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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

"Miracle on 34th Street"
Starring: Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn
Directed by: George Seaton
Rating: Not Rated
Released: 1947

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Radio Version (1948) Listen Now:


Miracle on 34th Street (also titled The Big Heart in the UK) is a 1947 film written by Valentine Davies, directed by George Seaton, and starring Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn. It is the story of what takes place in New York City following Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, as people are left wondering whether or not a department store Santa might be the real thing. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, losing to Gentleman's Agreement. Davies also penned a short story version of the tale, which was published simultaneously with the film's release

Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is indignant to find that the person (Percy Helton) assigned to play Santa in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is intoxicated. When he complains to the event's director, Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), she persuades Kris to replace him. He does such a fine job that he is hired to be the Santa for Macy's flagship New York City store on 34th Street at Herald Square.

Ignoring instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's wants to sell, Kris tells one woman shopper (Thelma Ritter) to go to another store, Schoenfeld's, for a fire engine for her son. She is so impressed, she tells Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), head of the toy department, that she will become a loyal Macy's customer. Kris later informs another mother that Macy's archrival, Gimbels, has better skates for her daughter.

Fred Gailey (John Payne), an attorney and neighbor of Doris, is babysitting her nine-year-old daughter Susan (Wood) and takes her to see Kris. When Doris finds out, she lectures Fred about filling Susan's mind with fantasy. Meanwhile, Susan witnesses Kris talking and singing with a Dutch World War II orphan girl in her native tongue and begins to wonder if perhaps Kris is real. (In the 1994 remake, Kris communicates with a deaf girl via sign language.) When Doris asks Kris to tell Susan the truth, Kris surprises her by insisting that he really is Santa Claus.

Fearing what he might do next, Doris decides to fire him. However, Kris has generated so much good publicity and customer goodwill for Macy's that a delighted R. H. Macy (Harry Antrim) promises Doris and Shellhammer generous bonuses, making it awkward to discharge the old man. To overcome Doris's misgivings, Shellhammer proposes a compromise: sending Kris to Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) to get a "psychological evaluation". Kris easily passes the test, but antagonizes Sawyer by questioning Sawyer's own psychological health.

The store expands on the marketing concept. Anxious to avoid looking greedy by comparison, Gimbels implements the same referral policy throughout its entire chain, forcing Macy's and other stores to respond in kind. Eventually, Kris accomplishes the impossible: Mr. Macy shakes hands with Mr. Gimbel (Herbert H. Heyes). Kris then decides to donate his resulting extra bonus money to buy a machine for the nursing home at which he lives. Macy and Gimbel generously dicker down the price of the machine to cost.

Doctor Pierce (James Seay), the doctor at Kris's nursing home, assures Doris and Shellhammer that Kris' apparent delusion is harmless and disagrees with the vindictive Sawyer, who argues that Kris should be placed in a mental hospital. Meanwhile, Fred offers to let Kris stay with him so he can be closer to his workplace. Kris makes a deal with Fred - he will work on Susan's cynicism while Fred does the same with the disillusioned Doris, still bitter over her failed marriage.

Then Kris learns that Sawyer has convinced a young, impressionable employee, Alfred (Alvin Greenman), that he is mentally ill simply because he is generous and kind-hearted (Alfred plays Santa Claus at his neighborhood YMCA). Kris confronts Sawyer and, in a fit of anger, raps him on the head with his cane. Doris and Shellhammer arrive at that point and only see the aftermath; Sawyer exaggerates his injury in order to have Kris confined to Bellevue mental hospital.

Tricked into cooperating and believing Doris to be part of the deception, a discouraged Kris deliberately fails his mental examination and is recommended for permanent commitment. However, Fred persuades Kris not to give up. To secure his release, Fred gets a formal hearing before Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) of the New York Supreme Court. Warned by Mr. Macy to get the matter dropped, Sawyer pleads with Fred not to seek publicity. To Sawyer's dismay, Fred thanks him for the idea. As a result, Judge Harper is put in an awkward spot - even his own grandchildren are against him for "persecuting" Santa Claus.

Fred quits his job at a prestigious New York law firm to defend Kris and has a falling out with Doris, who has no faith in his abilities and calls his resignation an "idealistic binge" over some "lovely intangibles." He replies that one day she may discover that those intangibles are the only worthwhile things in life.

At the hearing, New York County District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) gets Kris to assert that he is in fact Santa Claus and rests his case, believing he has prima facie proven his point. Fred stuns the court by arguing that Kris is not insane because he actually is Santa Claus - and he will prove it. Mara requests the judge rule that Santa Claus does not exist. Judge Harper is warned privately in chambers by his political adviser, Charlie Halloran (William Frawley), that doing so would be politically disastrous for his upcoming reelection bid. The judge buys time by deciding to hear evidence before ruling.

Fred calls R.H. Macy as a witness. Mara pointedly asks if he really believes Kris to be Santa Claus. Realizing that denying Kris could ruin his Christmas sales season, Macy starts to give an equivocal answer, but when Mara asks him point-blank, Macy remembers the expressions on the faces of small children upon seeing Kris and firmly states, "I do!" On leaving the stand, Macy fires Sawyer. Fred then calls Mara's own young son to the stand. Thomas Mara Jr. testifies that his father had told him that Santa was real and that "My daddy would 'never' tell a lie! Would you, daddy?" Outmaneuvered, Mara concedes the point.

Mara then demands that Fred prove that Kris is "the one and only" Santa Claus, on the basis of some competent authority. While Fred searches frantically for a way to prove his case, Susan, by now a firm believer in Kris, writes him a letter to cheer him up, which Doris also signs. A mail sorter (Jack Albertson) sees it and realizes that the post office could clear out the many letters to Santa taking up space in their dead letter office by delivering them to Kris at the courthouse.

Kris receives Susan's letter and is uplifted by this breakthrough. Just then, Fred learns that over 50,000 pieces of mail have been delivered to Kris. Fred presents Judge Harper with three letters addressed only to "Santa Claus" and notes that they have been delivered to Kris. Fred nonchalantly admits he "has further exhibits." When Judge Harper demands he "put them here on my desk", the post office delivers all the bags of letters to Harper's desk. Fred then argues that the United States Post Office, a branch of the federal government, accepts Kris' claim as the one and only Santa Claus. This conveniently lets Judge Harper, now struggling to crawl out from behind the bags of letters, to rule in favor of Kris. Afterwards, Doris invites Kris to dinner, but he reminds her that "it's Christmas Eve!"

On Christmas morning, Susan is disillusioned because Kris was unable to get her what she told him she wanted most, a house in the suburbs. As they are about to leave, Kris gives Fred and Doris a route home, supposedly to avoid traffic. Along the way, Susan is overjoyed to see the house of her dreams with a For Sale sign in the front yard. (The house exactly matches the drawing she had shown Kris earlier.) Fred learns that Doris had encouraged Susan to have faith, and suggests they get married and purchase the house. He then boasts that he must be a great lawyer, since he managed to do the seemingly impossible. However, when he notices a cane leaning against the fireplace that looks exactly like the one Kris used, he remarks uncertainly, "Maybe I didn't do such a wonderful thing after all."

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