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20th Century Fox presents
"Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to."
DVD ReviewMany Christmas-themed films are cavalierly labeled "holiday classics" by greedy studios eager to make a fast buck, but only a few select titles deserve the billing. Miracle on 34th Street is one of them, and though this funny, heartwarming tale of a department store Santa who tries to convince an army of skeptics he's the real deal may not be as universally revered as It's A Wonderful Life, it continues to charm and delight audiences of all ages almost 60 years after its initial release. And just in time for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Fox honors the movie by unveiling a two-disc special edition packed with enticing extras.
Like most true classics, Miracle on 34th Street remains relevant and relatable despite the passage of time and evolution of social mores. Its heroine, Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), resembles many women of today—a single mother with a demanding job who ceaselessly strives to create a stable, loving environment for her precocious eight-year-old daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood). Divorce, however, has disheartened Doris and turned her into an embittered realist, and she's determined to raise Susan without any of the fairy tale illusions that warped her own outlook on life. That means no pretending, no visions of romantic white knights, and—most shocking of all—no Santa Claus.
Susan blithely accepts what she's told, but when a diminutive old man with a long white beard and irrepressible twinkle enters her world, she begins to question her mother's views. Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) may reside at a local home for the aged, but he vehemently attests he's actually Santa Claus. Many people who work at Macy's, including Doris, think he's insane, but Doris' new boyfriend, Fred Gailey (John Payne), believes in Kris, and winds up defending him at a competency hearing that becomes the talk of the town. Susan, however, remains the toughest to convince, and Kris fears that if he can't grant her special Christmas wish, she may never believe in anything—or anyone—again.
Miracle on 34th Street may seem like typical Christmas fare, but beneath its yuletide trimmings lies a surprisingly substantive script that flings pointed barbs at such diverse topics as psychology, commercialism, and politics, while still emphasizing core values like faith and family. Writer-director George Seaton (whose screenplay earned an Academy Award) deftly juggles sentimentality and smart social satire, and makes such a convincing case for the existence of Santa Claus, he converts dyed-in-the-wool cynics into true believers by the movie's end.
Of course, a screenplay is only as good as the actors who perform it, and Miracle on 34th Street is blessed with a terrific cast that treats the material with the TLC it deserves. Gwenn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Santa Claus, and utterly owns the role. Forget Tim Allen or Richard Attenborough; Gwenn brings Kris Kringle to life, infusing him with a whimsical jolliness and sincerity that's irresistible. Wood, with her skeptical smirk and matter-of-fact musings, makes a perfect foil, while O'Hara and Payne enjoy a comfortable chemistry and file natural, engaging performances. In supporting roles, Thelma Ritter (in her film debut) almost steals the show as a harried mother; a pre-I Love Lucy William Frawley cracks wise as a savvy political advisor; and Gene Lockhart, Jerome Cowan, and a young Jack Albertson (in a bit part) also shine.
Believing in Santa may be a tall order for most adults, but it's impossible not to believe in Miracle on 34th Street. For those who need a respite from all the holiday madness or simply enjoy reveling in the yuletide spirit, this beloved classic reinforces everything we love about the season, and brings back the childlike wonder that makes Christmas such a magical time of year.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: I'm not at all in favor of the colorization process, but if adding some tints and hues will entice more children to watch this wonderful holiday movie, then I'm all for it. Miracle on 34th Street needs to be experienced and enjoyed by the younger generation, and if colorization helps achieve that goal, so be it. Thankfully, Fox has taken special care in dying the film, making sure fleshtones look natural and the reds and greens of Christmas aren't overdone. A couple of gaffes betray the process, but on the whole, it's a satisfactory effort.
The original black-and-white version (unfairly relegated to Disc 2) looks as if it's been slightly upgraded since the previous DVD release seven years ago. A wider gray scale lends the image a softer, smoother look, and the lack of edge enhancement, less grain, and fewer speckles and nicks heighten viewing pleasure. Blacks don't seem quite as deep on this new release, but they're still solid and rich, and contrast is excellent. Though the differences are minor, this new edition looks better to my eyes, and aficionados of the film should definitely consider trading up.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Fox has remastered the film's audio as well, and while 5.1 surround sound doesn't do much to enhance the action, it doesn't detract from it either. (The original mono track is also included, never fear.) It's actually tough to discern any differences between the two options; the only constants are such age-related defects as a slight bit of hiss and a few pops and crackles. Perhaps Cyril Mockridge's music score enjoys a bit more fidelity in 5.1, and ambient details sound just a tad crisper, but the all-important dialogue remains equally easy to understand in either mode.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by actress Maureen O'Hara
Packaging: Amaray with slipcase
An installment of the AMC series, Hollywood Backstories, follows. The 22-minute documentary chronicles the movie's production history, and outlines the clever (and deceptive) marketing strategy the Fox publicity department devised for the film. Zanuck reportedly considered Miracle on 34th Street a B movie, and possessed such little confidence in its potential appeal, he decided to release it during the summer(!) when motion picture attendance traditionally reached its peak. Interviews with O'Hara, film historian Rudy Behlmer, Lana Wood (Natalie's sister), and the all-grown-up child actors who portray Alfred and Tommy O'Mara highlight this entertaining and interesting piece.
Clips from the 1947 Academy Awards (care of Fox Movietone News) come next, and feature abbreviated acceptance speeches from Darryl F. Zanuck, Celeste Holm, and Edmund Gwenn. After that, a rare promotional short/trailer employs the talents of Rex Harrison, Anne Baxter, Peggy Ann Garner, and crooner Dick Haymes to tease us about the content of the upcoming Miracle on 34th Street. Releasing a Christmas film during the heat of summer was hardly a surefire plan for box office success, so Fox sought to hide the film's subject matter while hyping its quality and universal appeal. The result is a clever and intriguing five-minute promo.
Also intriguing—but far from stellar—is a 1955 TV adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street, starring Teresa Wright as Doris, Macdonald Carey as Fred, and Thomas Mitchell as Kris Kringle. The 45-minute program incorporates plenty of stock footage from the 1947 film, but unfortunately can't replicate its sparkle. The condensed story feels rushed, as do the actors' line readings, which are often delivered with such alacrity, any emotional shadings are lost. Carey is blandness personified, and Sandy Descher as Susan projects none of the precocious charm Wood brings to the role. Wright and Mitchell come off best, but still can't approach the work of O'Hara and Gwenn.
Unfortunately, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: Floating in History focuses more on Miracle on 34th Street than the legendary New York parade, but the 15-minute featurette contains enough historical tidbits to make it worthwhile. A former Macy's VP and the author of a book about the parade offset the lifeless narration. Finally, a Poster Gallery, featuring photos of eight different posters for the film, wraps up the extras package.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsThe holidays are upon us, and what better way to ring in the season than by taking a fresh look at Miracle on 34th Street. Few family films exude more warmth and optimism, or supply such an infectious dose of Christmas cheer. Fox provides both the black-and-white original and an all-new colorized version, as well as a host of fun supplements, in a handsome two-disc set of which Santa himself would certainly approve. We do, too.
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