Thursday, July 01, 2010

Christmas in July: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street neatly encapsulates why so many Christmas movies bug me: It's a pretty well-crafted movie on a lot of levels; it won three Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture the year it was released; it's beloved by many and trotted out every year during the holiday season to air on TV and be shown in libraries and revival theaters. And yet it totally annoyed me for most of its running time with its arrogant cheerfulness and almost fascistic sense of the proper way to celebrate and honor Christmas. Those are harsher words than the movie probably deserves, and certainly there are modern Christmas movies that are far crasser and more manipulative (and we'll get to those later this month, I'm sure), but I still get frustrated at movies that insist on their irrational worldviews as morally superior to simple reason and logic.

The idea here is that a sweet old guy hired to play Santa Claus at Macy's department store in New York City claims to be the real thing, and when the authorities try to have him committed, his court hearing becomes a referendum on the existence of Santa Claus. Maureen O'Hara plays the woman who hired him, a Macy's manager and divorced mother who teaches her precocious daughter Susie (a very impressive young Natalie Wood) to believe in tangible phenomena and not fairy tales like Santa Claus. While the movie is remarkably progressive in its depiction of a strong, independent divorced woman who holds her own in a profession dominated by men, it still feels the need to soften O'Hara's Doris by chipping away at her logical resolve, forcing her to give in to believing in Santa as well, and admit she taught her daughter wrong. She actually curses her own "common sense" toward the end of the movie.

And that's what bugs me -- a movie that derides common sense, psychology and treating children like human beings, in favor of blind faith and smug condescension. It's all in the name of generosity and togetherness, but it feels false and intolerant rather than compassionate. Obviously this movie isn't for me if I'm rooting for nice old Kris Kringle to be proven a fraud. But I don't think that point of view is invalid, and it's one that the movie isn't willing to allow for.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Blind faith in pagan rituals and beliefs.

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