kind. It’s a lesson in open minds and open hearts, and the joy and wonder that can result from being the one person to insist on caring for and loving everyone in spite of the hostility of the societal machine running as usual.

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