Miracle On 34th Street
Yes, Miracle On 34th Street is pure Hollywood hokum, a blatant piece of sub-Capra populism designed to advance the controversial proposition that Santa is real and children should be allowed to let their imaginations run free. (How did Fox keep the protestors at bay?) But the film is pretty savvy too, getting a jump on mounting anxieties about the post-war cult of consumerism, soon to be savaged by beatniks, cartoonists, and underground stand-up comics. The story of a real "Kris Kringle" (played by the inimitable Edmund Gwenn) earning the trust of upper management at Macy's and teaching young Natalie Wood and her progressive mother Maureen O'Hara to believe in Christmas again is really an object lesson in how to put one over on the buying public. What does the Macy's customer say when Santa sends her to another store to buy her son a fire truck? She congratulates Macy's on "this wonderful new stunt you're pullin'."
In the battle of the classic Hollywood Christmas movies, It's A Wonderful Life feels charmingly ancient, fixed in an early-20th-century America that scarcely anyone today remembers first-hand. Miracle On 34th Street feels more modern, with slangy dialogue and naturalistic asides, and a general awareness of how Christmas has become about the intertwined stresses of shopping and selling. Gwenn's Santa Claus descends on New York like a department-store Jesus, healing the retail world by reminding everyone how to use capitalism (and later, the U.S. justice system) for good.
Miracle On 34th Street is still pretty quaint, though. It offers a glimpse of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade circa 1946, and it features a cast of seemingly every familiar character actor from Golden Age Hollywood. (You can identify a lot of actors in old movies by who they played in Miracle.) And then there's Gwenn, jovially and righteously dispensing opinions on what Christmas should and shouldn't be, and keeping everyone's coin purses jingling all the way. Anyone who says he isn't Santa should be bopped on the head with a cane.
Key features: A colorized version (boo!), a warmly reflective commentary track by O'Hara (yay!), one of the greatest trailers in Hollywood history, one of the worst of a bad run of remakes (the 1955 hourlong TV version), and a set of fairly superficial featurettes.