Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Miracle on 34th Street Turned 70

Of all things, this past spring saw the 70th anniversary of one of the most iconic Christmas movies. As hard as it might be to believe now, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) was released on June 4 1947. Despite its holiday theme, the movie turned out to be a true summer blockbuster, doing brisk business clear into the Christmas season.

For those few of you who have never seen Miracle on 34th Street, it centres on Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn) who believes he is the one and only Santa Claus. When Kris is hired as Santa Claus for Macy's department store, he creates complications for Macy's event director Doris Walker (played by Maureen O'Hara) and her neighbour, lawyer Fred Gailey (played by John Payne).

Miracle on 34th Street originated with a story by writer Valentine Davies. It was while Mr. Davies was standing in line in a department store during the holidays that he realised that Christmas had become overly commercialised. It was this thought that inspired Mr. Davies to come up with the idea that would become Miracle on 34th Street. Mr. Davies took his idea to director and screenwriter George Seaton, who then wrote a screenplay based on Mr. Davies' story, initially titled The Big Heart.

20th Century Fox was so enamoured of the script that they wanted to begin work on the film right away. One hurdle faced by the film is that real life department stores Macy's and Gimbels play a large role in its plot. In order to release the film at all, 20th Century Fox would have to get permission from both companies to use their names. The studio chose to go forward with shooting the movie without Macy's or Gimbels's permission, although it made both stores aware that it was being produced. Ultimately the two department stores would have to give their approval only after they had seen the film. This was a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox, because large parts of the film would have to be reshot if either store withheld their approval. Fortunately, both Macy's and Gimbels gave the film their blessing.

The fact that 20th Century Fox wanted to get the movie out quickly also meant disrupting its lead actress's plans. For the entirety of World War II, Maureen O'Hara had to remain in the United States, unable to return to her native land of Ireland. She was in Ireland when she got the call from 20th Century Fox to return to the United States immediately to begin work on The Big Heart. Miss O'Hara was not happy at having to cut her visit to her homeland short to shoot a movie about Santa Claus. Her anger subsided when, upon returning to the States, she read its script. She already knew the studio had a hit on its hands.

Maureen O'Hara was not only happy with the script but with the cast with whom she would be working as well: John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood. John Payne had previously appeared with Miss O'Hara in Sentimental Journey (1946). He would be playing her love interest, attorney Fred Gailey in Miracle on 34th Street. Edmund Gwenn, already a legendary English actor, would be playing Kris Kringle. Natalie Wood was a child actress on the rise, having already appeared in a few films. At the time that Miracle on 34th Street was being shot, she was also shooting The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Natalie Wood played Maureen O'Hara's character's daughter in Miracle on 34th Street.

Of course, much of the reason 20th Century Fox was in a rush to begin shooting on Miracle on 34th Street was to take advantage of shooting on location in New York City at the actual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that November. Macy's had given the studio permission to shoot during the parade with the understanding that the parade would not be delayed in order to permit shooting. Director George Seaton then shot as much as he could and as swiftly as he could at the parade.

Not only were scenes from the parade shot on location, but so too were scenes shot inside the actual Macy's store at Herald Square in New York City. Shooting was done that December inside the store at night so as not to disrupt the day to day operations of Macy's. Much of the rest of the film was also shot on location in Ne York City. In the opening scenes Kris walked down Madison Avenue. Also in the opening he looks in a store window that belonged to an actual store at 19 East 61st Street. A house at 24 Derby Road served as a house that Natalie Wood's character, Susan, had wished for. Other scenes were shot at 20th Century Fox's Stage 3 in Los Angeles, California.

The film finished shooting in March 1947. It was subsequently screened for both Macy's and Gimbels, both of who gave their approval. The film also had a new name. In the United States it would not be released as The Big Heart, but instead as Miracle on 34th Street. As to 20th Century Fox, they were impressed with the film. In fact, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was so impressed with the film that he thought it was too good to hold back for the holiday season. Thinking that more people went to the cinema in the summer, he decided that Miracle on 34th Street would be released on June 4 1947 in the United States. The British would have to wait until closer to the holiday season for the film. Retaining its original title of The Big Heart there (presumably Brits would not know where 34th Street was), it was released on December 12 there.

Of course, while Darryl F. Zanuck had faith in Miracle on 34th Street, that did not mean that 20th Century Fox didn't take precautions to hide the fact that this film released during the summer movie season was actually a Christmas movie. The trailers very artfully avoided revealing what Miracle on 34th Street was about, while still enticing movie goers to watch the film. The posters centred on Maureen O'Hara and John Payne, with no hint that Edmund Gwenn was essentially playing Santa Claus (in the posters he just looked like a kindly old man). Both the trailers and the posters are notable in that make they absolutely no reference to Christmas.

Fortunately, 20th Century Fox's shrewd publicity campaign paid off. Miracle on 34th Street, one of the quintessential Christmas films, proved to be a huge hit in the summer of 1947. In fact, it was still playing in theatres when the holiday season of 1947 rolled around. Not only was the movie a hit with audiences, but critics as well. Miracle on 34th Street received generally favourable reviews. It also did well at the Academy Awards. It won the Oscars for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Edmund Gwenn; Best Writing, Original Story for Valentine Davies; and Best Writing, Screenplay for George Seaton. It was nominated for Best Picture, as was fellow Christmas classic The Bishop's Wife, but both lost to Gentleman's Agreement.

Amazingly enough for a beloved classic that was also a smash hit upon its initial release, Miracle on 34th Street has been remade several times. The first remake was a television episode of the anthology television series The 20th Century Fox Hour. The 20th Century Fox aired abbreviated versions of films released by the studio. Its December 14 1955 was an adaption of Miracle on 34th Street with Thomas Mitchell, best known as Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life, as Kris Kringle. It would later be show under title "Meet Mr. Kringle". In 1959 there was another television adaption, with Ed Wynn playing Kris Kringle. Miracle on 34th Street was again remade as a television movie that aired in 1973. This time Sebastian Cabot, best known as Mr. French on the sitcom Family Affair, played Kris. It was in 1994 that a big budget remake of Miracle on 34th Street was released. Macy's refused to allow its name to be used in the film, with Macy's spokesman Laura Melillo stating, "We feel the original stands on its own and could not be improved upon." Macy's place in the film was taken by a fictional store called "Cole's". It was perhaps just as well that Macy's denied use of its name (or its parade for that matter), as the remake would receive dismal reviews, with but a few exceptions. For myself, I think the only redeeming things about the movie are Richard Attenborough, Baron Attenborough and Mara Wilson.

In addition to television and film remakes, Miracle on 34th Street has been adapted to other media as well.  In 1947 Lux Radio Theatre adapted the film as a radio play with the original cast. Lux Radio Theatre did another radio version in 1948, although without Natalie Wood. Screen Directors Playhouse also did two radio adaptions, with Edmund Gwenn appearing as Kris Kringle in both. In 1963 it was adapted was adapted as the Broadway musical Here's Love by Meredith Wilson.

Over seventy years since it was first released, Miracle on 34th Street continues to be one of the most popular holiday films ever made. To this day Miracle on 34th Street continues to top polls of favourite Christmas movies, at times beating even It's a Wonderful Life. Despite being remade several times, there can be no doubt that audiences will still be watching the original 70 years from now.

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