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Tag Archives: John Payne

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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The Razor’s Edge (Nov. 19, 1946)

Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge, based on the best-selling 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, features an Academy Award-winning performance by Anne Baxter in a supporting role, great-looking sets, deliciously bitchy acting by Clifton Webb, and a chance for Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney to show that they were better actors than they are usually given credit for.

So why didn’t I like it? Everything about this film reeks of “Oscar bait.” It’s high-minded, pretentious, and self-important, but ultimately shallow. There are a number of interesting characters in the framing sections of the film, but the central story about a young man named Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) seeking enlightenment in Eastern spirituality falls flat, and everything else in the movie hangs on it.

Darrell is a veteran of the Great War who returns home to Chicago in 1919 questioning life after a fellow soldier — a friend of his — died saving his life. His confusion and guilt lead him to reject ordinary life and travel the world searching for meaning. He leaves behind his fiancée, porcelain-skinned beauty Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), as well as a sharply drawn cast of supporting characters; Isabel’s uncle, the fabulously wealthy and snobbish Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), the tragic hanger-on Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter), and “regular guy” Gray Maturin (John Payne). Just as in the novel, Maugham himself (played by Herbert Marshall) pops in and out of these characters’ lives.

When Tyrone Power first appears in the film, the character of Maugham says in voiceover, “This is the young man of whom I write. He is not famous. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end, he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on this earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. Yet it may be that the way of life he has chosen for himself may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men, so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”

Maugham’s words are prophetic. In the decades after he wrote The Razor’s Edge, many young men (and some women) would seek wisdom and enlightenment just as Larry does, traveling the world working a series of menial jobs and seeking truth in non-Christian religions.

While working in a coal mine in France, Larry plays cards and drinks with an old man who eventually turns out to be (unshockingly, based on the dialogue that passes between them) a defrocked priest running away from himself. The priest tells Larry of an Indian holy man who is vastly wise, and who may be able to set Larry straight.

Larry makes his way to India, and it was at this point that — at least for me — the movie took a nosedive. While all kinds of terrible things are happening to the other characters — Isabel is in a loveless marriage, Sophie loses her baby and becomes an alcoholic, etc. — Larry hangs out in a set that looks left over from Anna and the King of Siam and studies with an Indian guru who is ridiculously played by British actor Cecil Humphreys. The holy man speaks only of “God,” nothing specific, and certainly nothing polytheistic. His mysticism is inoffensive New Age stuff along the lines of Deepak Chopra’s vague aphorisms.

After Larry learns all he can from books, the holy man sends him on a pilgrimage to the mountains, where he receives “enlightenment” in the form of a matte painting of sun bursting out from behind the clouds and one last mealy-mouthed conversation with the guru.

All of this might have been meaningful in the novel. I can’t say, as I haven’t read it. But at least in this film, Larry’s spiritual journey is a bunch of vague nonsense that trades on the supposed exoticism of the East without actually including anything strange or specific enough to offend Peoria. Worst of all, he returns to his circle of friends, who are now bumming around Europe, with what amounts to a bag of parlor tricks. He does some hypnosis, forcing his friend Gray to drop a coin after he counts to ten and then tells Gray that he will feel pain no longer. Stuff like that. I was surprised he hadn’t learned to turn himself invisible, like Lamont Cranston in The Shadow.

When the movie ends, we’re supposed to believe that everyone who came into contact with Larry is better, somehow, because he is possessed of the most powerful force in the universe, goodness. But what is it about him makes him so good? He agrees to marry Sophie when she is in the depths of her alcoholism, which leads another character to describe him as being in the grips of self-sacrifice, which seems more apt.

Is Larry a good person because, at the end of the film, he works his way back to America on a tramp steamer? So do legions of cruder, simpler men. Does the mere fact of Larry’s enlightened attitude make his manual labor somehow nobler than the manual labor of “lesser” men? If it does, then why? The film never answers this question, but rather asks us to accept its thesis at face value.

I love all the actors in The Razor’s Edge, and they give some of the best performances of their careers in this film. But while it contains plenty of strong individual scenes, it’s a sodden, overlong snoozefest.