Christmas is one of those traditions you grow up thinking has never changed. Then you find out the Puritans who settled in America hated Christmas with a passion and that it wasn’t even a federal holiday until 1870. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866, for pete’s sake. Despite its eternal origins, the celebration of Christmas is like anything else humans do. It’s more about us than it is anything else and that’s why it changes and can be changed so much over time.
Those changes, in Christmas and in ourselves, are the focus of this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown. It’s “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) vs “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994) to see if a story about hope, faith and myth can survive nearly a half century of cultural upheaval.
SPOILER ALERT: Survive? Yes. Thrive? Not so much.
“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) was the Golden Age of Hollywood’s version of the famous newspaper editorial that said “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” It concerns an elderly, bearded gentleman who says his name is Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) and claims to be the actual Santa Claus who comes down the chimneys of children around the world to give presents to all the good little boys and girls. He’s hired by Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the organizer of the annual Thanksgiving Day parade put on by Macy’s department store, when the original Santa she hired turns out to be a drunk. Kris is such a hit that he’s signed on as the store’s resident Santa for the holiday season.
His belief in being the real St. Nick poses a bit of a problem for Doris. Abandoned by her husband, she’s chosen to forgo all illusions about the world and is raising her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), to be hard-headed and practical in all things…and that includes not believing in Santa Claus. That’s a situation that bedevils Kris and is only slightly less vexing to Fred Gailey (John Payne), a neighbor of Doris who would like nothing better than to become the new man in both Doris and Susan’s lives.
Kris causes even more of a stir when he starts telling customers where they can find toys that aren’t being sold at Macy’s, something that initially shocks the capitalist sensibilities of Doris’ co-worker, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tongue), until he realizes that it’s proving to be enormously popular with customers and garnering Macy’s a lot of good will. That inspires not only the money-grubbing owner of Macy’s to embrace the policy but also his arch-rival, the owner of Gimbel’s, to adopt it at his stores.
But when Kris becomes outraged at how a bitterly unhappy Macy’s-employed psychologist is taking out his frustrations by undermining the mental health of a naïve janitor, he bops the headshrinker on the noggin with an umbrella. That lands Kris in the mental ward and Fred, who happens to be a lawyer, has to go to court to stop him from being permanently committed. And even though both the prosecutor (Jerome Cowan) and the judge (Gene Lockhart) would like nothing better than to let the kindly Kris go, they feel honor bound to uphold the letter of the law. That means it’s up to Fred, and a couple of working stiffs at the New York City Post Office, to concoct the granddady of all courtroom stunts to win the case and Kris’ freedom, with an epilogue demonstrating that both Doris and Susan have shed their Santa-skeptic ways.
The original “Miracle on 34th Street” is an absolute delight. Yes, a bit of the acting might seem mannered to viewers used to messier, more realistic emoting and there’s a significant chunk of the story that happens off screen, but those are minor quibbles with one of the most charming and engaging films you’ll ever see. Edmund Gwenn is marvelous and he’s backed up by sharp and funny performances from virtually every member of the cast. A couple of the kid actors are traditionally bad in the way most kid actors used to be but the rest are superb, including a very young Natalie Wood. And while you might expect a film with this kind of premise to drown itself in sentimentality and ignore the finer points of storytelling, this script is very smart and tremendously observant of both human emotions and the practicalities of everyday life. The way it sets up Macy’s and Gimbel’s to compete with each other to be nicer and less cutthroat not for some sappy reason like the spirit of Christmas but because they decide that’s the best way to make more money is, even all these decades later, a refreshingly sophisticated understanding of economics. It’s very like much how the movie is mature enough to know that no one in real life would ever want to send someone like Kris to the nuthouse but might feel ethically obligated to do so. “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) is a fantasy and a comedy but it never uses that as an excuse to have its characters behave stupidly or abide huge plot holes.
Sadly, the remake is almost exactly the opposite. “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994) isn’t as intellectually insulting or aesthetically abhorrent as most of its kind. While everybody in Hollywood wants to make money, this is pretty clearly more than just a vacuous cash grab. The folks behind this remake obviously had a large amount of affection for the original and sought to create a version of the film that would be more accessible to modern viewers. The problem is that…
- You can’t get more accessible than the original. Yes, it’s in black and white and no one has a cell phone, but I’ve seen a lot of old movies and this may be the least dated film you’ll ever watch. Most of the movies from 1997 have aged worse than the 1947 version. The humor and drama still work. It moves with a good speed and rhythm and every bit of the story continues to make sense.
- They made too many narrative mistakes.
To start with, the remake is almost 20 minutes longer and most of that is from taking the relationship of the mother and her would-be beau from something that mostly developed off screen into something we have to watch play out in tedious detail. We even get a date night montage of Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) and Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott) that is so pedestrian it should have been arrested for jaywalking. Their relationship simply isn’t important to the story. No one walked out of the original saying “Boy, I’m sure glad Doris and Fred got together at the end. I was worried there.”
It also replaces the economic sophistication of the original with a subplot so cartoonish and shallow it feels like something a devoted communist would write about decadent capitalism. In the remake, Macy’s is replaced by the fictional Cole’s department store, which is threatened with being bought out by its EEEEEEVIL competition, Shopper’s Express. How do we know it’s EEEEEEVIL? Because the movie practically does everything but have Shopper’s Express cut the heart out of a human sacrifice in order to prove how EEEEEEVIL the company is.
The difference in the character of Susan is also like night and day. In the original, her personality makes complete sense as a reflection of how her mother raised her. 1947 Susan is very serious, very smart and much more worldly than you’d expect from such a young girl. 1994 Susan is an amalgamation of shtick. She’s sort of like Stewie from “Family Guy.” He started out as a character with a clearly defined personality who talked and behaved in very specific ways that fit his personality. Then, as the writers got lazier and lazier over time, Stewie just became the talking baby who says and does whatever is supposed to be funny for that particular episode. 1994 Susan never seems like a real person. She’s a plot device that says and does whatever the script needs.
Or take the prosecutor in the remake, played by the excellent J.T. Walsh. He isn’t a conflicted civil servant who reluctantly accepts that his job requires him to put a nutty old man away. The 1994 prosecutor is a raging jackass who not only wants to crucify Kris but is rabidly enthusiastic about disproving the existence of Santa Claus in its entirety, without even a hint of his motivation.
And although you can give the remakers some credit for not repeating the original’s twist that sets Kris free, the twist they came up with to replace it is so awful I cannot comprehend how it didn’t prevent the movie from getting made. It doesn’t make any logical sense. It doesn’t make any emotional sense. It doesn’t make any legal sense. It doesn’t fit with anything that actually happens in the hearing to determine Kris’ mental competency. It’s just a bizarre non sequitur.
The difference in storytelling illustrated by comparing the 1947 and 1994 versions is that Hollywood used to produce a very general product. Just about all films were expected to appeal to everyone from ages 8 to 80 and whether they were westerns or crime dramas or historical epics or fantasies, they were expected to meet the same standards of narrative competence. They didn’t always meet those standards but the filmmakers were always expected to try. Now, Hollywood produces a very particular product. Movies are conceived, created and marketed to very particular audiences. There are films for woman and films for men and films for kids and films for families and films for teens and films for old people. Sci-fi flicks aren’t expected to be written an intelligently as heavily dramatic Oscar bait. Comedies aren’t expected to make sense. Serious, intentionally meaningful motion pictures aren’t expected to be conventionally entertaining. No one truly worries about stuff like “Miracle on 34th Street” being made with any narrative competence because they don’t think the audience it’s aimed at either cares or notices.
As for the differences in Christmas then and now? “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) was made at a time when Christmas was important individually but not culturally. It was a story where we cared about what happened to the people in it but there was no larger meaning. The future of America or Mankind wasn’t tied up in whether or not people believed in Santa Claus because, frankly, there were more important things in which people could believe. “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994) was made at a time when Christmas really isn’t important but we’re all supposed to pretend otherwise. Those more important things we used to believe in? We mostly don’t any more, which means we need something to take their place…such as a jolly old elf with a belly like jelly.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Written and directed by George Seaton.
Starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge, Jack Albertson, Lela Bliss, Harry Antrim, Herbert Heyes and Marlene Lyden.
Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Written by John Hughes.
Directed by Les Mayfield.
Starring Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, J.T. Walsh, James Remar, Jane Leeves, Simon Jones, William Windom, Mara Wilson, Robert Prosky, Mary McCormack, Jack McGee and Horatio Sanz.