I’m currently home for the holidays, Constant Reader, which means I’ve been engaging in that most American of seasonal pastimes – watching holiday programming in order to avoid confrontation with my family. Thankfully, I’ve been spared the usual onslaught of Hallmark movies – I’d planned to blog about their detrimental effect on our culture, but lots of other pundits have beaten me to it, and I’d like to try and maintain some level of Christmas cheer. No, luckily, it’s been several days of watching the true Christmas classics – those midcentury black-and-white icons which have come to define the holiday.
I have a special relationship with It’s A Wonderful Life, as I’ve spent a number of holiday seasons performing in Joe Landry’s live radio play adaptation in Connecticut. It’s always a blissful family reunion where I get to catch up with old friends and put on my creaky Mister Potter voice. And I could happily binge on Christmas Carol adaptations, one after another, for an entire day or two, until rich people finally learn to be kind to their fellow men without being terrorized into the knowledge by spectral visitors. But ultimately, neither is my favorite classic holiday movie.
That honor goes to Miracle on 34th Street. The original, mind you (accept no mid-90s substitutes), with Edmund Gwynn as the man who might be Santa Claus, and Maureen O’Hara as his boss at Macy’s. And Natalie Wood. And John Payne. And the richest supporting cast of all of these movies. Heck, it has Gene Tierney, Jerome Cowan, and William Frawley in the cast and doesn’t even bring them on until the third act, which shows you how deep the bench is. The screenplay’s a marvel of construction as well – it won an Oscar, along with Gwynn. It’s a terrific piece of moviemaking.
But then, all of these classics are terrific pieces of moviemaking. That’s not what makes it my favorite.
No, what I love about Miracle on 34th Street, as the rare New York arts professional who’s actually from New York, is that it’s ours. Most Christmas movies (at least the ones not set in Victorian London) take place in an idealized small town or country setting. Sometimes the nostalgia for that setting is played completely straight. Sometimes, it’s presented ironically (i.e. Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut), or even allowed to have a dark edge to it (Bedford Falls can be a pretty terrible place sometimes, after all). But that small town is always the default for what an American Christmas is supposed to look like – a notion that has reached its nadir in those Hallmark movies I mentioned, where a cozy cabin in a remote part of rural, Real America is the answer to all one’s professional and romantic woes.
Miracle on 34th Street, instead, is all about my wonderful and sordid city. Its Christmas miracle is wrought by cutthroat businessmen, weary divorcees, venal politicians and surly civil servants – all of whom can yet be moved by genuine kindness and goodness. You don’t need to believe in Santa for the movie to work – in fact, it works better if you don’t, and Kris Kringle isn’t employing any magic other than a genuine respect and concern for his fellow men. It’s about Upper West Side apartments and kids from Queens and commutes from Great Neck, about weary shoppers and fractured families and everything those Hallmark movies keep telling us we need to leave behind. Christmas belongs to us too, says Miracle on 34th Street, and so by extension it belongs to one and all.
Merry Christmas, everybody!