Do You Believe In The Miracle on 34th Street?

Happy Holidays! Joyeux Noël! Feliz Navidad! 성탄을 축하드려요! And all the other Christmassy greetings to you chums! While our 90s Movie Challenge Might be over, we’ve managed to slip in a little festive treat for you as our resident schoolteachers Karen White and Stuart Ball take us back to the Class of 1994 to look at that year’s most festive of cinematic frolics and pose us all a very important question…

Do you believe in Santa Claus?

With the current state of the world, the ever-changing restrictions by which we live and the turmoil suffered by us all, including children, it is probably more important than ever that this Christmas we live as normally as we are allowed. The fact that Christmas becomes more commercial with every passing year should not be ignored (and indeed during the film there is reference made to the cost to parents of Christmas wishes made to Santa) but the true miracle of this film is the right to believe in something which brings joy and happiness to millions. As Bryan Bedford evokes, is it better to tell “A lie that draws a smile or a truth that draws a tear.” That, in essence, is the moral of this story.

Christmas films (and yes, Die Hard is a Christmas film but we are talking about more “traditional” Christmas stories here!) have a difficult job. Without doubt, there are tropes that one may expect to appear in a Christmas movie and The Miracle on 34th Street doesn’t disappoint on that front. However, it is one of the films that truly explores the spirit of Christmas and the magical time that it can be. There are similarities to be drawn to A Christmas Carol and while the journeys may differ wildly, the destination (redemption and a new belief) has many parallels. The film dares to question our own beliefs and through the character of Bryan Bedford, asks us to remember the child within us all.

In a difference to the 1947 original (Macy’s declined involvement in this film as they believed there was no need for a remake), Cole’s Department Store is where we find Richard Attenborough (on sparkling form throughout) as Santa Claus. He interacts and engages with the children as well as any Santa could: a moving moment is when he uses sign language (in the original it was a different spoken language) to communicate with one of the children. Shopper’s Express replaces Gimbel’s (which had gone out of business in 1987). While this is a family Christmas film, more could have been made of the Shopper’s Express trio as James Remar would have been more than capable of adding a more sinister slant to his role.

The 1994 film needed to retain the key elements of the original but also update the film aesthetically for a more modern audience. On the whole, this is done quite well but again shows how Christmas has become more commercialised as there are moments which seems as if the approach is the bigger, the better.

The transition towards belief (for those who needed to make the switch) is as much about Dorey Walker (played by Elizabeth Perkins) as it is for her daughter (played by Mara Wilson – who manages to stay just the right side of saccharine) and you might question for whom is the journey more important and meaningful. Susan just wants a happy family for Christmas; whereas, Dorey has much more (in her own eyes) to lose – her emotional wall.

Richard Attenborough’s own development through the film as a metaphor for a timeless message is cohesive and there are several scenes in which the true message of the film are dominant. Kringle says that he is not just a whimsical figure but that he represents the human ability to repress hateful tendencies. For this reason alone, he deserves to be heard. The montage of signs across New York when they, the city is called upon to believe, displays the wish for us all to belong to and believe in something better.

While the film is a perfectly suitable tradition of any family Christmas, much can be gained from watching with a more thoughtful eye and never more so than now. Santa represents hope and the character is a symbol of what Dorey is lacking and has imposed on her far-to-grown-up daughter. Susan is indoctrinated into a world of disbelief, a world where Dorey’s past tragedy has been allowed to dominate any future hope of happiness. Dorey is work orientated – an analogy true of the situation of many a family in the modern world – and her employer (Cole’s department store) has become dominant and a metaphorical crutch in her life.

Juxtaposing Dorey’s dependence, analysis of individual scenes yields the realisation that Cole’s department store represents Christmas itself: Cole’s provides the platform for Santa’s character (Christmas is an opportunity for hope); Santa tells customers of bargains elsewhere (that which you want is out there if you know where to look); and Cole’s is the driving force in a campaign to believe in and save Santa (believe there is hope and happiness but you have to act to find it). Even the close-up shots of Santa’s suit with its shiny gold buttons, ring and buckle can be interpreted as there being valuable shiny bits in everyone’s lives if only we could all see them.

The plot’s journey from anger – slowly and subtly influenced by hope and faith – to a realisation that happiness is out there for everyone is not portrayed as a superficial, seamless transition. Instead, the inclusion of a trope style bad guy(s) firing obstacles in the way of Dorey’s awakening represents the lives of many. Perhaps this is one reason why this film has stood the test of time: its metaphors can be reinterpreted and kept relevant. There have and will always be those who would wish to thwart the happiness of others – some would say tabloids in the 80s and 90s and now trolls target those sharing happiness online – but we have to fight back against the antagonists. And so it is befitting of the overall message of the film that the protagonist that finally arouses the return of Dorey’s faith is the persistent and mortal Mr Bedford and not just Santa Claus alone.

Do you believe? I want to believe.

This edition of the film has now become a perennial favourite for families but it isn’t perfect. Even though Kringle’s incarceration in Bellevue fits with the time constraints of the film, it is too hasty and does not seem believable. The most jarring moment, however, is when the Santa which Kringle replaces implies that he is a paedophile. There were so many ways that this moment could have been handled and the suggestion in this section of dialogue was ill-conceived and should have been scrapped at the editing stage – if not before.

The soundtrack, as you would expect, contains a selection of Christmas favourites but it is easy to miss some of the subtle and quite wonderful work in Bruce Broughton’s score (in particular the moment Kris walks through the park just before he dresses as Santa).

This is no religious film, no nativity, and yet the message of faith runs throughout. Dorey has lost her faith and is unwilling to take risks, no more so than in her love life. Yet biblical references are gently interweaved (Santa calls Susan an angel, he tells Bryan to have faith and Bryan himself tells Dorey he had faith in her, several close-up shots of ‘In God we Trust’ on banknotes) and collect – as the people of New York collected to show their faith in Santa / Christmas – to embellish the verdict that is based on a belief in God or a higher entity that brings harmony and meaning.

Santa Claus is coming to court

Those who have seen both will always compare this to the 1947 original; however, for a whole new generation (or two), this will be the only version of the film they know. Assessing the film 27 years after release, it still works well as a family film and the moment the judge bangs his gavel for the final time (after looking at that telling inscription on the dollar bill – subtly introduced during the drunk Santas bar scene) and JT Walsh asks Kringle not to forget his house when delivering his presents is uplifting indeed.

In the end, the only question you need to ask is…

Do you believe?

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