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,Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) began life as a short story by Valentine Davies and ended up being one of the most beloved Christmas films of all time. In it, Doris, a divorcee who works at Macy's (Maureen O'Hara) raises her young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) in a very no-nonsense manner. And that includes not believing in Santa Claus. Enter Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), playing Macy's Santa Claus. Kringle is a sweet old man and an excellent Santa but there is one small problem - he actually believes he's Santa, which results in his being committed to an institution and lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) defending him.

Payne, who had starred in many films at 20th Century-Fox, had been unhappy about the quality of roles he was being given, and when he read the story, he bought the film rights as a starring vehicle for himself. Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck agreed to make the film, sending producer William Perlberg and writer-director George Seaton a memo on November 6, 1946, outlining his thoughts on the first draft continuity script, then titled The Big Heart. "It is excellent, fresh, exciting and delightful. I definitely want to use John Payne for Fred. Mark Stevens does not fit the part at all and in any event it is essential that we have a box-office name with [Maureen] O'Hara, as the only conceivable excuse we have for making the picture from a box-office standpoint is the combination of O'Hara and Payne, who have already established themselves. I will not tell you about the many things I like but will get to the points that actually disturb me. I feel Doris is overdrawn. I feel that she is so cold, cut and dried, that an audience will have a difficult time forgiving her. Perhaps if there were a way to bring out quicker the hurt in her background and past life we might be able to understand her. It was impossible for me to believe that any mother could be as heartless as she appeared to be...Any man who ever heard [a mother] give her child the kind of advice that Doris does would start running in the other direction. Furthermore, I do not believe the characterization is either plausible or true to life...You get the feeling that she is a bit of a fanatic on the subject of Santa Claus when actually she is merely a modern woman who doesn't believe in feeding a child a lot of silly antiquated fairy stories. I also think that if you make her a little more normal Fred will automatically be more understandable...I am crazy about the title The Big Heart. If we can clear it, it is a natural. It is the kind of title like Sentimental Journey [1946] that made such a hit previously with these two people."

Maureen O'Hara was vacationing in Ireland when Fox summoned her back to the United States to make Miracle on 34th Street and she was not happy about it. As she wrote in her autobiography, "The first thing I did was read the script that I was so urgently brought back to make...My mood changed as soon as I finished reading the script. I knew the movie was going to be a hit, but I was not clairvoyant enough to foresee it becoming a classic. It was warm, charming, and sentimental, but more than anything, it captured the spirit of Christmas...I spent the first week in costuming, and by Thanksgiving was in front of the cameras filming. It went unusually fast. I later learned the reason I was so urgently brought back to New York was so we could film the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade sequences live while the parade was actually happening. They weren't going to run the parade more than once on our account. Those sequences, like the one with Edmund riding in the sleigh and waving to the cheering crowd, were real-life moments in the 1946 Macy's parade. It was a mad scramble to get all the shots we needed, and we got to do each scene only once. It was bitterly cold that day, and Edmund and I envied Natalie and John Payne, who were watching the parade from a window." The weather in New York was so cold that the camera froze several times during the shoot and had to be thawed out. O'Hara remembered that a woman named Vaughn Mele lived across the street from where they were shooting exteriors and allowed the crew to warm up in her house. In gratitude, O'Hara took Mele and her husband to the famed "21" restaurant and Mele was so excited all she could drink was a glass of milk.

O'Hara was very fond of her co-stars. "Natalie, John and Edmund - I had a special relationship with each one. I have been the mother to almost forty children in movies but I have always had a special place in my heart for little Natalie. She always called me Mamma Maureen and I called her Natasha, the name her parents had given her. When Natalie and I shot the scenes in Macy's we had to do them at night because the store was full of people doing their Christmas shopping during the day. Natalie loved this because it meant she was allowed to stay up late. I remembered all the tricks we pulled as kids in our house, trying to stay up past bedtime, and so I really enjoyed this time with Natalie. We loved to walk through the quiet, closed store and look at all the toys and girls' dresses and shoes...When John Payne arrived on the set of Miracle each morning, I made sure to greet him with a big, joking smile to make up for the frowns he teased me about on To the Shores of Tripoli (1942) and Sentimental Journey. John really believed in and loved Miracle on 34th Street , and always wanted to do a sequel. We talked about it for years, and he eventually even wrote a screenplay sequel. He was going to send it to me, but tragically died before he could get around to it. I never saw it and have often wondered what happened to it.

"Each evening, when we were not working, Edmund Gwenn, John, and I went for a walk up Fifth Avenue. Natalie had to go to bed, but we didn't. We stopped and window-shopped at all the stores, which were beautifully decorated for the holidays. Edmund especially loved those nights and acted more like the kid who might be getting the presents instead of the Santa who would be giving them. I got such a big kick out of seeing the expressions of windows dressers when they saw Edmund peering in at them - I knew then that he was going to make a big splash as Santa Claus...Everyone felt the magic on the set and we all knew we were creating something special. I am very proud to have been part of a film that has been continually shown and loved around the world for nearly sixty years."

Miracle on 34th Street was released on May 2, 1947, despite being a Christmas film. Zanuck thought that more people went to the movies in the summer and wanted to get back his costs. He did. The low-budgeted film grossed $2,650,000 in the United States alone. It won three Academy Awards - Best Supporting Actor for Edmund Gwenn, Best Writing, Original Story for Valentine Davies, and Best Writing, Screenplay for George Seaton's adaptation. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to another Fox film, Gentleman's Agreement (1947). Valentine Davies would write a novelization of his story in 1947. A musical and several remakes of the film have been done on stage, screen, and television. John Payne, Maureen O'Hara and Edmund Gwenn would reprise their roles twice, in 1947 and 1948 on The Lux Radio Theater. Gwenn would play the role three more times on radio - in 1949, 1950 and 1954.

Miracle on 34th Street continues to be a popular holiday classic. It was included in the National Film Registry in 2005. The following year it ranked #9 in the American Film Institute's Most Inspiring Movies of All Time, and in 2008 ranked #5 on their 10 Greatest Films in the Fantasy Genre.

Producer: William Perlberg
Director: George Seaton
Screenplay: George Seaton (screenwriter); Valentine Davies (story)
Cinematography: Charles Clarke
Art Direction: Richard Day, Richard Irvine
Music: Cyril Mockridge
Film Editing: Robert Simpson
Cast: Maureen O'Hara (Doris Walker), John Payne (Fred Gailey), Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle), Gene Lockhart (Judge Henry X. Harper), Natalie Wood (Susan Walker), Porter Hall (Granville Sawyer), William Frawley (Charlie Halloran), Jerome Cowan (Dist. Atty. Thomas Mara), Philip Tonge (Julian Shellhammer).

by Lorraine LoBianco

Belmer, Rudy Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox
The Internet Movie Database
O'Hara, Maureen and Nicoletti, John 'Tis Herself: An Autobiography
Whitaker, Jan Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class



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