75 years and five versions of Miracle on 34th Street

Released on June 4, 1947, the 20th Century Fox film, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET celebrates 75 years in 2022. Since its release, the film and story have continued to be a holiday favorite. While the 1947 film continues to be celebrated, the story was retold and adapted for five times over the span of 47 years.

The original film was released two years after the end of World War II as the United States prospered economically. MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET provides some commentary on this — despite being able to purchase whatever you want, some of humanity was getting lost. Writer Valentine Davies was inspired to write this story when he saw a long line outside of a department store during the holiday rush.

The film’s plot follows Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), who works at Macy’s Department Store in New York City and oversees the annual Thanksgiving Day parade. On the day of the parade, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) observes that the man who should play Santa is drunk. Outraged, he notifies Doris Walker, who quickly asks Kris play the role of Santa and hires him as the Macy’s store Santa Claus.

Doris is disillusioned by her divorce, something she has passed down to her young daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood). When their neighbor, lawyer Fred Gaily (John Payne), befriends Susan, he’s surprised and bothered that the child doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, isn’t familiar with fairy tales, and has a hard time connecting with her classmates when they play pretend.

When Susan meets Kris, she is surprised that his beard is real, and he can connect with a Dutch war orphan. While Doris convinces Susan that he’s just a nice, bilingual old man, Doris realizes that Kris actually believes he’s Santa Claus. She’s concerned that maybe he isn’t sane and is dangerous. Fred champions Kris, clashing with Doris. When Kris’s sanity is challenged by Macy’s store psychiatrist Dr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), the sanity hearing comes to trial.

Most of the television adaptations follow a similar format to this plot. To celebrate the anniversary of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), I sought out each version and have provided a review of each below:

Actors John Payne, Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and young Natalie Wood stand before a Christmas tree in a still from director George Seaton’s film, Miracle on 34th Street.

The 1947 original
The cast includes:
Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus, Maureen O’Hara as Doris Walker, Natalie Wood as Susan Walker, John Payne as Fred Gaily, Porter Hall as Dr. Sawyer

With a story by Valentine Davies, George Seaton adapted the story for screen and also directed the film. This holiday film was released in June 1947, which LIFE magazine called a “bland disregard for seasonal timing.” The reason for the timing? 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck believed that more people went to the movies over the summer. Regardless of the timing, the film was a success.

Actress Maureen O’Hara was reluctant to do the film, because she had just returned home to Ireland when she was called back. However, later in her autobiography, she said making the film was a special experience.

Several scenes were shot on location in New York City, as George Seaton wanted to get the holiday feel of the city. In fact, part of the urgency to start filming was that Seaton shot the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with Edmund Gwenn playing Santa Claus on the parade float. Scenes were also filmed inside the real New York City Macy’s Department store at night.

“Everyone felt the magic on the set, and we all knew we were creating something special,” O’Hara later said.

O’Hara wrote that she and young Natalie Wood formed a bond, often walking together through the department store at night. Wood would call O’Hara “Mama Maureen” and O’Hara called Wood “Natasha,” which was her birth name.

“We used to tease and call her a little old lady, and she was. She was the finest, most professional young actress in the business,” O’Hara said of Wood.

O’Hara, Payne and Gwenn were all friendly on set, as well, and would go window shopping at night on Fifth Avenue when they were in New York. This was one of four films that O’Hara and Payne co-starred on, and Payne always hoped to do a sequel of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, according to Maureen O’Hara.

When the film was in post-production, it was screened for Macy’s and Gimbels department store executives, who had the opportunity to veto the picture, but they were all positive about the final product.

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET is still a special film, and I think the warm camaraderie of its co-stars shows. I think sometimes this gets dismissed as a holiday children’s film, but I don’t think this is really a kid’s movie. On its surface, it’s about a man who says he’s Santa Claus and determining if he is or isn’t. But this 1947 film covers some pretty serious, adult themes: bitterness following a divorce, the sanity of an elderly adult, humanity lost in a commercial world and post-war life.

The scene with Kris Kringle talking and singing with the Dutch child makes me cry every time.

Wood thought Edmund Gwenn was the real Santa Claus, and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences inclined to agree.

“Now I know there’s a Santa Claus,” Gwenn said when he accepted his Academy Award for Best Supporting actor.

miracle

My version of the Miracle on 34th Street novella

Off camera
After the release of the film, Valentine Davies adapted the film into a 120-page novella. In the book’s forward, Davies notes that publishing a book after the film’s release seems backward, but he was tasked to do so by 20th Century Fox. The brief book is like the film but has a few differences. For example, Fred and Doris already knew each other and has Fred attempted to court her (though in the film, they meet on Thanksgiving Day). There is also a detail about Kris Kringle not being able to eat a venison steak at dinner, which is used in the 1955 Thomas Mitchell adaptation.

“Miracle on 34th Street” was presented on the hour-long Lux Radio Theater program, with Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and Edmund Gwenn reprising their roles. The radio show aired on Dec. 22, 1947; Dec. 20, 1948, and Dec. 21, 1954, on CBS radio. Per usual with Lux Radio Theater, these adaptations are lots of fun.

There was also a 1963 Broadway musical show version called “Here’s Love” starring Janis Paige, Craig Stevens and Laurence Naismith.

1955 “The 20th Century Fox Hour”
The cast includes:
Thomas Mitchel as Kris Kringle, Teresa Wright as Doris Walker, MacDonald Carey as Fred Gaily, Sandy Descher as Susan Walker, Hans Conried as Mr. Shellhammer, Ray Collins as the Judge, John Abbott as Dr. Sawyer, Dick Foran as the district attorney

This version was part of the anthology series, “The 20th Century Fox Hour,” which was televised on CBS and aired on Dec. 14, 1955. In this hour-long special, much of the dialogue is similar, though some plot points are slightly changed. For example, Kris and the psychiatrist Dr. Sawyer come to blows when Sawyer is lecturing children that Santa isn’t real, rather than in his office.

Teresa Wright is great (per usual) and I love MacDonald Carey — also a fun SHADOW OF A DOUBT reunion!

But Thomas Mitchell as Kris Kringle is what makes this hour-long television special rough to watch. Academy Award-winning Mitchell is excellent in most films but does not work as a Santa character. Mitchell plays Santa more like he’s Gerald O’Hara right before his horse accident in GONE WITH THE WIND or Uncle Billy in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. And when Kris hits Dr. Sawyer, in this one it actually does seem like assault! Mitchell is incredibly versatile so this performance was confusing.

Several cast members also talk really fast … maybe because they are trying to cram too much into 45 minutes?

This version is fine, but it’s disappointing that this one isn’t better because it has an outstanding cast.

“The producers had a lot of ground to cover and their task was complicated by the fact that the longer movie version was a recipient of an Oscar … You won’t miss the parts that were cut from the original,” one 1955 review said. I didn’t miss the scenes, but just missed the original.

1959 “NBC Friday Night Special Presentation”
The cast includes:
Ed Wynn as Kris Kringle, Mary Healy as Doris Walker, Peter Lind Hayes as Fred Gaily, Susan Gordon as Susan Walker, Orson Bean as Dr. Sawyer

Airing on Nov. 27, 1959, and presented on the anthology television series “NBC Friday Night Special Presentation,” this version was filmed live and in color. Mary Healy and Peter Lind Hayes were married in real life as they played Doris and Fred. This is the only version not released by 20th Century Fox.

After the original 1947 film, this version was my second favorite. The story telling is a bit different because this was performed as live television. For example, we see Susan right off with her mother, as she accompanies her at the parade. Another example is that Susan doesn’t ask Kris Kringle for a house, but for Mr. Gaily and her mother to fall in love.

Ed Wynn plays Kris in a similar fashion to Edmund Gwenn: a sweet and kind person who loves all people, not just children. The only downside to this version is the character of Dr. Sawyer the psychiatrist, who is a bit too goofy. With thick-rimmed glasses, he acts like a cartoon character psychiatrist.

“Certainly, I believe in Santa Claus,” Ed Wynn said in a Dec. 15, 1959, interview. “… The only fist fight I’ve ever had was over Santa Claus. It was 40 years ago.” Wynn goes on to say that he was with his son, Keenan, outside Macy’s in New York when a man said there was no such thing as Santa. Wynn told him to shut up and they got in a fist fight.

“Yes, strange that outside of Macy’s. And some 40 years later, in Miracle on 34th Street, I played a character as Macy’s Santa Claus,” Wynn said.

For many years, this live television production of “Miracle on 34th Street” was thought to be lost. But now, a print lives at the Library of Congress. I was able to access this film to watch thanks to the Library of Congress.

1973 made-for-TV special
The cast includes:
Sebastian Cabot as Kris Kringle, Jane Alexander as Karen Walker, David Hartman as Bill Schaffner, Suzanne Davidson as Susan Walker, Roddy McDowall as Dr. Sawyer, Jim Backus as Shellhammer, Tom Bosley as the Judge

This 90-minute television film aired on Dec. 14, 1973, on CBS. In 1973, press clippings announced that this version would be a musical, and while there is a title song, this film is nearly a verbatim remake of the 1947 (save a few edits, like name changes and a random neighbor who appears once seemingly as Karen Walker’s competition, never to be seen again).

“With a perfectly good Hollywood comedy like ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ as a Christmas perennial on television, it’s reasonable to wonder why a network would try to top it with a remake. The answer is, it hasn’t,” wrote Howard Thompson in his Dec. 14, 1973, New York Times review.

Much like a carbon copy piece of paper, this copy of the original film feels lifeless and dull. At 93-minutes, it feels as long as GREED (1924) and I struggled to stay awake. Maybe it’s because all the actors — except for Sebastian Cabot and Roddy McDowall — appear to sleepwalk through their acting. Jane Alexander is especially lifeless. The plot is also less about being disillusioned and divorced, as Karen and Bill begin dating immediately. I was so excited to see McDowall in this, but this was another Dr. Sawyer who was treated like a cartoon character.

Originally, Natalie Wood was offered the role of Karen Walker, her daughter would play Susan and Robert Wagner would play Bill Schaffer. Wood declined, which is disappointing. I think this would have been better, or at least interesting.

1994 remake
The cast includes:
Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle, Elizabeth Perkins as Dorey Walker, Dylan McDermott as Bryan Bedford, Mara Wilson as Susan Walker

This 1994 remake was made in response to the success of “Home Alone” (1990), looking for another film that focused on cute kids at Christmas, according to Mara Wilson’s autobiography. Macy’s department store approved the use of their name in every single other version of this film retelling, but they refused for this one. Instead, the film features a fictional store named Cole’s.

“We feel the original stands on its own and could not be improved upon,” said a Macy’s spokesperson when John Hughes’s production company approached them.

This was a wise decision on Macy’s part, because this film is such a mess. Just plain awful. It has all the earmarks of a 1990s children’s comedy, all within the first 15 minutes:
• A butt joke/pants falling down gag when the drunk Santa is climbing up on the parade sled.
• A ridiculous fall. When the drunk Santa climbs on the parade float, the sled falls backwards.
• A poop joke. Mara Wilson’s character says all that is left in the parade was people scooping up horse poop.
• A super villain that might not make much sense. Instead of Dr. Sawyer, we have a competitor department store wanting to take over Cole’s and/or hire Santa. It was unclear what their villainous goal was.
• Something high tech: Susan leaves her mom a message on a VHS tape.

There’s also a strange Santa-getting-dressed montage and an ambush wedding on Christmas Eve, thanks to Santa!

I think even as a stand-alone film and not as a remake (where you inevitably compare it to the film), it would be bad.

Here’s the thing: The original 1947 film is not meant to be a children’s film like this one is. While this is a children’s film, there are some plot points that are much too complex and left me as an adult scratching my head. For example, rather than using the U.S. Postal Service to provide legal proof that Santa is real, the Judge provides a lengthy (lengthy) monologue about the use of “In God We Trust” on the U.S. dollar bill. And if we can use “God” on legal currency without being able to prove that God is real, then Santa is real. Phew.

What can I say positive about this film? … Elizabeth Perkins has great hair. If you pretend Richard Attenborough’s character is actually the professor from JURASSIC PARK and is hiding out as Santa, it makes it more interesting … interesting, but not better.

What a mess of a movie. Throughout, I found myself longing to watch the 1973 Sebastian Cabot version instead.

In summary
When I started this MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET journey, I knew nothing could hold a candle to the 1947 film. It’s beautiful, charming, moving and just a lovely story. The cast is unmatched. Even with similar scripts and excellent actors, no other version captures the sentiment and magic of the original 1947 film.

Here is my ranking of each version:
1. 1947 starring Edmund Gwenn
2. 1959 starring Ed Wynn
3. 1955 starring Thomas Mitchell
4. 1973 starring Sebastien Cabot
5. 1994 starring Richard Attenborough

There is one scene that truly only worked in the original:
The scene with the little Dutch orphan. In the other versions, Santa Claus is just simply able to speak another language. Sebastian Cabot can speak Italian to a child, and Richard Attenborough speaks to a little girl using sign language. But none of them are nearly as moving.

In the 1947 version, it’s not simply that Kris Kringle can speak the same language as the Dutch child. It’s that she is a war orphan, and he is the first person who can get through to her. I can’t even type that without getting teary. It’s a really lovely scene and no other version matches that same emotion.

Edmund Gwenn isn’t your stereotypical jolly Santa, laughing for no reason. Gwenn plays a Santa that loves people and is trying to bring back humanity and community to a world blinded by consumerism and commercialism.

Even the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences believed he was Santa enough to give him the award of Best Supporting Actor. No other actor who has portrayed Jolly Ole Saint Nick has won the award before or since.

I’m inclined to agree with their assessment — Gwenn is the best Santa Claus on film.

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5 thoughts on “75 years and five versions of Miracle on 34th Street

  1. Excellent article, Jessica! I’m glad you mentioned the adult themes present in the original. So many people who love the movie think it’s just sentimental, but as you point out it includes some very pointed satire regarding Freud and pop psychology (I can imagine some of Doris’s lines came straight out of a textbook), politics (“maybe there’s just a little insane, like those men in Washington”), and commercialism. That scene with the Dutch girl, which I love as well–it’s unsaid but said that her parents must have died in the war. Doris’s husband could have been killed in the war as well, but instead they chose to make her divorced.
    All of that shows that the original is much more than mere sentiment, but the warmth of the whole movie and the outstanding performances make it a true classic. Thanks again!
    Mitchell

    Like

  2. A Fun Fact:
    In 1973, Sebastian Cabot had to shave off his beard to do his version of Miracle On 34th Street.
    Years before, Cabot had had a bad experience bleaching his own beard for a Twilight Zone episode; the makeup people on the TV movie removed Cabot’s beard whole, supplying a backing for it so Cabot could make appearances in other shows.
    One of the tabloids actually got a photo of a beardless Cabot, but I haven’t seen it since.
    Fun Fact II:
    Of all the Kris Kringles over the years, the only real beard was Richard Attenborough’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really loved your write-up, Jessica, for so many reasons — not the least being the time and effort (and sacrifice, in a few cases, lol) that you put into watching all of these versions. You had me laughing out loud (literally) more than once, and I was touched by your discussion of Kris Kringle speaking Dutch. Just an all-around thoroughly enjoyable, first-rate post.

    Like

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