Three films made in quick succession post World War II have endured in the minds of Christmas fans as among the best of films ever made: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife and Miracle on 34th Street. But of those three films only Miracle on 34th Street was hailed as a classic from the start.
The movie business in those first post-war years was risky at best. When films like It’s a Wonderful Life failed to capture the public’s imagination they lost money. 20th Century Fox was confident that the story would be a hit but didn’t feel the film’s Christmas theme would appeal to broad audiences. Instead of releasing the film in November or December it was released in May 1947 under the assumption that more people go to the movies in the summer. The low cost of the film combined with a long box office run made the film profitable for the studio and it enjoyed a sterling reputation as a classic film from the beginning.
Post war movies had several elements the censors watched for. The use of profanity, sexuality and violence were obviously monitored. But few realize the strains put on film storylines by having to conform to industry standards. In It’s a Wonderful Life producers had to argue to get past the fact that the villain, played by Lionel Barrymore, was never held accountable for his thievery in the film. In Miracle on 34th Street Maureen O’Hara’s role as a single working mother though typical enough due to the war alone was somewhat problematic for some film censors.
O’Hara’s character of Doris Walker was one the studio heads were critical of. What kind of man would want such a cold hearted individual who would deny her child the magic of fairy tales? They were afraid audiences would find her too abrasive.
Miracle on 34th Street had one thing It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife both lacked: a positive storyline that echoed the sentiments of “White Christmas”, that Irving Berlin song made famous by Bing Crosby in 1942 that became something of an anthem for a generation that marched off to war. Christmas and home and family – and Santa Claus – was beloved of the American public and they embraced this film as emblematic of those feelings.
John Payne, who plays O’Hara’s love interest in the film as aspiring lawyer Fred Gailey, had been unhappy about the quality of roles he was playing. But when he read the story of Miracle on 34th Street he purchased the movie rights to it. Payne remained so endeared of the story that for years afterwards he wanted to produce a sequel, even telling O’Hara at one point that he was working on a script. Sadly he passed in 1989 and nothing was ever made of his thoughts on adding to the story.
Here are ten things you don’t know about Miracle on 34th Street:
1. O’Hara describes a closeness among the cast and crew on Miracle on 34th Street that is not normal for a film. She credits the storyline and the fact the crew knew from the beginning that Miracle on 34th Street would resonate with the movie-going public. Natalie Wood would call her “Mamma Maureen” and O’Hara would call Wood “Natasha”, the name her parents had given her.
2. The movie was made in a hurry. Producers only decided to take on the project at the end of October 1946. Within weeks they had recalled O’Hara from vacationing in Ireland, a move that infuriated the star because she had not seen her family there for seven years due to travel restrictions brought on by the war. All that was necessary because Macy’s had agreed to let producers use the real Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as a backdrop as long as they didn’t impede its progress. The film finished filming in March 1947 and released in May.
3. Macy’s department store and real-life competitor Gimbels both figure prominently in the movie. At the time, both were considered household names. 20th Century Fox took a risk in completing the production before getting both companies to sign off on the use of their names in the movie. They screened the film for executives privately and received enthusiastic approval. Almost 50 years later when John Hughes brought a remake of Miracle on 34th Street to the big screen Macy’s refused to have anything to do with it, declaring the original “perfect”.
4. The movie was originally titled The Big Heart, a title movie studio executives loved. But the title of the project was in flux the entire time. At one time the working title was “It’s Only Human” and then became “Mr. Kringle” before it was settled to call the film “Miracle on 34th Street”.
5. In the final scenes of the movie where Susan Walker spots her dream house it was so cold that the cameras froze. Neighbors saw the halt in production and invited cast and crew indoors to their own fireplaces to warm things up. This earned one lucky family a night on the town courtesy of O’Hara.
6. Edmund Gwenn got behind the reins of Santa’s sleigh for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1946 and played Santa through-out. Nobody knew he was making a movie.
7. The prosecuting attorney Thomas Mara, Sr. was based on real life New York district attorney Thomas E. Dewey, who famously ran for president twice and lost.
8. Natalie Wood was 8-years old at the time of the production of Miracle on 34th Street. She had a photographic memory and always got her lines right. She was dubbed “one-take Natalie” for her preparedness and professionalism, even as a child.
9. Edmund Gwenn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Kris Kringle. When he accepted the award he said, “Now I know there is a Santa Claus!”
10. Miracle on 34th Street brought the eyes of the nation to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It had been a tradition in New York since 1924 and enjoyed some early local television coverage. But the movie brought the tradition to the awareness of the country and it became one of the earliest events to receive coast-to-coast television coverage.