20 December: The little miracle that could . . .

Edmund Gwenn, singular Santa. (Photo: 20th Century Fox.)

Edmund Gwenn, singular Santa. (Photo: 20th Century Fox.)

To a 21st Century viewer (of the original film) or listener (to any of several radio adaptatios), the very idea of the overcommercialised Christmas being satirised gently but firmly, in a time often misinterpreted to be less than mere bottom-lined, reeks of the Hallmark Channel.

What would you think, to put it plainly, if you ran across an old man who not only looked like Kris Kringle but confidently claimed that he was?” asked the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther upon Miracle on 34th Street’s June 1947 premiere.

And what would you think, more specifically, if you were an executive of Macy’s store, employing the old man to lure the kiddies before Christmas, and caught him sending customers to Gimbel’s, down the street. Would you see in this merchandising technique a “friendly policy,” as Mr. Macy does, or would you figure the old fellow crazy and a menace, as does a sour psychiatrist?

Well, if you were Valentine Davies and George Seaton, who wrote the story and script of Miracle on 34th Street for Twentieth Century-Fox, you would give free rein to the latter point of view and you would get the old man before the Supreme Court on a question of his sanity. You would, for the sake of the story and an uncommonly fascinating jest, call for a formal court decision as to whether there is actually a Santa Claus. And, furthermore, you would demand substantiation that this old fellow is the true Santa himself—and you would then go ahead and prove it by the highest authority in the land. By doing so, you would not only gladden the hearts of all New York but you would bring a young couple to matrimony and you would lift a little girl’s doubts.

And you would even forgive such absurdities as Fox chieftain Darryl F. Zanuck insisting on releasing this Christmas jewel in the birth of summertime, because he thought more people went to the movies during the summer. Such as the once-notorious Catholic Legion of Decency rating the film “B” for the moral objectionability of a divorced mother as one of the central characters. Such as R.H. Macy himself—who figures prominently enough in Miracle on 34th Street—being a ghost: the real Rowland Hussey Macy was seventy years gone from this mortal coil when his film alter ego decided there were times it was safe to tell Gimbel’s.

You might even refuse to suppress a tear when Maureen O’Hara’s cynical Doris Walker and John Payne’s kind of cynical-about-cynicism Fred Grailey are shepherded to marriage by a stout Santa whose portrayer couldn’t bring himself to re-marry after his only marriage ended during World War I, while he served as a British Army officer, “because I was very happy with my wife. I simply stayed faithful to the memory of that happiness.”

Although Edmund Gwenn would portray the role three times on radio, he’d never do that better than he does tonight on radio’s all-time film- or stage-based dramatic anthology. In which is done what Zanuck cynically refused to do, and present it in its proper season, which—in a small piece of poetic justice—didn’t injure it at the next Academy Awards.


Lux Radio Theater: Miracle on 34th Street (CBS, 1948)

What proves to have been a tour-de-force for Best Supporting Actor Edmund Gwenn is also a terrific vehicle for Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and young Natalie Wood, on screen or at the microphones reprising their timeless film performance.

All three prove just as effective bringing to radio the timeless yarn that would be described immortally by TV Guide in due course: “the department store Santa who goes on trial to prove he’s the real Kris Kringle.” He challenges at once the law’s recalcitrance, commerce’s contradictions, a young lawyer’s (Payne) idealism, an embittered young mother’s (O’Hara) intractable literalism, and a young girl’s (Wood) too-literal cynicism. And he’s a formidable challenger, even if he can’t admit he can see through the absurdity of it all.

Perhaps it will speak, too, to only too much of what’s amiss in 21st Century Hollywood that such an uplifting comedy, performed with this kind of warm directness, wouldn’t stand (if you’ll pardon the expression) a prayer of an Oscar, offered even in jest.

Shellhammer: Philip Tonge. Boy: Kevin Burke. R.H. Macy: Harry Antrim. Sawyer: Porter Hall. Mara: Jerome Cowan. Harper: Gene Lockhart. Postal Worker: Herb Vigran. Host: William Keighley. Music: Louis Silvers. Adapted from the screenplay by Valentine Davies and George Seaton.


Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: An Old Fashioned Christmas (comedy; NBC, 1936)
Lux Radio Theater: Song of Songs (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1937)
The Great Gildersleeve: Christmas 1942 (comedy; NBC, 1942)
Texaco Star Theater with Fred Allen: Santa Claus Sits Down (comedy; CBS, 1942)
Rogue’s Gallery: Fortune in Furs (crime drama; Mutual, 1945)
Suspense: Double Entry (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1945)
Escape: Figure a Dame (adventure; CBS, 1949)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Best Christmas Decorations (comedy; NBC, 1949)
Life with Luigi: Pasquale Takes Luigi’s Christmas Money (comedy; CBS, 1949)
Broadway is My Beat: The Charles Ralston Murder Case (crime drama; CBS, 1952)
Gunsmoke: Christmas Story (Western; CBS, 1952)
Our Miss Brooks: The Christmas Gift Mix-Up (comedy; CBS; Armed Forces Radio and Television Services Rebroadcast, 1953)
The Six Shooter: Britt Ponset’s Christmas Carol (Western: NBC, 1953)
Suspense: The Cave (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1955)

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