Sunday, December 20, 2015

Movie Review: Miracle on 34th Street, starring Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood (1947)

Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood, and Maureen O'Hara in Miracle on 34th Street, 1947.

Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street, 1947.

The original 1947 poster for Miracle on 34th Street. Notice how it doesn't give any indication that it's a Christmas movie.
Natalie Wood began her career as a child actress at the age of 5. After appearing in a couple of uncredited bit parts, she played her first credited role in 1946’s Tomorrow is Forever. Natalie’s most famous role as a child actress was as a little girl who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. Natalie starred as Susan Walker, whose mother Doris (Maureen O’Hara) has instilled in her a realistic attitude towards life. Susan doesn’t like playing pretend with the other children, and she certainly doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. When Doris hires a new Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn) for Macy’s department store who actually believes he is Santa Claus, Susan doesn’t believe him. The plot of Miracle on 34th Street deals with people’s reactions to Santa, and whether or not they think he’s actually Santa. One person who believes Santa is Doris’ neighbor, Fred Gailey, (John Payne) a handsome young lawyer. 

Miracle on 34th Street is an excellent Christmas movie, and it’s easy to see why it has retained its magic over the years. It’s interesting to see Natalie Wood as a little girl. She’s an excellent child actress, and you can definitely see traces of the adult she grew up to be. 

On the set, Wood was already a serious actress, and her biographer Suzanne Finstad wrote, “One-Take Natalie, her new nickname, impressed everyone. If the adult actors forgot their lines, she cued them. George Seaton, the director, was amazed at how businesslike she was.” (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.57) Wood was also filming The Ghost and Mrs. Muir at the same time as Miracle on 34th Street, and sometimes she would film scenes for one movie in the morning and the other in the afternoon. By February of 1947, Wood was making three films at 20th Century Fox, as she had also been cast in a movie called Summer Lightning, which would eventually be released in 1948 as Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! That movie marked the film debut of a young actress named Marilyn Monroe.

Miracle on 34th Street was a happy set, as Maureen O’Hara told Finstad, “Every day, it was magic. We had a wonderful, happy, magical time making the movie. Edmund Gwenn was Santa Claus. I mean that literally. He believed he was Santa Claus.” (Finstad, p.56-7) Wood also believed that Gwenn was Santa Claus. She said in an interview, “I still vaguely believed in Santa Claus. I guess I had an inkling that maybe it wasn’t so, but I really did think that Edmund Gwenn was Santa. And I had never seen him without his beard-because he used to come in early in the morning and spend several hours putting on this wonderful beard and mustache. And at the end of the shoot, when we had a set party, I saw this strange man, without the beard, and I just couldn’t get it together.” (Finstad, p.63)

In an odd move for a Christmas movie, Fox released Miracle on 34th Street in May. Despite the strange timing, the movie became a hit, and made Natalie Wood one of the most popular child stars in Hollywood. Miracle on 34th Street is full of excellent performances, including Edmund Gwenn’s turn as Kris Kringle, which won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Maureen O’Hara, who does an excellent job as a modern divorcee trying to raise a sensible daughter, and John Payne is very good as the handsome young lawyer trying to woo Doris. And of course Natalie Wood is superb, as she delivers a naturalistic performance that previews the success she would have in the future.  

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