Jacob's Favorite Christmas Films: #7. "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947)
I know this isn't going to sound nice, but this is the kind of film that's premise feels like a cinematic dare.
Miracle on 34th Street has been remade several times, enough times that I feel like people seem to forget how truly bonkers the premise of this film really is. It's embedded itself permanently into pop culture to the point that no one questions the fact that it's literally a court drama about a man being potentially committed to an insane asylum for claiming that he's actually Santa Claus. It sounds like an internet hipster's snarky joke premise for a movie, so I want to take this sentence to thank God, the universe, and everything that this film was made in the 1940s before a nastier meaner filmmaker could handle the premise.
(For the record though, a satirical take on Miracle on 34th Street could be really interesting, but it would literally have no room for error to the point that I think that's beyond an ill-advised idea, but the year I'm writing this sentence had an excellent sequel to Blade Runner, so who am I to say anything about what's a good or bad idea for a movie.)
You might have noticed that the cynical reaction to Christmas is inherently built into the best films about Christmas. Almost every movie on the list so far tackles the subject in one way or another (and trust me, plenty more on the list will), but Miracle on 34th Street almost feels like one of the most extreme juxtapositions of cynicism and optimism. Here, we have the childlike wonder and magical realism of a man who just might be Santa directly up against the Judicial branch of the United States itself. That extreme juxtaposition ultimately lands on the side of optimism and magical realism, but not before the film gets to be a court drama for a while.
Every time I watch this film I can't believe that it works as well as it does, and if there's one thing I can point to that keeps the whole enterprise working, its actor Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle. If there's an actor in history that could seemingly walk up to you and convince you right on the spot that he was actually Santa Claus, its Edmund Gwenn. His total sincerity is delightful, even when he does hit someone with a cane (it works in context, trust me).
While actual lawyers have pointed out the films legal inaccuracies, it just doesn't even matter to me. There are probably over a thousand actors across the world that have all played a cinematic Santa, and I've yet to see one as immediately compelling as Edmund Gwenn. Are the other actors good? Of course, they all put in good work, but it's all there to act as a counterbalance to Gwenn's killer performance. The weakest performers in the movie are all kids, but this was the 1940s, before kid casting calls got to the level that they're at now, so I can let it slide.
Miracle on 34th Street is the oldest entry on this list, but that's not a weakness. It's an asset. The film simply wouldn't work in a modern setting where a character can get off the grid the way that Kris Kringle does, and I just love its 1940s charm.