Miracle on 34th Street; a Scrapbook of a Miraculous Film

Poster-Miracle-on-34th-Street

Special does not do service to the accomplishments and the staying power of Miracle on 34th Street; as the measuring-tape said of Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way,” so too are the celluloid triumphs of this 1947, summer blockbuster, produced by 20th Century-Fox. The apex that Miracle achieved set an extremely high bar, not only for holiday pictures but for all films of genuine-loving-sentiment to come. It is with great pleasure I offer this article as a tribute to a movie that was ahead of its time in many ways and has found a home in millions of hearts.

Miracle of the Story Behind the Story:

As was usual Louella Parsons was first to the story of, Miracle on 34th Street, having spoken to producer William Perlberg about his next picture, My Heart Tells Me, which was slated to star Dana Andrews and Maureen O’Hara.[1] Perlberg evidently hijacked the title from Gene Markey’s film starring Nancy Guild; Perlberg felt that the title suited his story better than Markey’s. The early plotline included elements of a plea against the commercialization of not only Christmas, but Mother’s Day and holidays in general.

William Perlberg

William Perlberg

 

Young Hollywood director, George Seaton wrote the Miracle screenplay based upon the Valentine Davies story, about a World-weary, nearly worn out and a close to physically and emotionally failing Santa Claus, AKA Kris Kringle. Miracle on 34th Street is a brilliant concoction of love, compassion, faith and hope which combats the ever encroaching vail of harsh modernity, personified in commercialism. As Alfred, the youthful “jack-of-all-trades” employed at Macy’s flagship store says to Kris: “A lot of bad “isims” floating around this world… but one of the worst is commercialism. This truly is the heart of the film, an exploration of traditions filled with concern for others, generosity to our fellow-man and time to celebrate our family, friends and of course the children. Miracle works on several levels, but is especially potent as it reminds us that our society has hardened, often steeling itself, as it deals with “progress.” This modern-development leaves behind a capable people, who are able to withstand the coldness of the “isims,” but distant from the emotions which connect us within our communities, “even in Brooklyn.”

George Seaton

George Seaton

 

Miracle in Filming:

In November it was announced that John Payne and Maureen O’Hara would co-star in the upcoming, The Big Heart, which was itself a second appellation for this Miracle project, it (as afore-stated)being originally titled: My Heart Tells Me.[2] The story, for Miracle was penned by occasional playwright Valentine Davies;[3] Davies is most often remembered as a screenplay writer, yet this was only his third offering for Hollywood.[4] Miracle on 34th Street was released on June 4, of 1947 (the film was copyrighted on the same date) by Harcourt Brace,[5] which has remained a beloved Christmas story throughout the last seven decades; this would be Davies only book to be printed. Although the story was written in 1946, yet Valentine Davies did not novelize it until spring of ’47,[6] just in time for the simultaneous release with the film.

Miracle on 34th Street First Edition

Valentine Davies

Valentine Davies

 

Filming was set to begin for Miracle on 34th Street at the first of 1947,[7] yet clearly, as the idea of the story coalesced around Christmas, practicality took over (taking advantage of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade) and cameras rolled on Tuesday, November 26, 1946.[8] And so it was that during Thanksgiving ‘46 a passersby on Fifth Avenue may have seen actor John Payne and actress Natalee Wood in the window of a hotel; the two were being photographed for scenes in, Miracle on 34th Street. The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade turned Hollywood as veteran actor Edmund Gwenn portrayed jolly Saint Nick on the Santa Claus float;[9] possibly onlookers would have got a view of Maureen O’Hara and many of the supporting cast of Miracle that mild November 28 morn. Santa Claus brought an early present to the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation crew as the high for that Thursday, thankfully was 50, with sunshine on the whole and with some morning clouds wafting about; by in large a calm day weather wise for NYC.[10] Edmund Gwenn while filming the scenes for Miracle, overheard a friend say, “It’s too bad about Edmund Gwenn. He’s such a good actor, and now he’s reduced to playing Santa Claus at Macy’s.”[11] The Miracle company stayed in New York City with plans to remain until December 20 before returning to the friendly environs of the 20th Century-Fox studios in California; the Miracle troupe was back in the sunny climes of Los Angeles before years end.[12]

Edmund Gwenn

miracle-on-34th-street-resume

Kris Kringle Macy’s Employee Card

 

Miracle in a Name:

As late as the middle of December ‘46, Miracle was still being referred to as, The Big Heart;[13] it was then in the final third of Christmas month that another title change occurred, moving to, It’s Only Human.[14] The next title adjustment came in the days between February 3 and February 9, 1947. The new and final name for the project, Miracle on 34th Street;[15] in Great Britain the project opened as, The Big Heart.[16]

MiracleOn34thSt

 

Miracle Opening:

The world-premiere of Miracle on 34th Street was indeed at the Roxy Theatre on June 4, 1947;[17] the earlier premiere was in fact a preview in Hollywood held at the Academy Awards Theatre for critics and industry insiders.[18] The long-standing premiere date of May 2, 1947, that is most often reported is not correct, because critiques of the film were printed in, Film Daily and Motion Picture Daily, on Friday, May 2; Miracle on 34th Street, had to have been shown no later than May 1. Reviews for the movie were seen in print magazines and columns over the next week to ten days.[19]

Showmen's Trade Review, June 14, 1947

Showmen’s Trade Review, June 14, 1947

 

Miracle Reception:

Miracle on 34th Street, was from the outset a critical success with consistent, glowing proclamations, four of such I offer, following: “one of the most appealing, heart-warming films to come out of Hollywood in many a day;” “let us heartily recommend… “Miracle on 34th Street.” As a Matter of fact, let’s go further: let’s catch its spirit and heartily proclaim that it is the freshest little picture in a long time;” “any one who still insists there isn’t a Santa after meeting Edmund Gwenn’s irresistible Kris Kringle… is the sort of sour cynic we’re all better without… Here for once, is one of those rare films which can be taken to the heart without qualification… If there is such a thing as the “perfect” picture, we strongly suspect “miracle on 34th Street” is that rara avis;” “For any and all favors let us give thanks. It has been a long time since an American picture has made an attempt to achieve comparable freshness of idea. Therefore “Miracle on 34th Street…” is itself a miracle of originality.”[20]

Post Standard, Syracuse, New York, June 22, 1947

Post Standard, Syracuse, New York, June 22, 1947

Anniston Star, Anniston, Alabama, July 27, 1947

Anniston Star, Anniston, Alabama, July 27, 1947

El Paso Herald Post, El Paso, Texas, August 7, 1947

El Paso Herald Post, El Paso, Texas, August 7, 1947

 

Miracle Advertising:

Miracle on 34th Street had a built in advantage for advertising over all films released in the United States until the advent of chain-restaurant-merchandising. This particularly, because physical stores were not only mentioned in the movie but were used as plot points which developed the story arc. [21] Macy’s and Gimbel’s, provided several twists to the film’s scheme, with the two mega retail concerns acting as the mastheads of the department stores. Yet, Bloomingdale’s, Hearn’s, Stern’s, along with the McCreery store are seen in the “R. H. Macy & Company Shopping Guide for the Convenience of Our Customers” montage of Miracle on 34th Street; Wanamaker’s Department store is also referred to in passing. [22] For once, the businesses remarked on in a film of fiction were authentic, with brick-and-mortar locations for the movie attendee to visit after seeing the picture.

Winnipeg Tribune, Winniped, Manitoba, Canada, September 18, 1947

Winnipeg Tribune, Winniped, Manitoba, Canada, September 18, 1947

 

In a practical, real-world demonstration of this in-film merchandising connection, Lew Hahn, president of the National Retailers Dry Goods Association, wrote to all 7,500 member stores of the organization, commending them to cooperate in the promotion of Miracle. This was by no means a small task, the vast amount of arrangements were under the control of Charles Schlaifer the advertising-publicity-director of 20th Century-Fox; Rodney Bush,[23] Sidney Blumenstock[24] and Stirling Silliphant[25] were the legs to Mr. Schlaifer’s directions. Bush handled the territory of Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta; Silliphant visited Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City and St. Louis; Mr. Blumenstock took Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit. Along the way these men scheduled previews of Miracle on 34th Street, and connected with the local retailers and the aforementioned members of the National Retailers Dry Goods Association; these initial east-coast and mid-west stops, as part of 20th Century-Fox’s national campaign, afforded Miracle neighborhood and city based tie-ins, not just a generic  country-wide advertising blitz.[26]

In New York, the, 34th Street Midtown Association (a prominent group of merchants in the district) decided upon a civic celebration to be staged in Herald Square (the intersection of Broadway, 6th Avenue-Avenue of the Americas and 34th Street) for the duration of the film’s engagement at the Roxy Theater.[27] The Roxy supported this effort of the local merchants by posting signs along 34th Street, advertising, Miracle on 34th Street; Roxy usherettes were chosen to post the signage along the iconic shopping thoroughfare for the June, 1947, opening.[28]

Motion Picture Herald, June 7, 1947

Motion Picture Herald, June 7, 1947

 

Miracle Cast:

Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, AKA, Santa Claus, was never better than in this brilliant portrayal in, Miracle on 34th Street; Maureen O’Hara as Doris Walker was just cold enough to effect the heartwarming transformation needed onscreen. Little Natalie Wood provided the child’s portion admirably, maturing not as most children do, which is to be increasingly jaded, but in the part of Susan Walker she was all the time becoming more open-hearted, full of faith and love. Mr. Payne (a much less somber selection for Kris Kringle’s courtroom representative, than first choice Dana Andrews), as attorney, Fred Gailey, rendered a solid performance, both in the character’s sincerity and his journey to his understanding of Kris Kringle. All of the supporting players deserve plaudits but, standouts for the production were Alvin Greenman (Alfred) and Lela Bliss (Mrs. Shellhammer) who rose to the top as the proverbial cream, in regards to the supportive cast. This was young Greenman’s first appearance on screen, and he would never recreate the gravitas that he brought to the role of Alfred. Ms. Bliss, a veteran of the silver-screen was hysterically funny, as Mrs. Shellhammer; truly, she lit up the screen with her vocal intonation and facial expressions.

Alvin Greeman as Alfred

Alvin Greeman as Alfred

Lela Bliss as Mrs. Shellhammer

Lela Bliss as Mrs. Shellhammer

 

Miracle That Remains a Miracle:

If you have not seen this Hollywood classic, then you are in for a treat, as you travel with the characters who are seeking hope, while navigating through a landscape full of those pesky “ismis” that tend to drain the life out of the human spirit. If on the other hand you have seen it, maybe like me you have numerous viewings under the belt, then, like turning to a favorite beverage, it is time for another cup; surely, Miracle on 34th Street, is just that, a wonderful cup of Christmas-Cheer, for which we can look forward to each year; enjoy!

 

By C. S. Williams

 

[1] Louella Parson Column, International News Service, October 8, 1946

[2] Film Daily, November 18, 1946

[3] Davies had written Three Times the Hour which had a short run on Broadway in 1931; Keeper of the Keys, another short-lived production on the Great White Way in 1933, and Blow Ye Winds, in 1937, saw no greater reception on Broadway than his first two plays.

[4] Syncopation (1942), and Three Little Girls in Blue (1946), were his two previous works filmed

[5] Catalog of Copyright Entries, 1947

[6] Variety, April 30, 1947

[7] Times-Union (Albany, New York) October 9, 1946

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) October 9, 1946

[8] Independent exhibitors Film Bulletin, December, 1946

[9] Buffalo Courier-Express (Buffalo, New York) November 15, 1946

Logansport Pharos Tribune (Logansport, Indiana) June 6, 1947

[10] Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) November 27; 29. 1946

[11] Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) May 3, 1947 (Hedda Hopper: Looking At Hollywood)

[12] Film Daily, November 27, 1946

Variety, January 1, 1947

[13] Zanesville Signal (Zanesville, Ohio) December 16, 1946

[14] Showmen’s Trade Review, December 21, 1946

[15] Moving Picture Daily News, February 10, 1947

[16] Showmen’s Trade Review, June 28, 1947

[17] Showmen’s Trade Review, June 14, 1947

[18] Motion Picture Herald, May 10, 1947

[19] Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) May 3, 1947 (Hedda Hopper: Looking At Hollywood)

Variety, May 7, 1947

Motion Picture Herald, May 10, 1947

Showmen’s Trade Review, May 10, 1947

[20] New York Times (New York, New York) June 5, 1947 (Bosley Crowther)

New York Post (New York, New York) June 5, 1947 (Archer Winsten)

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) June 29, 1947 (Mildred Martin)

Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) October 15, 1947 (W. McL.)

[21] Motion Picture Herald, May 17, 1947

[22] This scene is near the midway mark of the film, just prior to the 47-minute point

[23] Rodney Bush was not new to the advertising game when Miracle was released, he had worked for producer Walter Wanger and earlier for Paramount

[24] Sidney Blumenstock entered the ranks of advertising at 20th Century-Fox under the direction of his brother Mort Blumenstock, later Sidney would move on to Paramount

[25] Stirling Silliphant would later have a successful career writing for both TV and the screen

[26] Motion Picture Daily May 16, 1947

[27] Motion Picture Herald, May 17, 1947

[28] Motion Picture Herald, June 7, 1947

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