For the fourth film of Christmas my true love gave to me a film set between Thanksgiving and Christmas that the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl F Zanuck, insisted be released in May, claiming that more people went to see movies in the summer than in the winter. The Christmas setting was kept a secret in all the press releases and the character played by Edmund Gwenn was kept in the background of all the movie posters. If that wasn’t enough, the film was also deemed to be morally objectionable by the National Legion of Decency – an organisation set up in America (where else?) to identify things that people might be enjoying and put a stop to them.
You may be surprised to hear that the film I’ve just described is the much-loved 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street and not some strange and kinky Christmas sex film. The reason the National Legion of Decency found it so objectionable was because Maureen O’ Hara’s character was a divorced single mother. Made in black-and-white, Miracle on 34th Street tells the story of a department store Santa Claus who claims to be the real thing.
I have a mantra that I make my two boys say before I force them to watch a film that was made before colour was introduced. It goes like this: Just because a film’s in black-and-and white doesn’t mean to say it’s rubbish. I made them say it before they watched Laurel & Hardy’s hilarious 1926 Oscar winning short The Music Box, which they thoroughly enjoyed, but not before whinging, “Ohhhhhh, it’s not in black-and-white is it?”
Children aren’t the only ones who complain when they see black-and-white films on telly. There are a number of grown-ups who won’t watch black-and-white films and who really should know better. I once knew someone who told me that he didn’t watch them because he owned a colour television and he didn’t see why he should watch a black-and-white film on a colour television when he could either watch (a) the (inferior) colourised version of the film, or (b) the (inferior) colour remake. This type of person can generally be found described in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as one or more of the following: a moron, a cretin or a philistine. This same person would also not watch a foreign film with subtitles, preferring instead to suffer two hours of atrocious dubbing, before declaring that the film was rubbish. WELL, OF COURSE THE FILM’S GOING TO BE RUBBISH, YOU IDIOT! IT’S NOT MEANT TO BE WATCHED LIKE THAT! Try watching Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boat (1981) dubbed into English and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
There are two versions of Miracle on 34th Street. The one made in 1947 starring Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, and the remake made in 1994 with Richard Attenborough as Santa Claus, and while I’ll admit that Richard Attenborough does look more like our collective view of Santa Claus – and that view can probably be explained best by a member of the Coca-Cola Company’s advertising team – it’s Gwenn’s original who has more depth.
What the original has over the remake is manifold. Here are just five reasons why the original is better than the remake: (1) it’s more cynical, (2) it actually makes a social comment, (3) it doesn’t have a clumsy sub-plot shoehorned into it, (4) it’s shorter and (5) it’s better acted by all concerned – and that includes Richard Attenborough and Mara Wilson.
There’s nothing wrong with Mara Wilson’s performance. In fact it’s absolutely fine. The problem lies when you compare her with the original young actor who played the role – Natalie Wood.
The 1994 version of Miracle on 34th Street was only Mara Wilson’s second film. She would make two more of note before disappearing into the shadows – Danny DeVito’s excellent adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1996) and Michael Ritchie’s A Simple Wish (1997).
Natalie Wood fared slightly better in terms of stardom before her life was cut tragically short in a boating accident in 1981. She appeared in over fifty films, starring alongside James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), she was John Wayne’s kidnapped niece in John Ford’s epic 1956 western The Searchers, and she was Maria in the best musical next to Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story (1961).
There’s something endlessly fascinating about the afterlife of child actors. What is it that determines their staying power once their voices break and those once cute looks become sullen and quite often ugly? Not many of them actually make it in the world of adult cinema (and I’m not talking about porn here). Kurt Russell, Jodi Foster and Leonardo DiCaprio are probably the three most famous survivors. For the few who make it, though, there are many who don’t – Macauley Culkin burnt out after being plagued by his greedy parents, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside a nightclub, Lindsay Lohan turned to booze, drugs and brattishness and Mara Wilson just wanted a quiet life.
Despite its fantastic nature there’s something about the original version of Miracle on 34th Street that rings truer than the remake. The performances are more natural – especially Edmund Gwenn, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Maureen O’Hara was not only stunningly beautiful (I remember falling in love with her when I watched The Quiet Man on the telly with my grandma) but she was also a versatile actress. John Payne was always good in everything he did and then there was the great Thelma Ritter, whose career was started with a bit part as a weary shopper and who so impressed Darryl F Zanuck that he insisted her role was expanded. At the time of her death in 1969 she was the most nominated actress who had never won an Oscar. A notorious scene-stealer, she appeared in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) with Bette Davis, Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) with James Stewart and Grace Kelly, Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk (1959) with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) with Burt Lancaster.
But what about the remake of Miracle on 34th Street? Is it worth seeing? Well, yes it is – it has a pretty good script by John Hughes and it’s well acted by the majority of the cast – although it’s only Richard Attenborough who stands out (but that might be because he’s wearing a bright red suit). If I had the choice, though, I’d pick the original every time.