The original 1947 production of Miracle on 34th Street, as holiday movies rate, is rivaled only by 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both delve into the magic of Christmas, Miracle with an undertaking by a man claiming to be Santa Claus to convince two skeptics of his claim by making wishes come true with the help of a lawyer and the United States post office, Wonderful Life with its hard-working dreamer at a low moment in his life having his life turned upside down by an angel who shows him how important he is to those around him, A Christmas Carol style.
In November 1986, Miracle on 34th Street became the first movie shown on television in a colorized format. It is still broadcast each December in both black and white and colorized, and despite most colorization in film detracting from a movie, I think this is one work where colorization reveals details you might not notice otherwise. Written and directed by George Seaton, Miracle on 34th Street has one key scene, a turning point, that is so well-directed and performed that it may be one of the best scenes, and certainly one of the most classic, ever committed to film.
Our favorite actor to play Santa Claus, Edmund Gwenn, immerses himself in his role as a man named Kris Kringle who leaves an old folks’ home to take on the part as a Macy’s store Santa Claus after he witnesses a drunk man playing the part. Gwenn shows Santa as he should be shown, a right-jolly old fellow, pure in spirit, with a love for everyone. He is hired at Macy’s by Doris Walker, played by the beautiful and wonderful actress Maureen O’Hara, in one of her most challenging roles to watch. The audience is naturally inclined to like Walker because the well-liked actress O’Hara is behind the role, yet it is difficult because she steadfastly prevents her daughter Susan, played by a young Natalie Wood, from taking part in a typical childhood experience–no make-believe, no fairy tales–all seriousness. And certainly Doris will not allow her daughter to believe that Santa Claus exists, or that this man whose employee ID lists his name as Kris Kringle, could possibly be the Santa.
The key scene begins after a new neighbor of the Walkers, a lawyer named Fred Gailey, played by John Payne, is left to watch young Susan and deliver her to her mother at Macy’s. Fred truly likes Susan and her mother, and attempting to gain the affection of both, he takes Susan to meet Santa Claus, just like most children in America have done for decades. In Susan’s visit she explains to Santa that she knows he isn’t real and that her mother hired him. He asks her what she wants for Christmas and she says her mother will provide anything she might need. He acknowledges her as a non-believer. Even a pull of his beard, revealing it is not a fake beard, does little to persuade the young skeptic. Doris intercedes with Susan’s visit, scolding Fred for filling Susan’s head full of make-believe ideas. While this is happening, Susan–serious and curious–sneaks back behind a door to watch other children greeting Santa–maybe that real beard sparked something–and the key scene begins.
A woman and her daughter are next in line to visit Santa. The woman, played by Mary Field, appears hesitant, the girl, played by 8-year-old Marlene Lyden, a little sad.
Before the girl climbs into Santa’s lap, the mother reveals that the girl is Dutch and was an orphan she recently adopted.
Susan Walker watches the conversation unfold from a hallway.
Santa Claus immediately speaks to the Dutch girl with a warm smile… in the girl’s native language, saying “Hello, I’m glad you came.”
The little girl lights up, and her sincerity beams through. The rest of their conversation is in Dutch. Here is their exchange translated:
Girl: Ooh you ARE Sinterklaas!
She jumps into Santa’s lap.
Santa: Well, yes of course!
Girl: I knew, I knew for sure you would understand.
Santa: Of course, tell me what you’d like.
The camera switches to Susan Walker, and something clicks for her. Her jaw drops. Although she doesn’t speak, her expression asks: Is he really Santa Claus? The conversation continues, with the girl answering Mr. Kringle’s question.
Girl: Nothing! I already have everything. I just want to stay with this lovely lady.
Her mother is visibly touched.
Santa: Would you like to sing for me?
Santa and the little girl sing a song together:Sinterklaas Kapoentje (Saint Nicholas, little rascal), put something in my little shoe, put something in my little boot, thank you Sinterklaasje. Sinterklaas Kapoentje, put something in my little shoe, put something in my little boot, thank you Sinterklaasje.
The scene fades into the next, a conversation where Susan tries to convince her mother that Mr. Kringle really may be Santa Claus. Count one skeptic down, one to go, for Mr. Kringle.
Here is a cut of the scene on YouTube.*
…but if you haven’t watched the full movie, get a copy and watch it in black and white or color. It’s brilliant either way, and a must to re-watch every Christmas.
Have a happy Christmas from the staff at borg.com!
C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg
*2022 Update: It’s been ten (!) years since I wrote this and it’s one of borg reader’s favorites. From time to time the clip is removed from YouTube. Please drop me a comment if you ever see it not playing at the above link!