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'Miracle' That Almost Didn't Happen

November 24, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for the Times Orange County Edition

Twentieth Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck didn't much go for "Miracle on 34th Street" when it was first pitched to him in the mid-1940s. He didn't like the story and, more important, didn't think anyone else would either.

Although a zero kept coming up whenever he pondered the box office, Zanuck was finally persuaded by director George Seaton, who really believed in the Santa Claus Does Manhattan tale written by Valentine Davies. Seaton got the go-ahead and, armed with only a minimal budget, finished the movie several months before Christmas.

Seaton's plan was to release the 1947 film just after Thanksgiving, but Zanuck wouldn't go along. Thinking the picture would soon disappear, he pushed it into theaters in the summer. Zanuck supposedly was shocked when it held up for six months, all the way through the holidays, and became one of Fox's biggest moneymakers at the time.

In hindsight, it's hard to understand what was going through Zanuck's head. "Miracle on 34th Street" (screening Wednesday and Dec. 2 in a free presentation at the Cypress Senior Citizen Center) belongs to a trio of films that have come to epitomize the season. It joins the ranks of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol" (especially the 1938 version), which are considered classics designed to trumpet the homey virtues of Christmas.

Like the other two movies, "Miracle on 34th Street" is thick with sentiment, the kind of happy-vibes heaviness that we might not forgive so readily any other time of year. But it's within that generous framework that these pictures find their appeal--they're like holiday mantras we chant again and again to feel good.

Helping all this niceness go down is a sardonic touch to Seaton's approach.

"Miracle on 34th Street" probably was the first movie to give the commercialism of the holidays a stiff caning as we watch mega-department stores Gimbel's and Macy's try to outdo each other in Christmas sales. The fact that the real Santa (Edmund Gwenn) is in the middle of this cash-crazy firefight puts everything in the right perspective.

The film opens on the eve of the Christmas parade with Doris, an advertising exec for Macy's played by Maureen O'Hara, facing disaster. Her regular Santa (veteran character actor Percy Helton) is fall-down drunk and she has to find a replacement. Santa, calling himself Kris Kringle, steps in out of nowhere and soon becomes the hit at Macy's.

Everything goes smoothly until the villain, Macy's resident shrink played by Porter Hall, steps in and accuses Kris of insanity for claiming to be who he is. Gwenn's Santa is blissfully bemused by the competency trial that ensues, as he is while convincing Doris' cynical daughter (a very young Natalie Wood) that he's the real thing.

Gwenn won an Oscar for best supporting actor, which he accomplished by embodying everyone's dream grandfather. He knows every fact there is but never seems arrogant. He's as soothing as Prozac. He gives and gives and gives but never indulges. He scolds but couldn't browbeat if he wanted to. In short, he's a chubby fantasy, the perfect poster boy for Christmas.

As someone a bit more human, O'Hara is fine, combining exasperation over the predicament with a growing awe for Kris. And John Payne as her decent fiance and Kris' idealistic lawyer is appropriately stalwart. Tiny Ms. Wood seems too sugar-sprinkled once she sees the light, but early on, when her character is determinedly suspicious, she's more fun, like a Little Rascal with a big brain.

What: George Seaton's "Miracle on 34th Street."

When: Wednesday, Nov. 30, and Friday, Dec. 2, at 12:45 p.m.

Where: The Cypress Senior Citizen Center, 9031 Grindlay St., Cypress.

Whereabouts: Take the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway to Lincoln Avenue and head east to Grindlay Street, then go right.

Wherewithal: FREE.

Where to call: (714) 229-6776.

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