As much as I enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life, if I could have only one Christmas movie to take with me to a desert island, it would probably be the other classic-era perennial, 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. The main reason is that Life is only tangentially a Christmas movie, with only the last extended sequence taking place at Christmas and very little said about the holiday itself. Miracle, however, covers the time span between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, and the holiday is the very heart of the movie.
This movie doesn’t get quite as much hate from contemporary audiences as Life does, probably because it has an acerbic sharpness that the Capra film lacks. Though not edgy by any means, it mines humor from irony in a way that can feel surprisingly contemporary: department store magnate R.H. Macy, an actual character in the film, embraces the concept of his Santa Claus sending customers to other stores if they can’t find what they want at Macy’s, because being seen as “the friendly store, the helpful store, the store with a heart” will bring in more profits than ever before; the beleaguered Judge Henry Harper (Gene Lockhart) — unlucky enough to preside at Kris Kringle’s sanity hearing — is lectured by his adviser (William Frawley) on the political suicide he would commit if he rules Santa Claus doesn’t exist; the day is saved, not by one of the leads performing a brave or selfless deed, but by a harried postal employee (Jack Albertson) trying to reduce his workload. (The 1990s remake, which falls curiously flat even with the best of intentions, is actually more sentimental on this point.)
Yet such moments of enlightened self-interest are juxtaposed against some of the most triumphantly sentimental scenes in movie history, nearly all of them involving the superb Edmund Gwenn, who, though he’s central to the action and in at least 95% of the scenes, had to settle for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role of Kris Kringle, the man who just might be Santa Claus. Gwenn plays Kris with perfect sincerity and just the right dash of whimsical humor. We see Kris gladden the heart of a Dutch immigrant girl by speaking and singing to her in her own language; we see him teach practical little Natalie Wood, victim of an upbringing in which all fantasy is anathema, how to pretend to be a monkey; we see him listen as Wood expresses her longing for a house with a back yard and a swing; we see him offer encouragement to a young man who loves impersonating Santa Claus because he loves watching children get “that Christmas look”; and we see him learn the hard way why a man with a long, thick white beard shouldn’t try bubble gum. (We don’t actually see this disastrous result, but the look on Wood’s face is brilliant.) Gwenn’s wise and gentle Kris is the Santa I believed in as a child, the one that even now I wish were real. Yet he doesn’t shy away from kicking butt when the need arises, as the movie’s only completely unsympathetic character learns to his sorrow.
The movie’s warmth springs not only from Kris but from his effect on those around him, especially Wood but also her mother, Maureen O’Hara (rest in peace, magnificent Queen of Ireland), whose eventual profession of belief in Kris, a single sentence in a letter, jerks honest tears, and even R. H. Macy himself, who declares on the witness stand that he believes his Santa Claus is real, not because it’s in his own interest (though that is his first thought) but because he remembers the children’s faces as they watched Kris ride past in his sleigh in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Kris brings out the best in us, even accidentally, as with the harried postal worker. And what better at Christmas than a funny, well-written story that touches our better natures?
As with It’s a Wonderful Life, much of the brilliance of this film springs from its supporting cast. The male juvenile-lead, Everyman John Payne, is the movie’s least interesting character, and while he’s easy to like, it’s other characters/performances that we remember: Thelma Ritter, dispenser of sharp and cynical wisdom in movies like All About Eve and Rear Window, here making her debut in the bit part of a mother perfectly willing to tear Santa a new one when she thinks he’s made her little boy a promise he (she) can’t keep; Lockhart as the judge who’s sympathetic despite his impossible position, and Frawley (with his wonderful speaking voice) as his right hand; Philip Tonge as O’Hara’s colleague at Macy’s, the foppish Mr. Shellhammer; Alvin Greenman as Alfred, the young Brooklyn janitor-who-would-be-Santa-Claus; and Porter Hall as mean-spirited pseudo-psychiatrist Mr. Sawyer, the man unwise enough to get on Kris’s bad side. Here’s a name you probably won’t recognize: Lela Bliss, who plays Mr. Shellhammer’s wife. Her less than two minutes of screen time are a highlight of the movie.
Here are a few more pro-Christmas movies from the classic era, well worth a watch if you’re seeking a departure from the cynicism overload in so much of our current pop culture:
The Shop Around the Corner (1940): James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, store employees, feud face to face and fall in love through the mail; though they’re delightful, my favorite role and performance is that of Frank Morgan (the Wizard of Oz himself) as their boss, who at Christmastime rediscovers joy after his heart has been broken.
Remember the Night (1940): accused shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck discovers she has more of a heart than she thought when she’s forced to spend Christmas with D.A. Fred MacMurray and his family. This one gets the romance right. (Classic-era movies, in general, were so much better at this.)
O. Henry’s Full House (1952): Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain star in the movie’s final segment, an adaptation of the Christmas classic “The Gift of the Magi.” But that’s not the only reason to watch. We also get Charles Laughton as the cultured bum who will do anything to get arrested in “The Cop and the Anthem”; Dale Robertson as a detective with a past, trying to pin a murder on his old frenemy Richard Widmark in “The Clarion Call”; and my favorite, Gregory Ratoff as a starving artist whose gesture saves the ailing, despairing Anne Baxter’s life in “The Last Leaf.” Only “The Ransom of Red Chief” falls flat, despite Fred Allen’s and Oscar Levant’s best efforts.
We’re No Angels (1955): Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov (nearly always worth watching), and Aldo Ray play a trio of escaped convicts who end up helping a family they originally intended to rob. If the early part of the movie feels a little slow, just wait till villain Basil Rathbone shows up. Oh, and please ignore the remake.