In the last few decades, Santa Claus at the movies has acquired either a tone of cynicism, like Billy Bob Thornton as a drunken, fornicating, swearing mall Santa who only takes the gig to rob the whole place blind and whose light at the end of the tunnel epiphany always played to me like a dryer rendering of Travis Bickle’s “Taxi Driver” Is-It-A-Dream? conclusion, in “Bad Santa” or of revisionism, like Tim Allen as an ordinary skeptic becoming Santa to make way for comic elucidation about the more gaping inconsistencies in Santa logic. These Santas are well and good, but they are a long way from Edmund Gwenn winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Kris Kringle in “Miracle on 34th Street” so many years ago. And I suppose that in this current American climate, I didn’t want Billy Bob Thornton throwing up in the alley or an exact explanation of how Santa slides down a chimney; I yearned for the magic twinkle in Edmund Gwenn’s eye. Then again, in that twinkle lies a short fuse. When some quack tries to claim Santa ain’t real, he gets thwacked on the head by the cane of Gwenn’s Kringle. I’d forgotten that part of George Seaton’s holiday - er, Christmas - classic.
I had to laugh last year when the whole war on the War on Christmas erupted (again), particularly in light of Starbucks removing a greeting of “Merry Christmas” from their cups. I read about this and was at a Starbucks the next and day there were, like, 47 other places in the store where the word “Christmas” appeared. If they were waging a war, they were doing a terrible job. President Elect Trump hopped on the bandwagon, as is his wont, promising us that we would be saying “Merry Christmas” again, all part of his campaign to Make America Great Again, a campaign to take us back to those days of The Greatest Generation, when America was kicking ass, taking names and saying Merry Christmas. Of course, “Miracle on 34th Street” was released into The Greatest Generation’s era and “Miracle on 34th Street” was conceived and co-written by Valentine Davies who had become disgusted by the commercialization of Christmas, by a time when Santa Claus was less a dude who put presents under the tree than an advertising pitchman. (“There is a lot of bad ism’s floating around this world and one of the worst is commercialism,” says the movie’s little Alfred like a Truman-era Ferris Bueller.)
Of course, Santa Claus, not St. Nicholas, not the original and not the one of Clement C. Moore’s renowned poem, was essentially dreamt up by none other than Rowland H. Macy, founder of Macy’s, who turned the “jolly old elf” into the roly-poly dude we all know so well in order to draw more people to his department store and bolster sales. In other words, the Santa Claus of modern America was always commercialized. If Davies knew this, however, he had an odd way of expressing it because he was not, as Turner Classic Movies notes, forced by Macy’s or any other department store to make his movie’s Santa a Macy’s Santa; he did it entirely of his own volition.
You’d think going after brand name department stores using the season to turn extra bucks would be a good way to skewer Christmas’s commercialism, but despite a nifty little subplot where rival department stores are forced to resist business in order to drum it up, the real villain becomes the wannabe psychiatrist (Porter Hall) at Macy’s who is convinced Gwenn’s Kris Kringle, claiming to be the Kris Kringle, the one from the North Pole, despite living at a home for old folks on Long Island, is simply off his rocker.
But that makes room for the concluding court case sequence, of course, where John Payne’s lawyer Fred Gailey, who is courting Maureen O’Hara’s Doris Walker, who is raising Natalie Wood’s Susan Walker, who finds her life changed by Kris, must argue that Santa truly is Santa. In court, Davies and Seaton really turn the satiric screws, evincing the Judge (Gene Lockhart) as driven by the political winds. If he rules that Santa is not real, imagine all the votes he’ll lose in his upcoming election.
This balance is the brilliance of Seaton’s film, dexterously able to evince the profit and political motivations driving the Judge and Mr. Macy even as a belief in the mystical gradually emerges. That belief emerges most prominently in Susan, a character played superbly by Wood as a kind of alternate version of “Meet Me in St. Louis’s” Tootie, less frighteningly fantastical and more coolly realistic. She is taught by her mother from the get-go that Santa is not real, that make-believe will merely yield a mountain of misfortune. Kris challenges that idea, of course, as does Fred, all of which, frankly, openly invites a reading of mansplaining. But Wood makes her transformation ring true.
It is not that she allows herself to believe that Santa Clause really does come down the chimney after she goes to bed; she allows herself to believe that just believing in the idea of Santa Claus is worthwhile. That’s a key demarcation. And perhaps the concluding “Inception”-ish shot goes a little too far in the wrong direction, but I shrugged it off in spite of myself. The good and bad of lying about Santa to your kids gets raised often in this day and age, and that’s okay, a reminder that raising every child is different. Because Susan? Well, she’s been raised with both feet firmly on the ground, leaving her more than judicious enough to know there is no harm in keeping an eye on the NORAD Santa tracker.