20 December: From Macy’s to Dickens on the plains

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

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

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

Darryl F. Zanuck thought releasing Miracle on 34th Street as summer 1947 was born would be a clever idea because, well, he thought more people go to the movies in summer. Lux Radio Theater thinks tonight’s the more appropriate time to present its radio adaptation. In a small piece of poetic justice, the broadcast won’t injure the film at the next Academy Awards, where Edmund Gwenn will win Best Supporting Actor for the role he reprises tonight.

Zanuck’s release schedule could hardly have been more absurd than the once-notorious Catholic Legion of Decency rating the film B because it objected to a divorced mother as one of the central characters. Or, more absurd than R.H. Macy himself, who figures prominently enough in the film story, being a ghost, since the real Rowland Hussey Macy was seventy years departed from this mortal coil when his film alter ego decided there were times it was safe to tell Gimbel’s.

“What would you think, to put it plainly,” asked the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther when the film premiered in June 1947, “if you ran across an old man who not only looked like Kris Kringle but confidently claimed he was?” Not to mention, what would you think if you were a Macy’s executive employing the old man to lure the kiddies approaching Christmas and caught him sending customers to Gimbel’s if Macy’s didn’t have what they sought? Would you see it as a “friendly policy,” as our ghost Macy does, or would you figure the old man as crazy as a dour psychiatrist does?

Valentine Davies and George Seaton, writing story and script for 20th Century Fox, gave free reign to the latter point of view, sending the old man to court on a question of sanity, calling for a court ruling on whether there really is a Santa Claus, demanding substantiation that he’s the real deal, and proving it by the highest authority in New York. Warming the hearts of even cynical New York, luring a youngish couple to the altar, and finishing what the old man started in lifting a little girl’s doubts.

You might even refuse to suppress a tear when the cynical mother and her cynical-about-cynicism suitor are shepherded to the altar by a stout Santa whose portrayer in real life couldn’t bear to re-marry, after his only marriage ended during World War I, in which he’d served as a British Army officer, “because I was very happy with my wife. I simply stayed faithful to the memory of that happiness.”

Edmund Gwenn would play the role on radio three times. He’d never do it better than he does tonight. Perhaps having his main film cast by his side—Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and the young Natalie Wood reprise their film roles—does that. And it is to mourn that 21st Century Hollywood is bereft enough of soul that an absurdist holiday comedy with this kind of warm directness wouldn’t stand, if you’ll pardon the expression, a prayer of an Oscar, offered even in jest.

Macy: Harry Antrim. Sawyer: Porter Hall. Mara: Jerome Cowan. Harper: Gene Lockhart. Host: William Keighley. Music: Louis Silvers. Adapted from the screenplay by Davies and Seaton.

 

Additional feature: Dickens Goes West

 

James Stewart, a Christmas caroler. (Photo: NBC.)

James Stewart, a Christmas caroler. (Photo: NBC.)

The Six Shooter: Britt Ponset’s Christmas Carol (NBC, 1953)

Let’s put it this way: You can have your standard Dickensian fare, perhaps unearthing one of about, oh, two dozen of Lionel Barrymore’s vintage Scrooge performances, and play it safe and sound. Or, you can indulge maybe the most unique twist old-time radio ever gave A Christmas Carol, in the hands of a man who isn’t exactly a stranger to a timeless holiday creation.

It begins when a bitter young runaway encounters Ponsett (James Stewart) along a brisk trail, staggering the laconic wanderer with his apparent rejection of the holiday cheer. It continues when Ponsett convinces the boy to sit, relax, and listen, as he spins a tale about another fellow who thought Christmas was a bunch of hooey—a miserly rancher (Howard McNear) who spurns his nephew’s invitation to Christmas dinner, bawls out one of his foremen for building a modest shack for his afflicted young family, and finally encounters three spirits, each of whom brings him one or another ominous warning and shows him one or another jarring doing.

Dickens probably had no clue that his tale could have been adapted into a Western yarn, never mind whether he would have chosen Stewart as his catalyst in such an instance. But if you can sense Stewart stifling a few snickers while telling this interpretation you can be forgiven. He probably means nothing disrespectful, even if there is a moment (or two) where the effort to contort the story into a Western tall tale is just a little obvious.

Which may be an occupational hazard when you’re continuing to forge a folksy adult Western. But it’s a hazard worth wrestling.

Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Hal Gibney. Music: Basil Adlam. Director: Jack Johnstone. Writer: Frank Burt.

 

Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: An Old Fashioned Christmas (comedy; NBC, 1936)
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)
Suspense: The Cave (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1955)

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