As with most holiday movies, but perhaps more than most, the entire concept of digging into the ethics of the plot of “Miracle on 34th Street” can be criticized as beside the point. The movie, at least the 1947 original, is a classic; it works dramatically and emotionally, it makes people feel good, and it has held up over time. That’s all a Christmas movie is supposed to do, and if it does it without really making sense or avoiding ethics potholes along the way, so what?
I sympathize with this view. However, our ethical standards and ethics alarms are affected by what we see, hear, like and respond to. If popular holiday movies inject bad ethics habits and rationalizations into our character, especially at a young age, that is something we should at least be aware of by the tenth or eleventh time we watch one of them.
One ethical aspect of “Miracle on 34th Street” that must be flagged at the outset is competence. The film is so effortlessly engrossing and convincing that it is easy to forget how easily it could have failed miserably. Actually, it is also easy to remind oneself: just watch any of the attempts to remake the film. There have been four of these, starring, as Kris Kringle, Thomas Mitchell, Ed Wynn, Sebastian Cabot, and Richard Attenborough. That’s a distinguished crew, to be sure. Mitchell was one of the greatest character actors in Hollywood history. Wynn was nominated for an Academy Award (for “The Diary of Ann Frank”) and Attenborough won one, Best Supporting Actor Award in 1967 for “The Sand Pebbles.” Cabot wasn’t quite in their class, but he was a solid pro, and looked more like Santa Clause than Mitchell, Wynn, or Richard Attenborough. None of them, however, were as convincing as Edmund Gwenn. He made many movies—all without a white beard— and had a distinguished career in films and on stage, but even audience members who knew his work had a hard time reminding themselves that he wasn’t Kris Kringle while they watched the movie. I still have a hard time.
The rest of the cast is almost as perfect. The film is one more example of the special, unappreciated talent of Maureen O’Hara, who never seemed like a movie star, as lovely and strong an on-screen presence as she was. Her ability to anchor great movies while never dominating them is the epitome of the “collaborative art” they always blather about during the Oscars, but which is seldom truly honored. There were Katherine Hepburn movies and Bette Davis movies; there are Meryl Streep movies. Nobody ever talked about Maureen O’Hara movies, just great movies that had Maureen O’Hara essential to making them great. O’Hara was the female lead in four genuine classics: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Quite Man,” “How Green Was My Valley,” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” She never won any Academy Awards, nor is she ever named when the greatest Hollywood actresses are named, but how many actresses delivered four classics—not classic performances, but classic films? Hepburn ties Maureen with four: The Philadelphia Story,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Adams’s Rib” and “The African Queen.” Streep maaay be credited with one, if you count “Sophie’s Choice”; personally, I wouldn’t.
“Miracle on 34th Street” is an ethical movie in part because its artists committed to telling a magical story and charming audiences by working as an ensemble selflessly and efficiently. John Payne, as the idealistic lawyer in love with Maureen, is never flashy, just completely convincing. One reason may be that, as he told an interviewer once, the role of Fred Gaily perfectly matched his own ideals and beliefs. Payne never made another memorable movie in his long career; he was the classic bland, B movie leading man. He made Glenn Ford seem exciting. But he was the perfect choice for this story. Similarly, there have been more impressive child actresses than young Natalie Wood—Margaret O’Brien, to name one; Dakota Fanning, to name another—but none who was better at simultaneously nailing her scenes while never taking a viewer out of the film by making him think, “Wow, she’s so precocious! I wonder if she’s a midget?”
This is the magic of performing talent: they make audiences suspend disbelief because they seem to believe in the story and characters too. The director, George Seaton (who also directed “Airport”), not only wrote the script (that won him an Oscar, and deservedly so) and cast his movie brilliantly, he also made the correct decision to stick with a matter-of-fact, realistic, unadorned style that keeps the story grounded. There are none of the features and gaffes in this film that make other holiday-themed movies inherently unbelievable, like the cheesy battlefield sets in “White Christmas” or the heavenly dialogues in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This is why awful colorized version that Ted Turner inflicted on the world—this was one of the first movies to be subjected to Ted’s “improvement”—was such a disaster. The colored version looks fake, because it is. The original black and white version is set in a mundane, grey world like Doris’s—Maureen’s–view of life itself: no excitement, no romance, no fantasy, just cold, unadorned reality. No heaven, no magic, ghosts, nobody breaking into song and sounding like Bing Crosby. There’s no child’s point of view, like in “A Christmas Story.” No, all of us live in the world we are shown in “Miracle on 34th Street.” We would love the magic to be real, but we don’t believe in it any more. We want it to be, though—and that’s why this movie works.