Shot-for-Shot: Miracle on 34th Street

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December 8, 2010 by abbyo

It’s December, which means that anyone with even an ounce of holiday spirit is talking about Christmas. Therefore, it’s only appropriate that I observe the holiday, too. This week is a “Shot-for-Shot” week, and I’ll be paying homage to a frequently-remade holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street,” and its highest profile (but still oft-overlooked) 1994 reincarnation, written and produced by the late, great John Hughes.

In my opinion, most Christmas movies that directly involve Santa (or some kind of supernatural holiday magic) tend to be pretty silly. But some movies pull it off better than others. Consider, if you will, the dramatic court case at the center of “Miracle on 34th Street:” Santa (played in the original by Edmund Gwenn, and in the remake by Richard Attenborough, everyone’s favorite dinosaur theme-park mogul) has come to New York, and, since no adult actually believes in him, he’s on trial for insanity. And, of course, through the unfailing belief and wide-eyed innocence of kids, he wins the case. Christmas is saved!

Now, in the original movie, there’s a kind of spectacular whimsy to this situation. The audience is all completely aware that no real court of law would see action like this, but the spirit of the thing comes through, because at no point do you feel that the filmmakers are taking this seriously. The entire film, from beginning to end, is lighthearted, uncomplicated and sweet. But Hughes’ rewritten script takes all of this in a different direction. At first, it feels like it’s an improvement—characters and relationships are more fleshed-out, less one-dimensional. There are actual villains! Religious metaphors! It’s ambitious! But then, we come to those lynchpin courtroom scenes. And that’s when everything falls apart.

The plot of the two movies is, as you might expect, exactly the same. On Thanskgiving, Santa happens upon the famed parade of a large department store (in the original, it’s the Macy’s parade, in the remake, it’s the fictional Cole’s—licensing issues, apparently). The parade’s hired Santa is a drunken fool who doesn’t even have his beard on straight. Santa outs him to the parade director, Mrs. Walker, and serves as the man’s last-minute replacement, and subsequently as the department store’s Santa, since he seems to be a hit. Turns out, this is because he actually is Santa (or says he is). The practical Mrs. Walker and her precocious, disillusioned daughter Susan aren’t having it, despite the pleas of their friendly neighbor, who’s a believer, and has kind of a thing for the single Mrs. Walker. Eventually, Santa’s sanity is called into question (on account of continuing to say he’s the big man himself, and refusing to admit otherwise). After a big, publicized court case, the judge decides that Santa is who he says he is, and lets him go, to the delight of young children and their put-upon parents the world over.

Now, as I said before, while the major plot points of the two movies mirror each other, the approach Valentine Davies and George Seaton’s 1947 screenplay takes versus Hughes’ 1994 update are rather different. While both movies prominently feature a single parent, only the Hughes film really explores the relationship between the parent (Elizabeth Perkins as Dorey Walker) and the child (Mara Wilson, surprisingly emotive as Susan). Here, we find out more about why Mrs. Walker has told Susan that Santa doesn’t exist. And the reason is this: she’s still really bitter about her failed marriage, but instead of working out her issues with a therapist, she’s decided to stop believing in anything happy, and has infected the poor kid with the same philosophy. At one point, she tells the sweet, adorably buck-toothed Susan that, “believing in myths and fantasies makes you unhappy.” Yikes! I’m pretty sure Maureen O’Hara never said anything like that to baby Natalie Wood in the 1947 version.

There’s also that religious metaphor bit. While in the original, belief in Santa simply represented a belief in the magic and joy of Christmas, Hughes expands it to represent faith as a whole. For example, at the beginning of the movie, Mrs. Walker and Susan have the neighbor, Bryan, over for Thanksgiving dinner. Bryan (a freakishly good-looking Dylan McDermott—seriously, someone please break that man’s nose) asks if they say grace. Turns out that, unlike the Walkers, Bryan’s a religious man. He’s also a believer in Santa (surprise) and thinks that Attenborough is the genuine article (double surprise).

Later on, Santa casually lets Mrs. Walker know that if she can’t accept anything that requires faith, she’s “doomed to a life ruled by doubt,” and that he’s “a symbol of the human ability to be able to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives,” just in case you didn’t pick up on the religious undertones earlier. It’s actually a valiant effort on the part of Hughes to take the movie from a candy-cane colored bit of holiday fun to something of real substance.

But, unfortunately, “Miracle on 34th Street” just isn’t a movie built to carry a message that heavy. We come now to the dramatic centerpiece of both movies: the courtroom scene. In the original movie, this scene was, dare I say it, cute. It was kind of a cherry on a peppermint sundae of a movie. But in the remake, it’s something more in tune with the message and dramatic heft we’ve come to expect from Hughes’ treatment. But while the touch of pathos was bearable, even thoughtful in the rest of the movie, here it’s asking too much of the audience to take it seriously. Santa sits in his room in Bellevue hospital, looking forlornly out the window. The trial is on every single TV channel, and the front page of every newspaper (even though it only takes two days). Whole throngs of people gather in the streets to hear the judgment. There are montages of people throwing public support behind Santa, from city workers to diner owners. Dylan McDermott, representing Santa, puts on a courtroom performance worthy of Atticus Finch.

Suddenly, we’ve morphed from family Christmas movie to 90s courtroom drama, and these characters don’t quite work in their new setting. Hughes changes the case’s closing argument from the original, another aspect of this part of the movie that doesn’t really work. In the original court scene, the defense convinced the judge by getting thousands of letters to Santa delivered to the court from the Dead Letter Office, therefore proving that Kris Kringle, the defendant, was officially recognized as Santa by the government. It’s a fun scene, and presents a decent (if slightly flimsy) case. Hughes’ convincing argument ignores the post office, and brings the U.S. treasury into the mix. Apparently, because we have “In God We Trust” stamped on our money, we as a people collectively put our faith in an unseen entity. Therefore, we believe in Santa, because apparently he operates under the same principles. It fits in with Hughes’ prevailing religious metaphor, but it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, and really lays the message on thick, even though you’d need to have slept through the whole movie to miss the point if you hadn’t gotten it by now.

Both versions of “Miracle on 34th Street” are relatively harmless pieces of Christmas fluff. But, if given the choice, I’d much rather watch the original over Hughes’ remake. The 1994 version has one up on the 1947 release in the relationship and heartstring-tugging departments, but being able to watch a movie in which Santa walks among us (incidentally, neither movie explains why he’s there) requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. In that vein, George Seaton’s original is the clear champion.

Additional Observations:

-There’s another notable change in one of my favorite scenes from the original that involves Santa and a little girl. In the original, Gwenn speaks Dutch with a little orphan girl. In the 1994 remake, Attenborough uses sign language to communicate with a deaf girl. The original scene made me smile. The 1994 one almost made me cry. Well played, John Hughes.

-In watching the scene where Santa babysits Susan in the remake, I couldn’t help but wonder, given what I saw of Richard Attenborough’s cinematic childcare abilities last week in “Jurassic Park,” would I really want him looking after my child? I have my doubts.

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