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.


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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Modern Screen sugar-rationed holiday recipes

margret o'brien

The holidays are a time for baking and partaking in sugary sweet treats. However during the years of rationing, preparing these goodies was made difficult.

Though rationing ended with the close of World War II in 1945, sugar continued to be rationed through June 1947. Modern Screen provides some holiday candy recipes in the Jan. 1947 issue with substitutes that will still allow for goodies. “Visons of sugar plums’ needn’t remain visions because of sugar scarcity! Other sweeteners make equally delicious desserts,” the magazine touts.

These recipes are delicious enough for young stars like Margaret O’Brien (who this time, doesn’t claim to have prepared the candy, but the magazine says she would enjoy them.

all candy

These recipes include:

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Mickey Rooney’s Halloween Party

Halloween Party Micky Judy and Ann

Mickey Rooney is having a Halloween party and of course all of his friends pitch in to bring snacks for the party. For the occasion his frequent co-stars Ann Rutherford and Judy Garland help Mickey’s mother make a cake. Or that’s what Modern Screen Nov. 1941 says.

“Ann and Judy are helping Mickey’s mother with the party,” the magazine article by Helen Holmes said. “Mickey wants to doughnuts and fresh country cider, his mother thinks that sandwiches and coffee would be nice, and hte girls want to try the Hallowe’en cake for which we are giving the recipe.”

The cake in question is a three layer chocolate cake with orange-flavored icing decorated with chocolate cream candies painted with icing as ghosts. (The recipe will be provided below).

Last Halloween, I had a such a good time making Jackie Cooper’s Halloween party treats that I decided to try another one of these film fan magazine recipes geared for a holiday event.

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Christmas on Film: Christmas Eve (1947)

CHRISTMAS EVE (1947) is an often forgotten film. But it holds one distinction: it was the first writing job of screenwriter, director Robert Altman.

The film is about elderly Matilda Reid, played by Ann Harding. Matilda is extremely wealthy and eccentric. She invites birds inside her home to be fed and runs a train set at the dinner table, which delivers items like cream and sugar.

Matilda’s nephew, Phillip Hastings, played by Reginald Denny, is trying to prove that his aunt is mentally unfit and tries to become the executor of her estate. Matilda would prefer for her three adopted sons to manage her estate, but the trouble is that she hasn’t seen them in many years. She asks for lawyers to wait until Christmas Eve for her sons to return home to her and hires a private detective to help locate them.
As we meet each son, they have their own vignette to tell their story:
• Michael, played by George Brent, is a playboy; spending more money than he has. Michael tries to marry a wealthy woman to help pay off his debt of $70,000 in bad checks. Ann Nelson, played by Joan Blondell, is in love with Michael and tries to stop the wedding.
• Mario, played by George Raft, is in South America, where he runs a nightclub and is avoiding American police. He was involved in a crime in New Orleans and fled the country. Mario is dating Claire, played by Virginia Field, who he realizes is involved with Nazi war criminals, who he tangles with.
• Jonathan, played by Randolph Scott, is a broken down cowboy who drinks too much. Upon arriving in New York City on his way to see Matilda, he is sidetracked by a pretty girl, Jean, played by Dolores Moran. Jean is trying to expose an illegal adoption ring and wants Jonathan to pose as her husband to get a baby.

Aunt Matilda’s train set up at the table

The three find their way back to Matilda, all pretending that their lives are perfect, but Aunt Matilda sees through each of them.

Though titled CHRISTMAS EVE, the film isn’t solely a Christmas movie. With each story, it’s part comedy, film noir and adventure. Sometimes in each vignette, particularly George Raft’s area, you almost forget about the Matilda storyline. But the story ties together at the end, and we learn that cousin Phillip is responsible for the hardships of some of the boys. It’s also clear that Matilda won’t be alone anymore, as three baby girls make their way to her.

George Raft in “Christmas Eve”

The storyline in CHRISTMAS EVE is a bit unpredictable and catches you by surprise the first time you see it. You don’t go into this film expecting to see Nazi war criminals and a baby smuggling ring. But I still enjoy it.

What’s most notable about this film is Robert Altman’s uncredited work on the screenplay.

Today, most people know Robert Altman for his work in the 1970s; directing great films like M.A.S.H. (1970), THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) and NASHVILLE (1975) or writing the screenplay for McCABE and MRS. MILLER (1971).

But in his early days of Hollywood after serving in World War II, Altman worked as a writer in Hollywood. His first two films were CHRISTMAS EVE, for which he wasn’t credited, and the film noir BODYGUARD (1948), for which he received his first credit.

Altman’s father lived in Malibu, and below his apartment lived George W. George, the son of cartoonist and inventor, Rube Goldberg.

“George had an uncle who was a director. George was going to be a director, too, and I was going to be a writer, so we started working together. We wrote treatments and sold two of them, one to RKO The Bodyguard, with Lawrence Tierney, and Christmas Eve, with George Brent and Randolph Scott,” Altman said in an interview published in the book “Altman on Altman.”

The film was also known under the title SINNER’S HOLIDAY. Altman heard that producer Benedict Bogeaus was looking for a holiday tie in for the story, and made his way into the producer’s office to pitch an idea, according to Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff by Patrick McGilligan.

While CHRISTMAS EVE was the starting point of Altman’s career, I feel like it was the downswing for most of its stars or their careers were beginning to change.

The leads of Ann Harding, George Brent, George Raft, Joan Blondell and Reginald Denny all found their greatest success in the 1930s, particularly during the Pre-Code era. While they were all still active in films, they weren’t of the same caliber. Here are some of the shifts in careers:
• At 45 and around the same age as her male co-stars, Harding plays a woman of 70 convincingly. This same year, she was in another holiday film, IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE. Now, she was playing mothers, while in the 1930s, she played women of questionable morals, like in DOUBLE HARNESS.
• This was Randolph Scott’s last non-western film, though he still plays a cowboy. Scott performed strictly in westerns until his last film in 1962.
• George Brent was also moving into parental roles, with his next film as Jane Powell’s father in LUXURY LINER.
• After Christmas Eve, Joan Blondell wouldn’t appear in another film until 1950.
• Actress Dolores Moran was the newest to Hollywood of the group, starting in films in 1940 with her first credited role as grownup Deidre in OLD AQUINTANCE (1943). Extremely beautiful, Moran was a popular pin-up of World War II, and her popularity seemed to diminish after the war. Moran was married to the film’s producer Benedict Bogeaus, and she also didn’t make another film until 1950.

CHRISTMAS EVE was later remade for television in 1986 with Loretta Young as the elderly woman. In the next adaptation, she is looking for her grandchildren, and it’s her son who is trying to say she is senile. Bringing everyone back together could also be compared to the television movie, THE GATHERING.

While CHRISTMAS EVE (1947) may not be a memorable Christmas favorite, I still find it enjoyable. It has something for everyone: drama, comedy, film noir and the holidays. It’s a bit of a wild ride, but a fun one.

Jackie Cooper’s Halloween Party

While I am no expert chef, fabulous cook or food blogger, I enjoy finding recipes supposedly connected to classic film stars. I love magazines articles and ads touting Richard Dix’s favorite chili recipe or Cary Grant’s oyster stew. I even collect compilation books or pamphlets featuring top stars and their recipes.

Even the child stars were getting in the act with culinary activities.

In the October 1931 issue of Photoplay, 9-year-old Jackie Cooper shares his favorite recipes that he will be preparing for an upcoming Halloween party.

“There is going to be a Halloween party at Jackie Cooper’s house. There will probably be lots of stunts – weird, flapping ghosts and strange creepy noises everywhere, but when everyone is hungry, there will be plenty of goodies close by. That rascal Jackie will have more than a hand in the pranks played on his guests, but not many of them will guess that he had a hand in the cooking too!”

With the holiday tie in, I decided to try these recipes for the Halloween season.

The article shares recipes that Jackie jotted down for us readers. I gave them a try, and while I’m no expert baker, I think they all turned out fairly well. That said – I wasn’t familiar with some of the older cooking terms that differ from our contemporary stoves, ovens and cooking methods. For example, I had to research the temperature of a hot oven or moderate oven. Here are the outcomes of Jackie’s pumpkin pie, chocolate caramels and peanut cookies:

Pumpkin Pie:

Unfortunately the scanned article does cut off the right side – this wasn’t a scan error.

The outcome of the pie.

My review:
The end product of this pumpkin pie was really delicious, but the good outcome was a surprise. Everything was mixing fairly well, though getting a bit soupy. The last step of the recipe is to mix in melted butter. Since my butter was still warm, it reacted poorly when hitting the other, cooler ingredients. Instead of mixing smoothly, the butter congealed. When poured in the pie shell, the butter rose to the top. Because of the soupy nature of the mixture, the pie ended up baking for 2 hours.

If I made this again, I would mix the melted butter in earlier with the dry ingredients. The mixture also made more than the deep dish pie shell would hold, so I would also consider using mini pie tarts in order to use the whole mixture.

Otherwise, this pumpkin pie was one of the best I have eaten. I really liked the cinnamon that was included.

Substitutes: I used canned pumpkin and a frozen Pillsbury pie shell.

Chocolate Caramels:

My review: While none of the recipes were particularly difficult to make, the caramels may have been the easiest. Making this is similar to fudge – it is all on the stove, like any other candy making. Though I would describe the finished product more like hard candy (or Werther’s Originals) than caramel. Once the candy cooled and hardened, it was VERY hard.

I had to chisel these with a knife and a baking hammer to cut them into small squares. And boy were they hard to eat! Be careful if you have any fillings! However, after a day or two, they softened to a flakey consistency and melted in your mouth! I actually think this candy tasted better a day or two after making it.

In making these, the only difficulty was determining if the baking chocolate I bought was correct and enough. The packaging of Baker’s chocolate changed, making it a little confusing. Also, I chopped the chocolate with a knife, rather than grating.

Peanut Cookies

My review: I’m not a huge fan of nuts (pecans, almonds, etc) in my desserts, but these peanut cookies are very tasty! They were also the easiest to make. I wasn’t sure if the peanut-to-dough ratio was going to work out, but it mixed perfectly. These were tasty! Of course, if you have any tree nut allergies, do not attempt to make or eat these.

You can find the full recipe as it was printed in Photoplay here. I absolutely believe that Jackie Cooper made these, don’t you? Just kidding – but whether he did or not, it was a fun way to spend a weekend.

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Christmas review: The Gathering (1977)

The holidays are usually thought to be about family. But what if some families no longer get along.

The made-for-TV special “The Gathering,” which aired on Dec. 4, 1977, on ABC, takes a look at a man who wants to spend the holiday with his family, fully knowing they may not want to see him.

Ed Asner plays Adam Thornton, a man successful at business but not successful in his personal life. He and his wife are separated, and he hasn’t seen most of his children in several years — and they don’t want to see him either.

He also just found out that he’s dying and running out of time.

Maureen Stapleton plays Kate, his estranged wife, who sets aside her hurt feelings to arrange a homecoming so Adam can have one last Christmas with his family.

Since their parents separated, many of the children don’t want anything to do with their stalwart, business-focused father. They all live across the country and haven’t seen Adam in some time:

  • Tom (Lawrence Pressman) and his wife (Veronica Hamel) live a lavish metropolitan life in New York. Tom, who is hardheaded like his father, tries to be the opposite of him. For example, he insists on a white Christmas tree, because Adam always insisted on green.
  • Peggy (Gail Strickland) is a successful reporter in Washington, DC, whose work drives her life.
  • Julie (Rebecca Balding) is married to George (Bruce Davison), who has been unemployed for several months. Julie loves her parents, but George is bitter towards Adam. He feels that Adam will mock him for his failures and chide him for not joining the family business. Julie has the only two grandchildren, Tiffany and Joey (Maureen and Ronald Readinger).
  • Bud (Gregory Harrison) and Adam had a fight years ago, because Bud disapproved of the Vietnam War. Since then, Bud lives in Canada under various assumed names while he dodges the draft.

Many of the children aren’t interested in coming home for the holidays but also hope that their parents have reconciled. They change their plans and head to the Thornton family home to support their mother.

Maureen Stapleton and Ed Asner in “The Gathering”

Before renting “The Gathering” from DVD Netflix, I heard my parents talk about the film. They recalled watching it on TV when they were first married, and it was a Christmas tradition to watch it for the first few years of their marriage. Once they had children, they drifted away from the film, so it was special to get to watch this film with them. It was the first time either of my parents had revisited the movie in nearly 40 years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of “The Gathering.” Since I knew the premise was about a dying man wanting to spend one last Christmas with his family, I was worried it would be overly maudlin, or feature lots of shouting and fights (like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “All in the Family.”)

However,  was pleasantly surprised. The movie is certainly sad, but also rather heartwarming.

There are a few shouting matches, but nothing is overly dramatic. The story focuses more on realizing what’s important. Ed Asner’s character realizes he was a foolish stubborn bull. All of his children, who had also been so bitter and angry about their family for so many years, remembered how much they enjoy being together.

While you know Adam’s time is brief, you also know that everyone found piece and comfort. Only one child understands that he is losing a father, and it’s never spoken to the family.

Thankfully, the end of the story isn’t this abrupt, pie-in-the-sky ending. The cracks in the relationships are still there, but the holiday brought everyone closer and helped them relive old times. It shows that the holidays can be hard, but there is a way to make peace and enjoy your time together, especially when time is running out.

While the film has a somber tone, it also feels cozy and homey. As Adam and Kate set aside their differences and prepare the home for a holiday reunion, it reminded me of Christmases gone-by —maybe had by myself as a child or what my parents experienced growing up.

Adam rewires the electricity of an old dollhouse for a grandchild and repaints an old toy train. He hammers together a Christmas tree stand and puzzles over tree lights that won’t work. Kate goes through old ornaments, and the separated couple decorates the evergreen tree together.

Their cheerful and nostalgic Christmas preparation scenes also serve as a stark contrast to how their children live now. The scenes almost serve as a “now vs. then” way of storytelling: Adam and Kate preparing to relive their homespun holidays of the past, and their four children muddling through their chaotic and complicated adult lives.

To add to the homey setting, “The Gathering” was filmed in Chagrin Falls and Hudson, Ohio in February 1977. The film opens showing the town decorated for the holidays with colored lights, bright store windows and the streets and houses coated with snow.

Composer John Barry, known for his James Bond themes, scored “The Gathering” with both a lilting but somber sound. The score is filled with harpsicords, flutes, strings and piano.

Randal Kleiser, who also directed the made-for-TV film “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” (1976) and “Grease” (1978), directed the film. “The Gathering” was also one of the few live-action films produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions, known for their cartoons like “Yogi Bear.”

Where some made-for-TV shows and films of this era sometimes try to sucker punch you with hard emotion, “The Gathering” is subtle. This is probably largely due to Asner and Stapleton in the lead roles, who are fantastic actors and make the setting and relationships feel believable.

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Franksgiving: A tale of two Thanksgivings

The year 1939 is filled with notable dates in history.

World War II was declared in Europe on Sept. 3, 1939. Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians recorded “Auld Lang Syne” for the first time on March 7, 1939. Lou Gehrig retired from the Yankees on June 21, 1939. Considered Hollywood’s greatest year, films like “Gone with the Wind” and “Wizard of Oz” were released.

And there were two Thanksgivings that November.

On Aug. 15, 1939, newspapers announced that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was going to move Thanksgiving up a week to the third week of November, rather than the fourth. In 1939, that made Thanksgiving Day Nov. 23 rather than Nov. 30.

The move was to help boost holiday sales after the president received complaints that the last Thursday in November was too late for Thanksgiving. The date was too close to Christmas and cut down on Christmas shopping, according to an Aug. 15, 1939, Associated Press (AP) article, “Thanksgiving Moved Up A Week.”

President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt at Thanksgiving dinner in 1939 in Warm Springs, GA.

The change met some praise but mostly criticism.

Not only did the change affect when families gathered for a large meal, it also threw a wrench into calendars like academic schedules and the football industry.

“The precedent-shattering change … promised to upset the nation’s multi-million dollar Turkey day football industry,” according to the AP article. “Some of the season’s biggest and oldest grid games are scheduled for Nov. 30, which the schedule makers thought would be Thanksgiving Day. Moving the games back to Dec. 2 or up to Nov. 23 will be impossible in some cases.”

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The Christmas Tree (1969)

I’m on a constant quest for new-to-me Christmas movies. I search for them like I have a job in it with benefits.

And that’s how I found Terence Young’s “A Christmas Tree” (1969), also titled “L’arbre de Noël” and “When Wolves Cry.”

Starring William Holden, Virna Lisi, Bourvil and Brook Fuller, Laurent (Holen) is a widower who goes on summer vacation with his son Pascal (Fuller). Pascal wants to do something new and go camping on a remote island in Corsica.

While camping and swimming, Laurent and Pascal witness a plane carrying crash into the ocean and explode, and Laurent learns that the plane was carrying a nuclear device.

Pascal starts to have strange symptoms, like blue spots appearing and disappearing on his skin. He’s diagnosed as having an incurable disease due to nuclear exposure and is only giving a few months to live.

Not telling his son his diagnosis, Laurent pulls Pascal out of school, and they leave Paris and head to a chateau in the countryside of France. Laurent and the groundskeeper Verdun (Bourvil) let Pascal have whatever he wants — including a tractor to ride around the property and stealing wolves from the zoo.

The wolves are vicious creatures, but Pascal tames them with his gentle nature.

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Musical Monday: Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)– Musical #597


Abe Levitow

Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, Les Tremayne, John Hart, Jane Kean, Marie Matthews, Laura Olsher

Mr. Magoo (Backus) is on Broadway playing Ebenezer Scrooge in a stage version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Scrooge is visited three ghosts and take him on a journey of self-exploration of his past, present and future.

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Watching 1939: Miracle on Main Street (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Miracle on Main Street (1939)

Release date:  Dec. 19, 1939

Cast:  Margo, Walter Abel, Jane Darwell, Lyle Talbot, William Collier Sr., Veda Ann Borg, Wynne Gibson, Jean Brooks (billed as Jeanne Kelly), Pat Flaherty, George Humbert

Studio:  Columbia Pictures Corporation

Director:  Steve Sekely

On Christmas Eve in the Spanish quarter of Los Angeles, Maria (Margo) is performing as a hoochie coochie in her husband Dick’s (Talbot) show. When one of the attendees is a police officer, the couple run from the police, but Dick says they should separate so they aren’t caught. Maria hides in a church where she finds an abandoned baby. While her husband remains absent for a year, Maria’s life is changed for the better by the baby and a new man she meets, Jim (Abel).

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