Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Cinema Bestius: Miracle on 34th Street

Please allow me to introduce myself…

… I’m a man of wealth and taste. Actually, I am the Pope! The Pope of Film. For the next year, I am going to be counting down the fifty greatest films ever made, and I would like you to come along for the ride. The films I write about will be THE fifty greatest films, rest assured—because I am the Pope, the Pope of Film. I am infallible. This is not a matter of taste. This is not a matter of opinion. What I say goes. Why am I the Pope of Film?

I thought of it first.

The Pope (me) hopes you (you) enjoy this countdown and agree with his (my) selections. If you (you) disagree, that’s just too damn bad. As I have already explained, I am the Pope of Film. Bathe in my holy light of wisdom and kiss the ring, bitches -- because I am a good and just pontiff but will quarter no dissention.

This list is in rank order, so we will start at #50 and count down to the single greatest film ever made. Doesn’t that sound like fun? The Pope (me) is confining himself (myself) to English-language films, because the Pope (me again) needed to narrow the scope (the Pope Scope) to a manageable level. It is decided! And now, bow your heads (toward the screen) and let us begin.

#50: Miracle on 34th Street
It is perhaps only fitting that we begin this column with a movie that is, at its heart, a meditation on faith. George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street is a great example of classic Hollywood at its best: great performances, snappy dialogue, brisk pace, and high production values. Like other great films, Miracle on 34th Street has a text (“An old man claims to be Santa Claus—is he?”) and a subtext (the aforementioned examination of faith.) The way the text and subtext play off each other, intersect, and are brought to a satisfying conclusion accounts for many of the film’s pleasures.

The Plot In Brief: The Santa Claus in the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving parade shows up sozzled, so parade chief Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) must find a quick replacement. Luckily, helpful old coot Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is on hand and agrees to play the part. Later, Kris agrees to be Macy’s official department store Santa as well. This proves confusing to Doris’s daughter Susan (Natalie Wood,) who has been taught that Santa doesn’t really exist. Next-door neighbor and attorney Fred Gailey is a good friend to Susan and has his eye on Doris. He thinks that little Susan is being denied a childhood by her practical, no-nonsense mother. Fred agrees to take Kris on as a roommate, so Kris’s daily commute to Macy’s will be shorter.
Evidence begins to mount that lovable old Kris is either crazy or the real Santa Claus. Through a series of mistakes, Kris is placed in a mental institution for observation. The only way to spring Kris from his confinement is to prove in a court of law that he is not delusional, that he is the real Santa Claus. Fred agrees to serve as Kris’s defense attorney. Could Kris really be Santa?

Miracle on 34th Street should be considered one of the wonders of American cinema for its performances alone. From the always-wonderful Maureen O’Hara to John Payne to Natalie Wood giving one of the most unaffected and iconic child performances in Hollywood history, the film is perfectly cast. The entire enterprise would collapse under its own weight were it not for the intuitive and charming performance of Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle. One could improve one’s life if one simply aspired to act more like Gwenn in this, his best-remembered performance. My proof of this is the misbegotten remake from 1994 in which Mara Wilson gives a child performance out of a Coca-Cola commercial and Richard Attenborough portrays Kris Kringle as John Hammond from Jurassic Park only with a longer beard. The remake is also 20 minutes longer. Shudder.
True art comes from ambiguity—it creates not absolutes but possibilities (and impossibilities.) Faith is that distinctly human characteristic of believing when there is no evidence and it is hardest to believe. All great films—indeed, all great works of art—are more meditations on a theme, in which viewers and readers are asked to decide for themselves. Miracle on 34th Street never explicitly explains whether Kris is Santa Claus or not. It straddles that essential question in a delicious and entertaining manner. It would have been far easier to make a film that came out on either side: a film that proved Kris to be simply a sweet, delusional old man, or a film that proved unequivocally that Kris was indeed the real Santa Claus. Yet art is not interested in the easy choice. That is why so many bad films are simplistic; they don’t give audiences anything to chew on or chew over.
Any filmmaker can make a film that offers a concrete answer to some question or another. I am reminded of Stephen King’s famous description of the shower scene in Psycho in his essential book Danse Macabre: “We see the knife, we see the girl, but we never see the knife in the girl. But we think we do.” That is how King explains the artistry in Hitchcock’s greatest film. King suggests that any filmmaker could have fabricated a torso capable of squirting blood when stabbed (Hitchcock used to brag that the prop department did just that, though he never used it); yet a spectacle so obvious and bloody would not be art, but rather the work of “morons with cameras.” I bet this is the first time in history that Miracle on 34th Street has been discussed in terms of Psycho. Such is the power and the majesty of the Pope of Film.

Miracle’s Three Miracles: Edmund Gwenn’s warm, committed performance; the scene where Kris speaks Dutch to the little war orphan girl; and the “postal twist” that decides the court case. Sublime.
“Art teaches us what it is like to be human” is the most useful definition of art that I have ever come across. Our need, our desire, our longing to believe in something is surely one of the qualities that makes us human. As the Pope, I cannot officially come out in favor of Santa Claus… but I do know that he has reliably brought me presents on the 25th of December for the last 54 years.

"In nomine Patrici, et Scorsese, qui mecum est Jai Beaie, Amen."


  1. I alternately laughed and nodded my head in agreement all the way through this. Excellent work, His Popeness! I can't wait to see what else you have in store!

  2. Thank you JB. What a great idea for a column, my head is spinning with thoughts, possibilities and what number 1 will be? I can't ever remember you mentioning a favourite film of all time
    Ps. I have only one request, please can we call you "Pope Violetta" this name sounds like a man I can trust,
    His Holyness Pope Violetta
    I will say a prayer for you tonight, my son

    1. You will refer to the Pope as "Your Sprocket Holiness."

  3. Great article, Your Sprocket Holiness, and I love the concept - look forward to more. As a man - or let's face it, almost a god really - of impeccable taste I'm sure I have much to gain from your recommendations.

    Miracle on 34th Street is a great start - I have always just assumed it was lame, saccharine crap - but it sounds really good and I appreciate some ambiguity in my art so I'll definitely check it out next Ostensibly Messiah-Related Binge-Consuming Season!

  4. I'm obsessed with all time best lists, and now you're telling me that my favorite contributor at F This Movie is gracing an entire year with a weekly countdown! What wonderful red pill did I take that brought me to this fantastic reality?

    1. I agree Myke! The Pope if film truly is holy. The bringer of lists, wonderfully written articles that make you giggle Amen. So looking forward to reading more of these!

      Also I cannot help but feel very happy that The Pope of film himself blessed this movie in his holy countdown. Which means I was correct in my choice of favourite Christmas movie when discussing it in my site :)

  5. This is obviously just a marketing ploy by the F This Movie team to draw ire from the Vatican and rope in some free publicity. Shameless, J.B. Shameless. ;)