Though it's often shoved aside in favor of 'It's a Wonderful Life' or 'A Christmas Carol,' the original 'Miracle on 34th Street' is one of the few bona fide holiday classics, a film that's as fresh, funny, heartwarming, and beguiling today as it must have seemed upon its initial release more than 60 years ago. No movie about Santa Claus approaches the subject with more whimsy, or makes a more convincing case that someone named Kris Kringle could actually exist. Trust me on this one: If you watch this film, you'll not only recapture the magic of Christmas, you'll also find yourself believing in that jolly old elf all over again. And that's no small miracle.
'Miracle on 34th Street' endures because it's never anything less than completely genuine. Its characters navigate the real world and could easily fit into our current society. Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), like many women, is a tough-minded single mother who must juggle a demanding job (coordinating the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade) with the rigors of parenthood. In an effort to shield her seven-year-old daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) from the disillusionment that often stems from dashed dreams, Doris chooses to raise her without any wild notions or fantasies, and that includes Santa Claus. The precocious, matter-of-fact Susan doesn't seem to mind, but when a diminutive old man with a long white beard and jovial demeanor enters her world, her outlook on life begins to change.
Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) may have gone AWOL from a local retirement home, but after he subs for a drunken Santa on Macy's Christmas float, he vehemently insists he's the real deal. Many of Macy's employees, including Doris, think he's insane, but lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne), Doris' new boyfriend, doesn't question Kris' identity, and winds up defending him at a competency hearing that becomes a cause célèbre in Manhattan. Susan, however, remains the toughest to convince, and Kris fears that if he can't grant her special Christmas wish, she may never believe in anything – or anyone – again.
The Oscar-winning screenplay by George Seaton (who also directed) isn't all about comedy and warm-hearted holiday cheer. On the contrary, with a deft and subtle hand (and without ever abandoning the movie's core theme), Seaton weaves such diverse elements as retail competition (Macy's versus rival Gimbel's), rampant holiday commercialism, election politics, and the nation's burgeoning interest in psychology into its fabric, further grounding the film. Sure, 'Miracle on 34th Street' may focus on Santa Claus, but it's really about the ability to change one's perspective, abandon an egocentric attitude, and embrace the spirit of giving. "Faith means believing in something when common sense tells you not to," says Doris, and though some of the characters take longer than others to come around, almost everyone adopts that mantra by the end of the picture. Both sparkling dialogue, which produces several big laughs, and a gallery of natural, believable portrayals draw us instantly into the story and keep us captivated throughout.
O'Hara and Payne are delightful as the romantic leads, but it's the supporting cast that really lofts this film into the classic realm. Gwenn won a well-deserved Academy Award for his pitch-perfect portrayal. No one in the history of cinema has better embodied Santa Claus, and his elfin spirit, spunk, and irrepressible twinkle make believing in him a breeze. Whether he's counseling Susan, singing a holiday tune with a young Dutch refugee (get out the Kleenex for that one), or bemoaning the sorry state of Christmas in the world today, Gwenn always evokes the essence of Kris Kringle. And who could be a better foil than the skeptical, blunt, yet always adorable nine-year-old Wood, whose talent and poise far surpass her years. Thelma Ritter (in her film debut) almost steals the show as a harried holiday shopper, and Jerome Cowan, Gene Lockhart, and a pre-'I Love Lucy' William Frawley make memorable impressions as well.
Few holiday discs get an annual spin at our house, but 'Miracle on 34th Street' is definitely one of them. Filled with humor, honest sentiment, and enough seasonal cheer to perk up Ebenezer Scrooge, this timeless classic – like Aunt Emma's fruitcake – never gets stale. It's a great film to watch after Thanksgiving dinner, on Christmas Eve, or anytime in between.
No miracles were performed on the 'Miracle on 34th Street' print for its Blu-ray transfer, although a good deal of dirt removal has considerably cleaned up the image. Gone are the annoying flecks and specks and occasional scratches that sullied the previous DVD, and contrast has been toned down to lend the picture a more natural, if somewhat flat, look. Gray scale variance on this black-and-white film isn't as pronounced as it was on the DVD, but sharpness is stronger, and a light grain structure supplies good weight and texture. (The grain is visible, to be sure, but not overpowering.) Blacks never reach the rich, bold levels we expect, but they're far from anemic, while the grays possess fine shading and whites don't blow out like they did on the standard-def version.
Close-ups are pleasing, and for the most part, details can be easily discerned. No artificial enhancements could be detected either. All in all, this is a solid effort from Fox, but not a huge step up from DVD. Collectors will surely enjoy the upgrade, but casual fans might not find the improvements marked enough to merit the expense. Also, there is no colorized version of the film in this Blu-ray edition, so if that's important to you, stick with the DVD.
Fox supplies a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround track, but aside from a couple of directional effects, we don't get much bang for our buck. Of course, any self-respecting film fan wouldn't be expecting an aggressive, multi-channel mix, but what we get is a clean, pop-free track that nicely showcases Cyril J. Mockridge's familiar score, which enjoys excellent fidelity and tonal depth. Although a bit of hiss can still be heard during quiet moments, dynamic range is satisfactory, and no distortion or tinny quality afflicts the upper register. Dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to understand, and the hustle and bustle of Macy's during the Christmas rush bleeds ever-so-slightly into the rears. Bass is understandably weak, yet isolated accents punch up the music.
Again, this track is a good step up from the DVD's DD 5.1 track, but the improvements aren't noticeable enough to recommend the double dip on audio alone. Traditionalists will be pleased to know the original mono track is also included.
A couple of extras that appeared on the standard DVD have been dropped from this Blu-ray edition, most notably the colorized version of the film. (For a purist like me, that's actually a plus, but for some viewers it might be a deal-breaker.) We also don't get the lame, condensed TV version of the story. Otherwise, all the supplements are the same, and are presented in standard definition.
With its bright outlook, inspired script, and first-rate performances, the original 'Miracle on 34th Street' remains one of Hollywood's all-time great Christmas films. The video and audio quality on this Blu-ray disc won't dazzle you, but they're enough of a step up from DVD to make a double dip worthwhile – unless, of course, you just can't part with your colorized version. (And if that's the case, I don't want to know about it.) Even without pristine picture and sound, however, this timeless film deserves a spot on every film lover's shelf. Santa would put coal in my stocking if I didn't recommend it.