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The 10 Best Films of 1947

When it came time to put together this year’s rundown of my top 10 favorite films, I had trouble narrowing things down to a short list of even just 25 possibilities. (Consequently, this year’s list of honorable mentions is longer than usual.) Part of the problem was that I watched many more movies during 1947 than I did in previous years.

But another part of the problem is that 1947 was a good year for great films, particularly film noirs. So just because Odd Man Out and Brighton Rock didn’t make my cut for the top 10 doesn’t mean they’re not both great films. They’re two of the best noirs that the British movie industry every produced. But I wanted my top 10 list to have a bit of variety, so some great films had to go on the “honorable mention” pile, including Anthony Mann’s first really great noir, T-Men, Orson Welles’s bizarre but very entertaining The Lady From Shanghai, Elia Kazan’s wonderful Boomerang, and Edward Dmytryk’s hard-hitting Crossfire.

Picking a film for the #1 spot proved especially difficult, and I struggled with my two top choices, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past and Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul. Out of the Past has been a part of my life for 20 years, and it’s one of my favorite noirs. Body and Soul, on the other hand, is a film I saw for the first time this year.

But eventually I went with Body and Soul, because I love boxing, and it’s not only one of the best boxing films of all time, but also a great noir and a powerfully told story of redemption featuring a brilliant lead performance by John Garfield.

It wasn’t quite a coin flip, but it was close.

Anyway, 1947 was a significant year not only for noir but for the film industry in general. The previous year had been the most financially successful year in Hollywood history, which led to the construction of 500 new movie palaces containing half a million new seats in 1947. It was the single biggest year of movie theater construction since the boom of the ’20s, but movie attendance was beginning to fall off, and on most nights a lot of those new seats were empty.

Did the fault lie with television? It’s certainly possible, since 1947 was the year TV really started to make inroads. On November 6, 1947, the television show Meet the Press made its debut on NBC. (It’s still being broadcast, and is the longest-running program on TV.) Truman was the first U.S. president to see himself on television. And in 1947, there were roughly 12,000 televisions in Manhattan saloons, and they increased business tremendously. The day when there would be a television in nearly every living room in America was years away, but the handwriting was on the wall.

The five top-grossing films in 1947 were Road to Rio, My Wild Irish Rose, Captain from Castile, The Bishop’s Wife, and Unconquered. Three were in Technicolor and the other two were comedies, which says as much about the state of the film industry in 1947 as anything else. The days of Hollywood attempting to lure people away from the TV sets in their living rooms with spectacles like 3-D and Cinemascope weren’t too far away.

1. Body and Soul

Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul is the first really great boxing film, and it still stands as one of the best. John Garfield’s performance as tortured pugilist Charlie Davis is pitch-perfect, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is gorgeous. As good as Raging Bull (1980) is, it still owes an enormous debt to this film. And so does nearly every boxing picture made after 1947. Despite a sense of familiarity to the plot elements, Body and Soul still manages to feel fresh.

2. Out of the Past

When Jacques Tourneur directed Out of the Past, no one knew what “film noir” was. But now that we’ve made that shifty, seductive genre a part of our vocabulary, my vote for greatest noir of all time goes to Out of the Past. The plot is often confusing for first-time viewers, but it barely matters. The situations, dialogue, performances, and black and white cinematography are pitch-perfect.

3. Gentleman’s Agreement

Gregory Peck plays a magazine writer who pretends to be Jewish in order to write an exposé on anti-Semitism. Director Elia Kazan’s fourth film dominated the 20th Academy Awards, winning best picture, director, and best supporting actress. It remains one of the most powerful and thoughtful films about the “polite face” of intolerance and the silent majority that allows prejudice to flourish.

4. Brute Force

Brute Force was Jules Dassin’s first film noir, and it’s still one of his best. Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn play two men on opposite sides of the prison bars. Lancaster is planning a revolt so he and his fellow prisoners can crash out, but Cronyn is the tyrannical leader of the guards who will stop at nothing to quell the riot, even if it leaves dozens dead.

5. Nightmare Alley

In Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power plays against type as a grasping, duplicitous carny who graduates to tony nightclub performances and fleecing the wealthy. He has an innate ability to see through people and glean their pasts, their innermost desires, and their secrets, but he has no ability to truly care for anyone but himself, which leads him down a memorably degrading path.

6. Kiss of Death

Kiss of Death is director Henry Hathaway’s greatest noir. It’s a mix of the semi-documentary style of his earlier films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) with the hard-boiled conventions of his private eye flick The Dark Corner (1946). Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, a con willing to stool for the D.A. to stay out of prison and be with his daughters after his wife dies, and Richard Widmark plays Tommy Udo, an underworld character so grotesque he seems as if he’d be more comfortable in a Dick Tracy newspaper strip than real life. The two men’s destinies intertwine in this powerful thriller that makes good use of its location footage in New York, New Jersey, and Sing Sing prison.

7. Quai des Orfèvres

Nothing spices up a love triangle like murder, and nothing elevates a routine police procedural like the sure hand of director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is ultimately less interested in the mechanics of unraveling a murder mystery than he is in showing human life in all of its sordid glory. Quai des Orfèvres is a meticulously crafted film that brilliantly evokes Paris in the early months of winter.

8. A Double Life

George Cukor’s A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts. Colman took home the Academy Award for best actor for his role as Anthony John, a man who loses his grip on sanity after playing the role of Othello on Broadway for more than 200 performances.

9. Miracle on 34th Street

Edmund Gwenn won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role as a department store Santa who claims that his name is Kris Kringle and that he really is Santa Claus. Miracle on 34th Street is a holiday classic and a wonderful film. It walks the tricky line between faith and skepticism without ever going too far in either direction.

10. Black Narcissus

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus is a sensuous, beautifully lensed Technicolor production. Deborah Kerr plays a young Anglican nun who is appointed Sister Superior of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Calcutta. Not only does the convent occupy an abandoned harem high in the Himalaya mountains, but Sister Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the history of her order. The film is a fine character study and a well-acted story of the clash between fantasy and reality. Its visual textures, breathtaking scenery, and exquisite attention to detail are overwhelming.

Honorable Mentions:

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, The Bishop’s Wife, Boomerang, Brighton Rock, Crossfire, Dark Passage, The Farmer’s Daughter, The Gangster, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Lady From Shanghai, Monsieur Vincent, My Favorite Brunette, Odd Man Out, Ramrod, T-Men.

A Double Life (Dec. 25, 1947)

A Double Life
A Double Life (1947)
Directed by George Cukor
Universal Pictures

George Cukor’s A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor named Anthony John — “Tony” to his friends — who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts.

When the film begins, Tony appears to be a charming, “hail fellow well met” sort of chap who’s as friendly with theatrical agents and his fellow actors as he is with stagehands and women on the street. It’s no coincidence, however, that he’s starring in Philip MacDonald’s comedy A Gentleman’s Gentleman.

When the run comes to an end and he’s offered the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello, Tony hesitates. He’s always wanted to play the part, and even worked out some staging ideas years earlier.

But the role of Othello is a dark one (no pun intended), and Tony fears what psychic and emotional depths he might sink to playing the tragic Moor night after night.

And he’s not the only one. His beautiful ex-wife Brita Kaurin (Signe Hasso) cautions against it. She and Tony still love each other, but when she tells her boyfriend, theatrical agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien), what it was like to be married to Tony, it’s clear that the good times and bad times all coincided with the parts he was playing. “When he’s doing something gay like this it’s wonderful to be with him, but … when he gets going on one of those deep numbers,” she says. “We were engaged doing Oscar Wilde, broke it off doing O’Neill, were married doing Kaufman and Hart, and divorced doing Chekov.”

Winters and Colman

Against her better judgment, however, Brita eventually takes the role of Desdemona, and everything goes just as badly as you might expect.

If A Double Life were just a burlesque version of Othello, with a stand-in for Iago whispering lies about infidelity in Tony’s ear, it wouldn’t be nearly as good or as interesting as it is.

Instead, it’s a hypnotic portrait of self-inflicted madness. We watch Tony slide easily from one persona to another early in the film when he slips on a pair of eyeglasses and goes out to eat in a new restaurant, convincing young waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) that he’s new in town.

Ronald Colman

He’s a hugely talented actor, but his talent comes with a price. The more popular his performances as Othello become, the more his mental and emotional health deteriorate. (And his performances are indeed popular; his Othello ends up running on Broadway for an unbelievable, not to mention unrealistic, 300 performances.)

When Tony finally commits the inevitable murder, it’s not a passionate reenactment of Othello’s murder of Desdemona, it’s a weird, tawdry killing committed in a dissociative state.

There’s much about A Double Life that’s heavy-handed, both visually and thematically. If you’re paying close attention, all the attempts early in the film to hammer home the point that Anthony John has a “double life” might seem like a bit much. (Even his name — two Christian names in search of a surname — is a clue.) By the second or third reel, however, I was completely enthralled.

Othello

The plot of A Double Life is essentially pulpy and exploitative, so I think a great deal of credit must be paid to Ronald Colman for his exceptional performance, not only as Anthony John, but as Anthony John playing Othello. (The role was originally intended for Laurence Olivier. When Olivier was unavailable, the producers went with another seasoned British thespian.)

Colman ended up winning the Academy Award for best actor for his role in A Double Life. It was the fourth time he was nominated and the first time he won. (Miklós Rózsa’s score also won an Academy Award.) There are moments when his performance tends to get a little exaggerated and “showy,” but I thought that was appropriate for the character. He’s playing a self-involved, grandiose stage actor, after all.

Milton R. Krasner’s brilliant cinematography bears mention, too. There are many things about A Double Life that don’t exactly place it in the category of film noir, but the look of the film is pure noir. It’s full of shadows, dramatic lighting effects, city streets at night, and cramped, dark rooms. There’s a mounting sense of dread running through the film, and Krasner’s cinematography is largely responsible for it.

I had no idea what to expect from A Double Life and I was completely blown away. It’s a film where everything comes together; Cukor’s direction, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s script, Krasner’s photography, and the performances of the three principal actors. I’m looking forward to seeing it again some day, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it.

Gentleman’s Agreement (Nov. 11, 1947)

Director Elia Kazan’s fourth film, Gentleman’s Agreement, dominated the 20th Academy Awards.

It was nominated for eight Oscars and took home three — best picture for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, best director for Kazan, and best supporting actress for Celeste Holm.

It was also incredibly popular, and was the eighth highest grossing film of the year, earning more than $4 million at the box office.

This was a remarkable feat for a sober black and white drama about anti-Semitism, especially considering that most of the ten highest grossing films of 1947 were either comedies or Technicolor spectacles.

Before embarking on this project, I’d never had much desire to see Gentleman’s Agreement, despite my love of Kazan’s other films. It has a reputation for being heavy-handed, and I dislike movies with good intentions that spoon-feed the audience a simplistic message.

So I was really happy to discover that Gentleman’s Agreement is a much more subtle and thought-provoking film than its reputation suggests. It’s a little dry in stretches, but it wasn’t nearly as preachy as I was expecting.

In fact, it’s still a unique movie because it addresses not active, virulent anti-Semitism but the silent majority that allows prejudice to flourish. In other words, if there are ten people at a table and one person tells a nasty joke about Jews and the other nine people either chuckle politely or feel offended but don’t say anything, the problem is not the one anti-Semite, but the other nine people.

Most movies made after Gentleman’s Agreement still focus on active, violent hatred, which lets the audience off the hook to some degree. Someone can watch Mississippi Burning (1988) and come away with the feeling that they’re not a racist, because they’d never burn a cross in a black family’s yard or participate in a lynching.

Gentleman’s Agreement, on the other hand, never really lets the audience off the hook, and now that I’ve seen it, I suspect that part of its reputation for preachiness comes from the discomfort it causes.

For instance, there’s a great scene in which writer Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who is pretending to be Jewish in order to write an exposé on anti-Semitism, tries to get a hotel manager to tell him if the hotel is restricted. The manager refuses to answer the question, but still steers Green out of the hotel, saying things like “Maybe you would be more comfortable in another establishment.” The viewer expects Green to get somewhere and it’s incredibly frustrating when he doesn’t. Eventually he leaves and all the people in the lobby watch him go. Probably many of them feel bad about what’s happening, but no one speaks up. It’s a maddening, intensely uncomfortable scene, and begs the question, “What would you do if no one else was speaking up?”

Another scene that really stuck with me was the one in which Green’s son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) comes home crying after a group of boys call him a “stinking kike” and “dirty yid.” Green’s fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) is upset, as anyone would be, but she comforts Tommy by hugging him and telling him that it’s all a mistake, and he isn’t really Jewish.

This causes Green to fly into a rage, and he lectures Kathy that her attitude is what allows prejudice to flourish unchecked.

I think that Gregory Peck’s humorless performance and holier-than-thou attitude is what turns off some viewers, but I couldn’t find fault in the logic of anything he says in the film.

His relationship with his secretary Elaine (June Havoc) is particularly interesting, since she’s Jewish but pretends not to be. Early in the film, when she still believes Green is Jewish, she expresses dismay that the magazine they work for is courting Jewish applicants. She tells Green, “Just let them get one wrong one in here and it’ll come out of us. It’s no fun being the fall guy for the kikey ones.”

Green’s childhood friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield) tells him that he’s having such strong reactions to anti-Semitism because he’s experiencing it all at once. Dave grew up experiencing subtle prejudice, so he’s learned to filter a lot of it out. There’s something else, however, that I think is unspoken in the film, which is that Green is experiencing the passion of the newly converted.

He may not have converted to Judaism, but he’s committed to his subterfuge, and takes all the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism intensely personally.

Apparently many Hollywood studio heads, most of whom were Jewish, didn’t want Darryl F. Zanuck (who wasn’t Jewish) to make Gentleman’s Agreement. They feared that it would stir up trouble, and that directly confronting anti-Semitism would only make things worse.

One of the big themes of Gentleman’s Agreement is how wrong-headed this notion is, and that failing to confront things is never the right move.

It’s a really good movie, and not just because its philosophy is “politically correct.” The actors all play their parts perfectly, and it’s a really well-made film about people, and how people relate to each other. Most of the “big ideas” in the film are expressed the way they are in real life — by people who have opinions.

Body and Soul (Nov. 9, 1947)

Body and Soul
Body and Soul (1947)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Enterprise Productions / United Artists

Charlie Davis’s face is a road map. Every scar tells a story, and every story is the same — a bruising boxing match, a big purse, wealth, success, and another step farther away from the people he loves.

This isn’t a spoiler, because we see exactly how far Charlie Davis (John Garfield) has fallen in the first scene of Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul. He wakes from a nightmare, sweat glistening on his scarred face, mournfully crying out a name … “Ben!”

He drives to his childhood home in New York’s Lower East Side and sees his mother (Anne Revere), but neither she nor his old girlfriend, Peg (Lilli Palmer), wants anything to do with him, so he drives to a smoky jazz club to see the beautiful singer Alice (Hazel Brooks). She tells him his manager has been looking for him everywhere. “How does it look, Charlie, the night before the fight, three a.m. and you loaded?” she asks him.

The next morning at the weigh-in, the challenger for the middleweight championship of the world, Jack Marlowe (Artie Dorrell), derides the tired and hungover champ. “All fat,” he sneers. “Nightclub fat … whiskey fat … thirty-five year-old fat.”

Back in his dressing room, Charlie’s gangster manager Roberts (Lloyd Gough) reminds him that he’s being paid $60,000 to throw the fight, and to make it look good.

John Garfield

Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. We see Charlie’s youth as a tough Jewish kid looking to break into the fight game. His best friend Shorty Polaski (Joseph Pevney) is his manager. Charlie’s father David (Art Smith) is supportive, but his mother wants him to choose a more respectable profession than the sweet science. All of this is strongly reminiscent of Garfield’s previous film, Humoresque (1946), although I have to say that Garfield is more believable as a pugilist than he was as a violinist.

Body and Soul is the first really great boxing film, and it still stands as one of the best. Garfield’s performance as Charlie Davis is pitch-perfect, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is gorgeous. As good as Raging Bull (1980) is, it still owes an enormous debt to this film. And so does nearly every boxing picture made after 1947.

To be fair, the rise and fall structure of Body and Soul and most of its story elements were clichéd even at the time of the film’s release. But despite a sense of familiarity, Body and Soul still manages to feel fresh. A lot of this has to do with the final fight, which Howe famously shot with a handheld camera while standing on roller skates. It’s a brilliantly shot and edited sequence, and still thrilling to watch.

Garfield and Dorrell

Body and Soul was director Rossen’s second feature. His first, Johnny O’Clock (1947), was good, but overly complicated and occasionally contrived. Body and Soul, on the other hand, is a punch straight to the gut. It’s moving, brilliantly acted, and one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.

Body and Soul was nominated for three Oscars; John Garfield for best actor, Abraham Polonsky for best original screenplay, and Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish for best film editing, the only category in which it won.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Sept. 1, 1947)

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer was the surprise winner of the Oscar for best original screenplay at the 20th Academy Awards in 1948, beating out the scripts for more “serious” fare like Body and Soul, A Double Life, Monsieur Verdoux, and Sciuscià (Shoeshine).

But just because its win was surprising doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve to win. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a very funny film. It’s a latter-day screwball comedy about a handsome artist who is forced — by court order, no less — to date a teenage girl.

Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay treats those jumpin’ and jivin’ post-war kids with affection rather than bemusement or contempt, and he has a keen understanding of the ways teenagers try to act like adults, and how they unwittingly fail.

The dialogue might not be a completely accurate evocation of the way real bobby-soxers and their jalopy-driving boyfriends actually talked (did any kid before this movie came out actually say that they felt “sklonklish”?), but the characterizations all feel right.

Former child star Shirley Temple — all grown up (sort of) — plays the bobby-soxer of the title, a 17-year-old high school student named Susan who lives with her older sister. Her older sister just happens to be a judge, and when the film begins, the Honorable Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy) is presiding over a case involving a kerfuffle at a nightclub between a couple of brassy gals over the affections of charming artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant).

Margaret and Susan’s parents are dead, so Margaret is as much of a mother to Susan as she is a big sister. After the initial courtroom scene, the stage is set for the sparks of disapproval to fly as soon as Margaret learns that the object of her little sister’s affection is the same Lothario she saw in court.

Most of the humor in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer comes from the fact that Richard has absolutely no desire to be with Susan, but is ordered by the court, under the recommendation of a psychologist, to take her out on dates so his mature-man forbidden fruit will sooner wither and die, and she’ll go back to her sweet, somewhat dumb high school boyfriend, Jerry (Johnny Sands).

Susan is mature for her age, but she’s still a 17-year-old. Watching Cary Grant suffer through taking her to Sunset High School basketball games and dates at the ice cream shop are some of the funniest bits I’ve seen in a long time.

Cary Grant — no stranger to screwball comedies — has an arch, deadpan comic style that’s perfectly suited to the material. Temple is really great in this movie, too. Like Deanna Durbin, she was an impossibly cute child star who blossomed into an engaging adult performer without missing a beat. And Myrna Loy is wonderful to watch, as always. It doesn’t matter that she was old enough to be Temple’s mother when she made this movie. She barely looks a decade older, and she matches Cary Grant beat for beat in all their scenes together.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a great comedy that stands the test of time.

Black Narcissus (May 26, 1947)

A lot of people make a big deal of the fact that Black Narcissus was released the same year that India became an independent nation. The film, which was written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is a sensuous, beautifully lensed Technicolor production. (Black Narcissus won two Academy Awards. Alfred Junge took home the award for best art direction and set direction in the color category and Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for best color cinematography.)

The reason a lot of people make a big deal of its 1947 release is because a major theme of Black Narcissus is the inability of the British heart and mind to penetrate the mysteries of the Indian subcontinent. Deborah Kerr plays a young Anglican nun, Sister Clodagh, who is appointed Sister Superior of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Calcutta. Not only does the convent occupy an abandoned harem high in the Himalaya mountains, but Sister Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the history of her order.

The plot of Black Narcissus isn’t as important as the mood the film creates, its scenery, or its overwhelming sense of lush sensuality.

Michael Powell wrote of Black Narcissus that it was the most erotic film he ever made. “It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.”

None of this is to say that the eroticism of Black Narcissus is the only thing that makes it worth watching. It’s a fine character study and a well-acted story of the clash between fantasy and reality. But its visual textures, breathtaking scenery, and exquisite attention to detail are overwhelming.

Remarkably, Powell and Pressburger — who produced films together under the name “The Archers” — created all of their majestic Himalaya settings on the soundstages of Pinewood Studios. Usually matte paintings call attention to themselves and fool no one. In Black Narcissus they are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film and are good enough to create a sense of vertigo in the scenes in which Sister Clodagh rings the enormous bell that hangs near the precipice on one side of the convent.

Black Narcissus is not a perfect film. While the performances are generally good, especially from Kerr as Sister Clodagh, David Farrar as the insouciant and charming British agent Mr. Dean, and Kathleen Byron as the unhinged Sister Ruth, the native characters are mostly played by British actors, which doesn’t always work. The 18-year-old English actress Jean Simmons is beautiful and beguiling as the dancing girl, Kanchi, but her light-colored eyes clash with her brown face makeup. Much less effective is May Hallatt as the deranged Angu Ayah, a servant inherited by the convent. Her screeching Cockney line delivery was so confusing that for most of the picture I wasn’t sure where her character was supposed to be from. (The only Indian actor in the film, Sabu, who plays the Young General, is from southern India, not northern India, where the film takes place.)

But these are minor quibbles. Black Narcissus is a stunningly beautiful film that I look forward to seeing again some day. Despite its sometimes outlandish story and its melodramatic elements, it’s a meticulously crafted piece of art from the greatest British directors of all time.

Miracle on 34th Street (May 2, 1947)

When I was a kid, I briefly corresponded with Santa Claus. I’m not talking about the annual “letter to Santa” every kid writes, with a list of everything they want in their stocking that year. I dropped Santa a line in the off-season — June or July — and asked him how summers were at the North Pole, how Mrs. Claus and the elves were doing, and what his reindeer liked to eat.

I was eight or nine years old. I didn’t exactly believe in Santa Claus, but I liked the idea of him. Writing a letter to him felt good. And doing it in the summer made me feel unselfish.

I can’t remember if I was surprised or not when I received a response from Santa Claus.

It was a typewritten letter, and it was postmarked the North Pole. Santa thanked me for my letter, let me know what was going on at the North Pole, told me what his reindeer liked to eat, and told me that he liked my drawing of a train and said he assumed I must live near a railroad and that he sincerely hoped I stayed away from the railroad tracks. I didn’t quite understand that last part. There was a freight train that ran through town, but it wasn’t that close to my house, and I never hung out down there, and why wouldn’t Santa know that? Doesn’t he know everything? Surely “plays risky games on the train tracks” would’ve put me in the “naughty” column, wouldn’t it?

He ended the letter by saying that he thought the stamp I’d pasted to the front of the letter was awfully attractive, and asked if I’d ever considered stamp collecting as a hobby. He may have thrown in some stamps to get me started. I can’t remember.

I figured I should probably take Santa’s advice, so I got into stamp collecting and kept up the hobby for several years. It did occur to me that it was a little strange that the last place I saw my letter to Santa was sliding down the mail slot at the post office and that I got a response from some dude calling himself Santa who seemed to be really into philately. (That’s “stamp collecting” for all you non-philatelists out there.)

Around this time, one of my teenaged foster sister’s friends asked me if I believed in Santa Claus, and I responded, “I believe in the spirit of Christmas.”

Which brings me around (finally) to George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. It was just as funny and enjoyable as I remember it being. I found the scene in which Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) tells a shop owner that his store display features his reindeer in the wrong order more whimsical than factual this time around, and the scene in which we see a man in a chintzy Santa suit, drunk as a lord, really disturbed me when I was a kid. This time around, it was merely mildly amusing. (As a jaded adult, Santa Claus-related hijinks have to be a little more disturbing than public intoxication to get a rise out of me.)

Kris Kringle replaces the intoxicated Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and does such a good job that he’s hired as a store Santa. Unlike most department store Santas, he doesn’t shill for his employer. In his first day on the job at Macy’s, he sends a harried mother (Thelma Ritter) to Schoenfeld’s Department Store, which he says is the only place in town that has the toy her son wants. Kringle keeps a very close watch on the toy market, after all. She’s flabbergasted that a department store Santa would send her to a competitor, but she’s delighted, too, and Kringle’s helpfulness creates an enormous wave of good publicity for Macy’s.

The only problem is that Kris believes he really is Santa Claus, and tells everyone so. When the event director who hired him, single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), finds out that he’s been filling the head of her six-year-old daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), full of such nonsense, she’s upset, and pulls his employment card. It lists his address as Brooks’ Memorial Home for the Aged, 126 Maplewood Drive, Great Neck, Long Island, but his date of birth says “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth,” under “place” he has written “North Pole,” and his eight tiny reindeer are listed as his next of kin.

Dr. Pierce (James Seay), the doctor at Kris’s nursing home, assures Doris that Kris’s delusion is harmless, but a meddling little twit named Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) who gives psychological evaluations to Macy’s employees conspires to have Kris committed.

In order to prove Kris’s sanity, his lawyer, Fred Gailey (John Payne), announces that he will in fact prove that Kringle is Santa Claus, and therefore not insane. It’s the trial of the century. A series of newspapers blare increasingly wild headlines, culminating in the ridiculous “Kris Kringle Krazy? Kourt Kase Koming ‘Kalamity!’ Kry Kiddies.” (A lot of people will tell you that puns are the lowest form of humor, but they’re not. Alliteration is.)

Miracle on 34th Street is a wonderful film. It walks the tricky line between faith and skepticism without ever going too far in either direction. Every character who has faith is rewarded, but there’s nothing in the film that’s overtly unreal. Doris and Fred find love with each other, and Susan’s only Christmas wish is fulfilled, but in a clever, roundabout way. (There’s no final shot of Kris Kringle shooting out of a chimney or anything.)

It was a little weird to watch this movie in springtime. It created the same type of cognitive dissonance as smelling turkey roasting in August, or attending a Fourth of July barbecue in November. I blame Daryl F. Zanuck, who insisted that the film be released in May, since he said that more people went to the movies in the summer than during the holidays. The studio kept the film’s Christmas theme a secret in its trailer. Also, you’ll note that the theatrical release poster above prominently features Payne and O’Hara, and Gwenn is not dressed up like Santa.

Miracle on 34th Street was nominated for four Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Gwenn), Best Adapted Screenplay (George Seaton), and Best Story (Valentine Davies). It won all of the Oscars it was nominated for except Best Picture, which went to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement.

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