If you were to rank your favorite Christmas movies, odds are that the list would include It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Miracle on 34th Street. That last film, originally released in 1947, has absolutely stood the test of time like the others and proves as delightful for families today as it did all those years ago.
Miracle on 34th Street is set between Thanksgiving and Christmas in New York City, with Macy’s — including its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade — serving as the backdrop. In it, a man identifying himself as Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) ends up “playing” Santa for the parade and is so good at it, that the department store hires him to be their in-store Santa to interact with the kids.
This creates a relationship between him, event director Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood) and apartment neighbor (and attorney) Fred Gailey (John Payne). As things unfold, Kris finds himself put on trial with Fred having to disprove the idea that the man is not Santa Claus, while Kris is simultaneously trying to get Susan to believe.
It may not guarantee tears in the same way that the conclusion of It’s a Wonderful Life does, but this one absolutely works its magic, and now’s your chance to learn some things about Miracle on 34th Street that you may not have known before.
1. Origin of Miracle on 34th Street
In discussing the movie, AMC’s Backstory offered up this inspiration for the film: “The story of Miracle on 34th Street began, appropriately, on Christmas Eve of 1944. That night, screenwriter Valentine Davies pushed through a packed department store in Los Angeles, searching for a Christmas gift for his wife. The commercialism was so heavy and rampant, and he thought, ‘Gee, is this what has happened to Christmas? I wonder what Santa Claus would think if he’d seen all this.’” That sparked the idea, which he shared with director George Selton, who thought it would make a great film. A year later, in July of 1946, their story was optioned by 20th Century Fox.
2. Shot on location at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Unlike a lot of movies that would have simply restaged an event taking place in its story, the makers of Miracle on 34th Street decided to shoot on location in New York City during the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as it was happening. In her memoir, ‘Tis Herself: An Autobiography, Maureen O’Hara wrote, “It was a mad scramble to get all the shots we needed, and we got to do each scene only once. It was bitterly cold that day and Edmund and I envied Natalie and John Payne, who were watching the parade from a window.” Nine cameras in all were used to quickly capture the necessary parade footage.
3. There were alternate titles to Miracle on 34th Street
During the film’s development period, the project went through a variety of titles before landing on Miracle at 34th Street. We’re not so sure that the feelings it generates would have been the same had the movie been called The Big Heart, It’s Only Human or Meet Me at Dawn.
4. The script brought Maureen O’Hara back to America
Having enjoyed a successful film career prior to Miracle on 34th Street, Maureen O’Hara had made the decision to move back to her native Ireland, which she had done. Eventually, though, she read the movie’s screenplay and knew that the part of Doris Walker was perfect for her and would fly back to the U.S. for filming.
“I was on the first plane I could get on to go back to Ireland and see my mother and father,” O’Hara explained. “I arrived in Dublin and the phone rang. It was 20th Century Fox and they said, ‘You’ve got to return to New York immediately, because you’re going to start a film called Miracle on 34th Street.’ I was absolutely furious. I did go back to New York, mad as hell, and read the script. I knew right away, ‘Oh, this is a wonderful, sentimental, warm, gorgeous story.’”
5. 20th Century Fox had little interest in Miracle on 34th Street
Unlike O’Hara, 20th Century Fox didn’t share her enthusiasm, despite the fact they’d bankrolled the producton. Explains AMC Backstory, “The studio kind of considered it a low budget ‘B’ movie. They didn’t have any idea what they had on their hands.” Needless to say, the results would make them eat their words, though to show you how much they mishandled the film, it was released in the summer with no mention of Christmas whatsoever in the advertising campaign.
6. Two famous future faces were in the movie
We all know that Miracle on 34th Street stars Maureen O’Sullivan, Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn, among others, but there are a couple of actors in there who were destined for classic TV greatness. For starters, that’s William Frawley repeatedly seen in the courtroom during Kris’ trial, and he, of course, would go on to play Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy and “Bub” on My Three Sons.
Then, in the New York post office sequence, Jack Albertson is one of the mailmen who comes up with the idea of forwarding all of Santa’s mail to the court. He would later be known for his role as Grandpa Joe in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and starring as Ed Brown opposite Freddie Prinze’s Chico Rodriguez on the 1970s sitcom Chico and the Man.
7. Much of Macy’s was a studio set
Interestingly, when it came to the apartment that Kris Kringle was staying in, the filmmakers decided to shoot in an actual apartment building to convey a greater sense of realism. Yet many sections of Macy’s were recreated on movie sound stages. The reason is that the department store was always so busy that the director wanted to have greater freedom in terms of filming than he would have had on location.
8. Edmund Gwenn was 70-years-old when cast
Edmund Gwenn was born on September 26, 1877 in England, and had been acting for 52 years prior to people truly recognizing him, and that was for his role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, which garnered hm the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe in the same category. But while we know him as Kris, there was a lot more to him as pointed out by Elizabeth Liademan in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on July 1, 1947.
“His father was a dour chap who had a deep distrust of actors,” Liademan wrote, providing a bit of background on him. “The elder Gwenn was a career man in the British Civil Service and he had planned that his son should follow in his footsteps, but Edmund outraged his family, when, at 17, he declared his intention to become an actor. Father Gwenn disowned him and possibly felt vindicated when the next 10 years rolled by and his errant son had not advanced beyond small roles in tiny touring companies that played the English provinces.”
But then playwright George Bernard Shaw caught the struggling actor in a one-act play and as a result offered him the part of the chauffeur in the forthcoming production of Man and Superman. “From then on,” the journalist notes, “the going was simple. Gwenn not only pleased a critical British public, he also managed not to displease Shaw, a much greater feat.”
Another dozen stage roles followed, then he enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps and returned to civilian life in 1919 with the rank of captain. He returned to the stage, then made the move to movies — working, but not really noticed by the public. Until, that is, Miracle on 34th Street. Writes Liademan in 1947, “Edmund Gwenn will be 70 in August. George Bernard Shaw discovered him more than 40 years ago. It’s about time that American film fans did the same.”
Well, they did, and they haven’t forgotten him since.
9. Natalie wood was already a veteran actress
By the time Natalie Wood came to play Susan in Miracle on 34th Street, she’d already established herself as a young performer. Born on July 20, 1938 in San Francisco, she’d had a 15-second scene in 1943’s Happy Land that, despite its brevity, caught the attention of director Irving Pichel, who cast her opposite Orson Welles in 1946’s Tomorrow is Forever. From there she went on to The Bride Wore Boots and the movie version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, both released in 1947, the same year as Miracle on 34th Street.
After that, the roles kept on coming as she was one of the few child actors who could transition into teen and then adult roles. She would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1955’s James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause. In 1961, she starred in Robert Wise’s film adaptation of the stage show West Side Story. Tragically, she would drown under mysterious circumstances on November 29, 1981.
In her autobiography, Maureen O’Hara reflected warmly on working with Natalie. “I have been mother to almost 40 children in movies,” she wrote, “but I always had a special place in my heart for little Natalie. She always called me Mamma Maureen and I called her Natasha. When Natalie and I shot the scenes in Macy’s, we had to do them at night because the store was full of people doing their Christmas shopping during the day. Natalie loved this, because it meant she was allowed to stay up late. I really enjoyed this time with Natalie. We loved to walk through the quiet, closed store and look at all the toys and girls’ dresses and shoes.”
10. There are multiple other versions of Miracle on 34th Street
The film was so endeared that there have actually been a lot of alternate versions inspired by it. In December 1947, the film’s cast reprised their roles for a Lux Radio Theatre one-hour version, which was performed on three separate occasions. In 1949 two versions, staged as a half-hour play, were broadcast on the radio and television series Screen Directors Playhouse, and a one-hour play broadcast on December 21, 1950. Notably, Edmund Gwenn played Kris Kringle in every one of these versions.
But wait, there’s more! TV adaptation aired in 1955, 1959 and 1973, the latter featuring Sebastian Cabot (Mr. French from the sitcom Family Affair) as Kris. And in 1994 there was a feature film remake starring Mara Wilson as Susan, Elizabeth Perkins as Doris, Dylan McDermott as Fred and Sir Richard “Welcome to Jurassic Park” Attenborough as Kris Kringle.
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