The Macy’s department store in downtown Chicago, in the famous district known as “The Loop,” occupies a historic building. It was originally built as the flagship store for the retail pioneer company Marshall Fields, and designed by the father of the skyscraper, Daniel Burnham. Over the decades since it first opened its doors around the turn of the twentieth century, Marshall Fields subsequently went out of business. Not wanting to let such a landmark go to waste, Macy’s moved in shortly thereafter and continues to operate it to this day. In these times of online shopping and social distancing, such accomplishments should be appreciated. Yet, I am not here to laud Macy’s success. I will simply add that if you ever find yourself in Chicago with some time to spare, check out the building. It is particularly fun to visit around Christmas to view the intricate window displays relating to the holiday season. Go inside, too, walk to the center, and look up. It is quite the sight to behold. The reason I bring up Macy’s at all is because it plays a significant role in today’s film, Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
Our Macy’s in Miracle on 34th Street is in New York City, and it commences with their famous Thanksgiving Day Parade. If you are familiar with this annual bit of fanfare, you will know that the star of the festivities is always Santa Claus. It is while the parade is about to get underway that Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) happens upon a harried Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), a Macy’s executive attempting to organize everything. The person chosen to impersonate Jolly Ol’ St. Nick is a bit too jolly (read as drunk), and out of professional pride Kris Kringle offers to step into the role. Feeling like the day is saved, Doris leaves it behind to go home and be with her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), who is viewing the goings-on from her neighbor’s apartment. This is the abode of Fred Gailey (John Payne), a young single lawyer who has taken an interest in the young divorcée Doris. Fred is also shocked to learn that little Susan is being brought up by the practical minded Doris to not believe in Santa Claus. Thus, Fred offers to bring Susan the next day to Macy’s to meet Santa, who happens to be the genuine article, Kris Kringle. He gets this job because of his performance during the parade. He is also told to be sure to push the toys that Macy’s is selling upon the children he greets, the company hoping that they will then pressure the parents into buying them. Instead, Kris Kringle gives them advice on where they could get the best deals. Between this, and Susan believing he is the real Santa Claus because of all the languages he can speak, Doris believes she has to fire their newest employee. What saves his job is all the compliments that they receive about Kris Kringle, and R. H. Macy (Harry Antrim) himself giving a bonus to Doris for finding such a stellar employee. Kris Kringle, though, is not without enemies. As per company procedure, he undergoes a psychiatric evaluation by their on-staff therapist Granville Swayer (Porter Hall), who is convinced that Kris Kringle is delusional and potentially dangerous. This is exacerbated when an angered Kris Kringle confronts Granville for telling Alfred (Alvin Greenman) that the young janitor is unwell for wanting to suit up as Santa Claus to bring cheer up those in need. During their confrontation, Kris Kringle knocks Granville on the head with an umbrella, an act that seems to prove the psychiatrist’s theories. With this, Granville is able to get Kris Kringle put into the Bellevue Hospital, an institution for the mentally unstable. Fred Gailey, who had taken in Kris Kringle as a boarder while he worked for Macy’s, decides to take on the case despite his firm’s objections. For his part, Kris Kringle never wavers in his determination that he is the real Santa Claus, and he has convinced Susan. The state seeks to keep Kris Kringle institutionalized, while Fred’s job is a seemingly impossible one: to prove that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus. The case comes before Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart), who has what appears to be a tricky task. On one side is the notion that declaring someone is actually Santa would be lunacy. Yet the alternative would be to essentially say that there is no such thing as Santa, which would damage his political career. What clinches the case for Kris Kringle is the mountains of mail addressed to Santa Claus that are delivered to Kris Kringle in the courthouse. The main letter is from Susan, and she writes to ask Santa for a new house for her and her mom. When they are out driving through the suburbs with Fred, they go past the exact house Susan had told Kris Kringle about, and she demands that they stop. Inside, they find Kris Kringle’s umbrella, which finally convinces Doris as to the old man’s identity. Presumably, she and Fred wed, and along with Susan, live happily ever after in the house Santa brought them.
One of the great points that Miracle on 34th Street makes is that Christmas is a frame of mind. This is said best by R. H. Macy when he declares that he believes in Santa when he imagines the joy the mythical gift giver brings to children. At the same time, I have to confess a slight annoyance with the way Santa Claus has, in a sense, replaced Jesus at the center of the holiday. The ultimate gift God gave to us was His son Jesus, and that is the reason we have Christmas in the first place. Yet, in our rush to commercialize practically everything in our modern society, a figure that facilitates spending money on presents we give to others becomes a kind of god. To be fair, the title miracle pertains to people believing in Santa Claus, like Doris and Susan, who had previously been skeptics. Yet, most of the time in movies, Santa Claus is the true magic behind Christmas, fulfilling the material wishes of good little boys and girls. It is all well and good that Susan gets the home of her dreams from Kris Kringle, but what about that somehow as yet undefined spirit of Christmas that is much talked about, but never really fully understood? Macy attempts to speak to it by saying that he wishes to put the spirit of Christmas before the commercial by allowing his employees to suggest where their customers might get better deals instead of at his store. It is a decent sentiment, but it still relates to consumerism. The same can be said of Santa. Film does its best to mask its true intentions by having characters who are thankful for all they receive, and that is a good start. Yet, the true spirit of Christmas starts with Jesus.
This sounds like I am a lot more critical of Miracle on 34th Street than I truly wish to be. I am not one of those Catholics who believe that Santa Claus should be taken out of Christmas completely. However, he should be understood in the proper context. The film is not bad, but it does not speak to the truth of the matter. Then again, telling people about the real St. Nicholas might only confuse them. Also, you can do a lot worse as far as Christmas movies go. So, if you have already seen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) this holiday season and are in the mood for another classic, put on Miracle on 34th Street.