So many of my Christmas seasons growing up in Jersey City, N.J., revolved around watching Christmas movies and specials. The networks ran all those Rankin/Bass cartoons, and every year, I’d wish I could move to the Island of Misfit Toys that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer visited on my TV. I’d sing along with the Heat Miser and hiss at Boris Karloff’s version of the Grinch, at least until his heart grew three sizes. Ah, my misspent youth!
Who am I kidding? My decrepit old self still watches all that stuff every year. I’ll always be a misfit toy.
As much as I enjoyed those specials, it was the independent New York City channels that ran what I most looked forward to at Christmastime. One is a cartoon, the other an Oscar best picture nominee. Both are celebrating anniversaries this year, which gives me an excuse to revisit them. As if one were needed.
First up is 1947′s “Miracle on 34th Street,” my favorite Christmas movie of all time, which turned 75 this year. Director George Seaton’s Oscar-winning script is a marvelous contraption, with details that support both a realistic interpretation and one taken solely on faith. This is the movie that put Santa Claus on trial and got a Supreme Court to do something useful for a change by ruling he really exists.
My apologies to Boston residents, as this is a quintessential New York City film. The street in the title is home to Macy’s. During the department store’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade, the Santa hired by Macy’s employee Doris (Maureen O’Hara) is too drunk to ride the traditional float announcing the arrival of the Christmas season. He’s the original Bad Santa!
When Kris (Edmund Gwenn), a kindly old man with a great white beard, points this out, Doris asks if he’ll substitute. He’s a hit at the parade and becomes the store’s Santa. When he meets Doris’s no-nonsense daughter, Susan (a very young Natalie Wood), Doris asks him to be straight with her and tell her that Santa isn’t real. “I hate to disagree with you, but not only is there such a person, but here I am to prove it,” he says.
Alas, Kris’s last name is Kringle.
Rather than consider him eccentric, or a student of Method acting, Doris thinks he’s bonkers. So does Porter Hall’s Dr. Sawyer, a shrink whose job is to psychoanalyze Macy’s employees — and the closest thing this charming movie has to a villain. Out of spite, Sawyer has Kris committed to Bellevue, where he’s declared insane.
It’s up to Fred (John Payne), a lawyer and love interest for Doris, to prove before the New York State Supreme Court that Kris is not only sane but he’s also Santa. How the film accomplishes this feat is one of its pleasures.
Another pleasure is how well it acknowledges that it’s a big commercial/PR campaign for Macy’s (and for consumerism in general). The great Thelma Ritter shows up in one of her first roles as a frazzled mother whom Kris sends to a Macy’s rival to get the present her son wants. Later, Kris gets the owners of Macy’s and Gimbels to shake hands in a publicity photo.
For the youngsters, that’s the equivalent of a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan shaking hands on the giant screen in Fenway Park.
Most of all, I love how the movie drops breadcrumbs to support the conclusion that Kris Kringle is, or isn’t, the real Santa. You decide what you will, but I can’t see how one can look at the twinkle in Gwenn’s eye (a twinkle powerful enough to earn him a best supporting actor Oscar) and not lean toward thinking he’s on the level.
“Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” Doris tells Susan when she doesn’t get the gift she wanted on Christmas morning, after asking Kris. She advises her daughter to keep the faith.
“I believe,” mumbles Susan afterward. “It’s silly, but I believe.” Her belief pays off.
Next up, the cartoon. Imagine if Charles Dickens were alive today so he could reap all those sweet residuals from “A Christmas Carol.” There must be 17 million movie versions of Scrooge — one was released this year. Alastair Sim, Bill Murray, Albert Finney, Michael Caine and the Muppets all took their shots at it, with varying degrees of success.
For me, there’s only one version I truly love: 1962′s “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” I should note I think the near-sighted Mister Magoo is one of the most offensive characters ever, and this is the only time I’ve ever been able to tolerate him. As a kid with vision problems, I always felt like he was mocking me.
But here he’s in character as Ebenezer Scrooge, and the entire tale is presented as a Broadway theater performance we’re watching. In between acts, Magoo reverts to causing all sorts of visually impaired mayhem, but those vignettes are mercifully short. During his time onstage, he’s all bah humbugs and cruelty, made more ruthless by the voice of Jim Backus. He’s a great Scrooge.
Even better, this thing is a musical with fantastic songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, a.k.a. the guys who brought you “Funny Girl.” Their heartbreaking number for Scrooge made me feel sorry for him. Plus, the score includes lyrics about the joys of robbery and the joys of eating “razzleberry dressing.” I still don’t know what the hell that is, but it sounds delightful.
I’d sit there watching these characters put on a show, not realizing at the time that they were contributing to my development as a big ol’ theater queen. Watching them gave me, to quote Merrill’s lyric, “a Christmas far more glorious than grand.”
Merry Christmas and happy holidays!
More recent stories from film critic Odie Henderson:
- Same script, different cast: ‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody’
- ‘EO’: A different kind of jackass movie
- ‘Who’s your favorite fearless hero?’ Puss in Boots returns in ‘The Last Wish’
- Brendan Fraser can’t save ‘The Whale’
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.