Celebrate the season with “Miracle on 34th Street: 70th Anniv. Edition”

BLU-RAY REVIEW

Edmund Gwenn stars as the Macy’s department store Santa. He claims his name is Kris Kringle, and soon fills everyone with Christmas spirit...except for his boss, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), who’s raising her daughter (Natalie Wood) to not believe in Santa. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)

“MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET: 70TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION”


Blu-ray, DVD; 1947; black and white full-screen; Not Rated


Best extra: “AMC Backstory: ‘Miracle on 34th Street’”


IS IT a comedy? A romance or fantasy? The original “Miracle on 34th Street” is all that and more. It’s one of the best Christmas movies ever made, the kind of story that, like Scrooge, makes believers of us all.


Single mother Doris Walker is a warm-hearted skeptic, raising her daughter, Susan, not to rely on the “magic” of fairytales or folklore like the myth about an old man delivering presents on Christmas Eve. But Doris needs a Santa, and she needs him fast. As promotional manager at Macy’s department store, she’s in charge of the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. The man hired to play the jolly old elf is so drunk he’s falling off his sleigh.


In steps Kris Kringle, the very embodiment of Old Saint Nick, including full white beard and twinkling eye. Drunk “Santa” is a disgrace, he says, offering to step into the role. The parade is saved and afterward, Mr. Kringle finds himself employed as one of the department store Santas, listening to the children’s gift lists.


It’s all very simple until Kringle tells Doris, little Susan, their new friend Fred Gailey (John Payne) and everybody else who will listen that he really is Santa Claus. Human Resources takes a dim view of the revelation and bounces the old guy out to be committed. Before the story ends, Kringle finds himself on trial trying to prove Santa Claus really exists.


Does the story work today? You can bet your Christmas stocking! It’s a superb battle of faith vs. skepticism. Played by Maureen O’Hara, a young Natalie Wood, and John Payne, the chemistry is great and the relationships believable. So is Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle – fine enough to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role.


There’s no better way to watch “Miracle on 34th Street” than on 20th Century Fox’s 70th Anniversary Blu-ray edition. The re-release is the original full-screen black and white, not the colorized version, and it looks great. It’s a fine transfer with good detail and contrast; there’s something magical about the gradation of white highlights to grays to solid blacks. It may be far from restored “Casablanca” quality, but viewers will be charmed, not disappointed.


Audio was upgraded to 2.0 from a mono track a while back; this latest release has a 5.1 soundtrack. When compared, viewers can hear the six channel upgrade, but it’s very slight. Still, clear dialogue, effects and music ring true throughout.

Bonus features are excellent featuring a commentary from O’Hara, “Fox Movietone News: Hollywood Spotlight” showing Gwenn winning his Oscar (“Now I know there’s a Santa Claus!”), a poster gallery and “Promotional Short” showing the original theatrical preview.


History and film buffs will enjoy “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: Floating in History” and “AMC Backstory: ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’” The parade had been discontinued during World War II, the balloons’ rubber and helium donated to the war effort. Besides, it just seemed wrong to hold a parade when so many were overseas fighting. When the parade began again after the war, it was spectacular.

Writer Valentine Davis got the idea for the film on Christmas Eve 1944 according to film historian Rudy Behlmer. Looking for a gift for his wife in a packed, L.A. department store, Davis was stunned by the commercialism. “I wonder what Santa Claus would think [of this]?’” he thought.


He shared his idea with director George Seaton and they worked up a script. Fox took it on, initially planning a low-budget “B” movie. The completed film convinced studio head Darryl Zanuck to release it six months before Christmas, on May 2, 1947, but it was an uphill climb selling theater-goers on a Christmas movie in spring.


That wasn’t the only potential pitfall. Shot on location in New York City, footage of the post-war Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was the first time the event had been captured on commercial film. Camera, crowd and actor placement was a challenge. The parade wasn’t going to stop; everything had to be done on the fly.


Using the actual Macy’s and Gimbels department stores was also problematic. Macy’s store Santa (Gwenn) directs customers to Gimbels and other stores when toys are out of stock. The customers love it in the film, and marketing uses this as a new promotional device. Still, the real Macy’s and Gimbels would not give permission to use their stores until they’d seen the film. If that had happened, massive amounts of footage would have to be re-shot and re-edited. The retailers watched the movie separately. Both “thought it was swell,” Behlmer says.


Shot at night in the height of the Christmas season for department store scenes, the cast roamed the aisles during downtime. “Natalie and I had a wonderful time,” O’Hara says. “We’d sneak off and, with nobody in the store, we were able to go through every department … and try on all sorts of things that we had no right to do whatsoever … It was wonderful.”  


“Miracle on 34th Street” has been remade no less than three times since its 1947 debut. Each was a flop. This is the real deal; a holiday classic with humor and heart that holds its own with “A Christmas Story” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Make sure it’s on your must-see list.


“Miracle on 34th Street” has been remade no less than three times since its 1947 debut. Each was a flop. This is the real deal; a holiday classic with humor and heart that holds its own with “A Christmas Story” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Make sure it’s on your must-see list.


- Kay Reynolds

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