By Jeff Westover
Susan Walker is a little girl. Or, at least she looks like one.
Susan is the only child of a single working mother and lives in a high-rise apartment smack in the middle of New York City. She lives and interacts in a world of adults. Her demeanor is very mature, her questions always direct and, like her mother, her views are very practical.
Doris Walker is Susan's mother. For reasons we never really learn, her husband has abandoned the family and Doris is forced to raise Susan alone. Doris works for Macy's, New York's largest department store. As director of the world famous Thanksgiving Day parade, part of her duties includes the selection of the parade's primary attraction, Santa Claus. When her hired Santa shows up for work inebriated, Doris rushes to hire the man who alerted her to his condition. This man not only happens to look like Santa Claus -- he is Santa.
Being Santa, he knows just what to do in the parade. He waves, he smiles, he connects with the crowd. The public is so impressed with Macy's new Santa, Doris hires him permanently. At first, Macy's is thrilled with Santa's appeal. But when the director of the toy department overhears Santa telling a customer to go to a competing retailer for a product, concerns immediately arise about Santa's mental state. He is sent to an amateur psychologist in Macy's HR department who determines that this Santa is indeed absolutely crackers. But just as Doris goes to dismiss him, Santa's goodwill antics generates unheard of publicity for Macy's resulting in robust holiday sales. Doris is stuck with keeping Santa -- and finding a way to keep him from getting into trouble.
But trouble is just what Santa finds. He has a run-in with the store psychologist, who takes steps to have Santa institutionalized for mental instability. His case winds up in court where the question isn't just Santa's mental stability -- but his very existence.
Susan, of course, is caught squarely in the middle of this drama. Her mother once told her there was no such thing as Santa. But time and close proximity have bonded Susan and Doris to Santa -- and they've become believers.
This 1947 holiday classic stars a very young Natalie Wood as Susan and Maureen O'Hara as Doris. But the heart of soul of the film is Santa Claus -- played to perfection by Edmund Gwenn. Gwenn, in a distinguished career spanning over 80 films, was never really known for any other production. To this day, he is the model for Santa Claus in films. And for this role he received a much-deserved Oscar.
Several scenes in the movie are reponsible for this Santa's magic. In a tightly shot scene Santa teaches the doe-eyed Susan how to pretend. "You've heard of the French nation, haven't you? Or the British nation?" asks Santa of Susan. "This is the imagination! It is a wonderful place! How would you like to throw snowballs in the summer? Or fly south with a flock of geese? In the imagination you can!"
The strength of this production comes from small scenes just like this -- and the strong development of side characters not especially central to the story. From William Frawley (Fred on I Love Lucy) as political advisor to Judge Harper (wearily played by Gene Lockhart), the supporting cast shines and contributes mightily to this film's charm.
While the more cynical amongst us bemoan the smaltz and sentimentality of this movie it is important to note the risk taken in 1947 to present a film with a single working mother as a central character. The topic of divorce and family abandonment were somewhat taboo in the pre-1950s film industry and this movie made magic around it.
The test of time that makes this a classic is it's broad appeal. Personally, I favor the courtroom scenes and count them amongst my favorites. My kids love Santa's interaction with a little girl who speaks only Dutch. And my wife gets giggles from Mr. Macy. This film gets dusted off every Thanksgiving Day -- and played for weeks leading up to Christmas. In our house, it's just not Christmas without it.