Gabby: This time round our gang of lovable misfit superheroes take a detour and talk about one of my favourite Christmas movies. For the first time, the Indefensibles go defensible.
The Original Miracle on 34th Street focuses on a single mother who believes in practical matters and has lost faith in the world around her. That changes when she meets a kind and eccentric old man, Kris Kringle, who insists he is the real Santa Clause. I watch this movie every December. Each time it is like a lovely, homemade, caramel hot chocolate. Making me feel safe, warm and seven years old, waiting for the sound of Santa’s sleigh on the roof.
Brett: Soooooo, I shouldn’t go on about how it’s practically a communist tract then? Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but I have now seen it so many times that my mind goes to some Room 237 style places. I actually enjoy it a little more thinking “Oh look at that whiley old man, caring about the community and making the Borgusei store owners look foolish.” This movie does something that all three movies manage in some way. There is a lot of cynical prodding while managing to actually make you realize that actually they care more and care harder than the people they’re trolling. Kris, Ralphie and the double team of Gonzo & Rizo never let the side down. They’re all very honest characters. Kris hides nothing, he’s very generous, and he cares deeply about everyone around him.
Jeremy: Was I the only one who thought that this soul-searching Santa spent the previous Christmas season on a Leaving Las Vegas-style bender before waking up one day in that old folks’ home?
Confession: I’ve never seen any version of this movie before. Honestly, Gabby, I feel a little awful right now. I think I’m about to poop on another one of your movies. I’m writing this only a few minutes after my first viewing, so everything’s fresh and a bit of a jumble in my head, but I was both charmed and disgusted by this movie.
Brett: Anytime someone turns against a beloved Christmas classic I really want to examine why. The movie’s main premise is basically “troll the legal process, LOL!” And while I like it, I have problems with parts of it as well.
Jeremy: This movie isn’t just about trolling the legal system, it’s trolling everyone. At one point in this movie, I was willing to suspend “my silly common sense” (oh, how I hate that line and its implications) and believe that Terry Gilliam traveled back in time to make a straight-faced, acidic parody of faith, bureaucracy, and patriarchy, which was cunningly disguised as a Christmas classic.
Brett: Well that’s one of the reasons I suggest a communist propaganda film. Look how silly capitalism makes people. I have also seen a few Russian propaganda films from the 40s that are similar to this. I don’t know if Kris is the real deal, but I like it better if he isn’t. I enjoy the story better if he’s just a nice old man who is good with people and manages to bring the best out of everyone he meets. I am that cynic that wants to believe it will all be alright, but has had experience with human beings before. So it’s better for me if he’s just a guy and not a supernatural force.
I watched part of the 1954 made for tv version. They used the same script, some of the same film stock, and a lot of the same camera angles. There are lines cut out here and there, but otherwise it’s word for word.
Jeremy: The dialogue’s snappy and fun, and the cast is uniformly excellent at making all the banter sound effortless. It’s a great example of how lively dialogue-driven films from this era can be. If I’m just looking at the surface of this movie, I can see why it’s a classic. However, here comes the rant…
Either Kris is the real deal or not. In a way, though, it doesn’t really matter. Despite all the big speeches to the contrary, this guy is actually aiding and abetting in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less. Let’s be honest, Santa is THE symbol of the commercial side of Christmas. And it’s weird that this movie never really gets that. I mean, he freakin’ decides to become a mall Santa. It ends with a little girl having a tantrum because she lives in a nice high-rise apartment instead of a house in the suburbs.
Again, I like the idea of Santa needing to get his groove back, but this Santa doesn’t just have a problem with letting the true meaning of Christmas get lost in the shuffle, he is the problem. All he’s doing is building a better mousetrap. Sure, he’s well-meaning, but he doesn’t bring out the best in anyone. Most of the characters are just trying to make a buck or hang onto their jobs. I’d be considerably more charmed by this movie if Santa was intentionally getting a little egg on their faces, but everyone comes out richer and looking better thanks to him.
Like I said before, it would feel like this angry parody about why we often believe in fantasies or end up with shitty laws and politicians if it felt like this was intentional. You know what this movie reminded me of? The Star Wars Prequels. Each film in that trilogy was about how Palpatine schemed his way one step closer to creating the Empire. Miracle on 34th Street could easily be part one of a similar trilogy. This is the movie where Kris Kringle is legally declared as Santa. In the second movie, he gets emergency powers due to a price war he secretly engineered. Then, the series ends with Santa using his mall elf army to utterly wipe out Gimbels so Macy’s can become the ultimate economic force in the galaxy.
Gabby: You think Santa is commercial symbol? I think I will go cry into my Frozen blanket for a bit.
Brett: Well… yeah… he kind of is. I mean, just as he was crystallized in the last 120 years or so.
Gabby: Although, we have held on the continent since the 4th Century that celebrates St Nick?
Brett: I mean the festival as it had evolved recently. St Nicholas has very little to do with the modern Santa Claus, particularly as represented in America. I mean the name Kris Kringle comes from the Lutheran attempt to co-opt St Nick’s day. Kris Kringle is Christ Child in German and relates to how in an attempt to make St. Nicholas day more holy, they had the Baby Jesus hanging with the fat man. So the movie is actually saying this dude is Jesus. Sort of. A book called Christmas, A Candid History gives an informative discussion around this in greater detail.
Gabby: In Britain, the Victorians basically rejuvenated Christmas and how we saw it. The Christmas cards. The carols. It was cold here. The Thames froze over. London covered in snow. People skated on the Thames. That is the era Dicken’s Christmas Carol obviously. Which is why that is actually one of the best Christmas stories. But we can go into that more. You make an interesting theory about America though. I would like to see a British TV drama or something of Miracle and see how it would differ.
The Victorians really kept a strong impact on the way we still celebrate the holiday. And their way of seeing Santa was kind of like the people who ask for money for the poor from Scrooge, or more accurately, what Scrooge is by the end, similarly speaking. Also it is a less Religious country by nature here now.
I think that is why the Victorian era Christmas translates well here still. There are Christians here of course. But, at this time, for the majority of them, it more is about being like Christ. More accepting and loving. Like Santa too. He isn’t a religious symbol here, so many types of child believe in Santa because of it. As he carries the same message of kindness, generosity and coming together once a year when we are all cold and need a fireplace to sit round. We do have a rather huge case of commercialistic spirit all over the cities. But I think Santa is still special.
Jeremy: Don’t get me wrong, I’m pro-Santa. And I know my history. I know there’s so much more to this figure. I also know he’s the guy trying to sell me TVs and toasters and Coca-Cola every year.
And I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of thinking this guy is supposed to represent Jesus. It’s blessed are the poor, not blessed are the shopper who finds a better deal down the street. It’s love thy neighbor, not get with thy neighbor. If this guy’s supposed to be Jesus, then he’s a Jesus the Romans could’ve gotten behind. Let’s take history, politics, and religion out of the equation. This is a story about a character who feels an ideology has gone too far in one direction. Every choice he makes only pushes things further in that direction. And the film feels pretty clueless about that.
Brett: Before we dwell too long on the negatives, what do you love about this movie, Gabby?
Gabby: Maureen O’Hara. Can we please discuss Maureen O’Hara?
Jeremy: She’s great. I mean, she’s Maureen O’Hara. This being my first viewing, I expected the movie to be focused on her. I was disappointed that wasn’t the case.
Brett: If I remember correctly, she was a last minute replacement.
Gabby; Maureen is great. I just think she is wonderful. There is something so earnest about her. She really plays that well.I agree that I wish there was more of her as I think it would be a very dynamic character. She manages to do that with what she is given. The way she talks about fairy tales and Princes is just emotional enough and a look in her eyes before she realised what she was saying. Like exposing herself to be heartbroken. It really is fantastic.
Jeremy: That would make sense. She’s too good and fiery for this man next door/Santa knows best movie.
Gabby: She really was a fiery person. And there is no doubt in my mind that role of organising a parade is viable to me when played by her. That is an interesting point of view. I agree that suburbs thing doesn’t suit her. She lived in a tiny village at the end of her life, where she was born. In the deep Irish green hills and romantic rugged countryside. With the red hair blowing in the wind no doubt. She was exceedingly proud of being Irish. She was the first person to ever become an American citizen with the nationality of Irish instead of English, as she fought for her right to do so for such fervour.
Jeremy: True… But I don’t believe for a second she would’ve hired that drunk Santa, or, upon seeing him in that condition, not beat him half to death with her shoes.
Gabby: I agree with that Jeremy. She was a very kind lady and would never do anything of the sort, but for sure wouldn’t let that go unnoticed either.
You see, I disagree with you two on the movie not tackling the idea that Santa is a symbol of commercialism as I think it does. ‘He’s a born salesman’ is Macy’s first reaction to him after all. They immediately think how they make money off his genuine Christmas spirit.
I just think this film is filled with so many charming beats. Take when the always wonderful Thelma Ritter is so stunned that he recommends a different store. It is taken a back that someone isn’t trying to take advantage and ‘make a buck’ out of any scenario. She is so moved by it, a very small thoughtful gesture that turns your day around. I really appreciate things like that when they happen to me. As the world can be so cruel. Having someone just do small thing and be warm towards you makes all the difference, especially when having a bad day.
I think at its core the film is asking you, why should you not have hope? Why not have imagination? These things make you see the good in the world. They bring joy and laughter. Sure common sense gets you through life. But being ‘sensible’ is not the only way to be. There’s room for more.
I have always been told I had too vivid an imagination. That I was ‘away with the fairies’ or live in la la land or things like that. That I don’t understand reality. I understand reality just fine. But I love my imagination. This is who I am and I can’t help it. And no amount of people trying to tell me I was wrong or stupid changed my personality. So why not just let me be? I made some people who went along with it happy too. They started believing in my stories too, enjoying it. Then I had my younger siblings who loved it. Some people have actually told me they think it is dangerous to have such an imagination. Or to encourage it. To that I simply say,
please watch J. K Rowling’s Harvard Speech about it and you can see how imagination can benefit the world.
This film, for me, is another way of expressing Jo’s beautiful words about the importance of imagination. For in the film, not everyone has to believe he is Santa. But instead, the film encourages for everyone to try and be a person with kindness and compassion. Also to allow for people to believe Kris is Santa, particularly children. That I think, is what the film is saying.
To quote Jo’s speech: ‘Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and regulatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
Jeremy: I get where you’re coming from, Gabby. You need common sense and imagination, you need hope and all those good things. For me, this movie lacks a sense of checks and balances. If it were about Maureen O’Hara learning to have a little more faith and John Payne learning to have a little more common sense, I’d be completely on board.
Gabby: Closing thoughts, everyone?
Jeremy: This was my first time watching this movie, and I didn’t expect to have this reaction to it. It’s no defense, but I watched this with my wife (also her first viewing), and she was even angrier than I was while watching it.
I can see that it’s sweet. It means well. This film doesn’t have a malicious bone in its body. It’s trying to land a lot of jokes and emotional beats. It often succeeds. But it’s so focused on individual moments and getting them to play that there’s no thought of the big picture, of the implications.
Brett: I like the movie. I recognize the flaws, and I am annoyed by the things that annoy me, but I still watch the movie every couple of years. I will never not enjoy the final court scene when the dominoes all fall into place and they pour the envelopes onto the judge’s bench. But the older I get, the more I recognize the flaws and the more they jump out at me.
Gabby: To me, the movie is about believing in people. Not a great myth or religion. I think it is believing in the goodness of human beings. And having faith that not everyone will let you down. That sometimes common sense isn’t the only thing that you need. A little bit of love and trust too. Shutting people out has been her way. And she has a reason for it. Thanks to her performance I can strongly relate to her why. I never think she is a bad mother or she is in the wrong. I think it is more that she is hurt. And having some faith in the people around her built up is no indoctrination but instead just a way to get by. A way to see there are good people as well as bad. That our actions can truly change things for the better. A small thing can bring a smile to someone’s day. I think that is what the movie is about, at the heart of it.
Jeremy: Thanks for reading, everyone. Due to the three of us dealing with a lot of real life at the moment, we may or may not be back this season to talk about one more Christmas movie before the big day arrives.
If not, you can look forward to us talking about more hard-to-defend movies in 2016. In the meantime, please follow us on Twitter. And if you’re reading this and thinking I’m a human monster, please hate follow me on Twitter.
Happy Holidays to you and yours.