Miracle on 34th Street is the superior Christmas movie. Let me start off by saying that, and then back it up with a lot of nostalgia and basically no facts, because the best Christmas movie – and the best of most things, are a matter of taste. But allow me to try anyway, because Miracle on 34th Street is the one movie I make sure to watch every Christmas season, and the one that never fails to put a smile on my face.
Now, of course, you’ll ask: which version? To which I’ll say both of the famous movie versions – the 1947 one, starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and Natalie Wood, and the 1994 version, with Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott and Mara Wilson, are pretty darn fun, and though they tell the same story, they end up solving the issue in a very different way.
And that’s why the 1994 one is my favorite.
You see, in the 1947 version, when we get to that moment, you know, the trial to prove that Santa Claus exists, and that this man called Kris Kringle is, indeed, Santa Claus, the movie solves it by having some post office workers decide that hey, they’ve finally found a dude they can deliver all those letters addressed to Santa Claus to! And in doing so – they allow Kringle’s lawyer to argue that, if the US Postal Service recognizes Kris Kringle as Santa Claus, so can the court.
It’s a fun way to resolve it, and a bit of clever “lawyery” work, which I always appreciate, even if movie lawyers rarely have to abide by the same rules real ones do. And the movie is indeed heartfelt, and this scene is fun. But does it get to the spirit of …Christmas, of what Santa Claus is what meant to be? I’m not sure it does as effectively as the 1994 version.
Because, you see, in the 1994 version, the solution is …quite different. It’s also a bit of fine “lawyery” work, which hey, appreciated, but it’s more about the common belief. In this case there wasn’t any real proof, just …a chance for the judge to take a leap of faith. And he got that by being presented with a dollar bill, which bears the phrase In God We Trust. Because if the US government can print bills stating that, then why can’t he declare Santa Claus exists?
The judge always wanted to declare this. All he needed was a reason to do it.
As a kid, this struck me as something super amusing, but as an adult, it means even more. Not even because I was raised in a Catholic household, and Christmas is basically the celebration for us, but because, in my mind, it goes to the spirit of what Christmas was always supposed to be about, the good part of what I was thought and grew up believing.
The rest of the movie plays out in pretty much the same beats, with a tad more focus on the romance in the 1994 version, something not altogether surprising considering how much the idea of romance and what could be shown of it changed from 1947 to 1994, which is also a reason why I gotta go for the 1994 version. Like, that and young Dylan McDermott. That helps too.
But deep down the movie isn’t about the romance, or about finding your family – or accepting our family even, it’s about the power of faith. Belief. Not just in something larger, like Santa Claus, but belief in each other. For the romance to even get off the ground Dorey had to believe in Bryan, but not just believe in him professionally, but believe that he would not let her down – that even if they went through ups and downs, he would stick by her.
Susan, too, had to learn to believe, not just in Santa Claus, but in the idea that family is a thing you build for yourself, and that it’s never, never too late.
In the end, Santa Claus wasn’t there to give them actual gifts …but to bring these three people together. Santa Claus’ gift was the gift of family …the gift of love, and maybe, the gift of being in the right place at the right time.
And look, isn’t that what Christmas is all about anyway?