Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Chestnuts Roasting I: Miracle on 34th Street

As John Lennon used to say: "So this is Christmas..." Eric Idle...ummm, didn't say it quite that way.

You know how I feel about this whole business. I'm more with Idle than with Lennon.

Mind you, my likes and dislikes don't really matter. We've had Christmas this and Christmas that and Christmas the other damn thing since practically Halloween. But now that we're on the dark side of Thanksgiving, well...

This year is turning out to be interesting, however. The kiddos are caught up in the usual Christmas greed, obediently parroting the gimme paternoster at every huckster on the television. Missy, especially, is turning out to be a sucker for cheap, shiny plastic crap. A commercial for anything aimed at kids, from Benadroos to Bandryl will produce her immediate Pavlovian"IwantthatcanIhavethatwillyougetmethat?" She's not completely unreasonable - there are no tantrums or tears if she hears "no", but through repetition this does not become endearing.

The Peep, who at seven-and-a-half is a more experienced consumer, has opted for quality over quantity and wants only the largest and most costly Lego toys. These, by the way, I am now utterly unwilling to provide to him based on bitter experience. As objects the damn things are fiendishly expensive; as toys, completely worthless, being both heavy and fragile. The disassociated pieces of but the "Republic Attack Shuttle" and the "AT-TE" walker ,now intermingled with a dozen other smaller Lego objects, stand mute witness to this.His grandparents can bankroll his Lego addiction, if they want. I'm getting him a bicycle.

Oh, and he has decided he doesn't want to kill a tree for Santa. He wants to get a fake tree. No pink ones, mind, and it can't be plaid or otherwise obviously "fake-y". But he wants to get a plain green fake tree. And it can't be before...

Christmas Eve.

I'm tempted to go with it just to see what happens. And then dance an antic hay on the ruins. It'd be the Perfectly Awful Christmas.

But then there's being the grown-up thing. Sigh.

Of course, the other inescapable element of Wenceslausery is the sudden metastasizing Christmas specials and Christmas movies and Christmas television episodes.

Don't mistake me; like any kid of the Video Era I grew up with the idea that television, not the angel of Bethlehem, announced the Savior's Birth. I was raised on Christmas commercials, Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch (although I am glad that I am too old to have my eyes seared with the awful Ron Howard/Jim Carrey live-action version; talk about a childhood trauma...) as more important to the Greatest Story ever told as the Big Guy from little Galilee. In fact, I would say that my "Christmas" - the ideas and images that made the holiday a reality for me - came from the cathode ray tube rather than the Bible, the church, or the stories.

Perhaps one of my favorite celluloid Christmases is the one in the George Seaton "Miracle on 34th Street".

C'mon, I know you've seen this thing. It may be the biggest Christmas chestnut after "It's a Wonderful Life", and it's certainly less glurgeworthy. It's a breezy confection of a yarn, with Ed Gwenn as the whiskered gentleman that everyone doesn't quite want to believe is really Santa Claus. John Payne makes a sensible good fellow of a hero as Fred the attorney who defends "Kris Kringle", Maureen O'Hara a gloriously mature and completely desirable Doris, the Macy's executive whose little girl Susan is the pivot on whom the movie turns. Susan, played by a dark and brilliant young Natalie Wood, is the perfect center; wise and foolish, cautious and loving, skeptical and credulous. As a kid she's the cool big sister you wish you had, as an adult, the bright, loving little daughter.And, of course, the movie is full of great little bits of work. Gwenn discovering what people with beards shouldn't blow bubble gum. "Susan" is full of inside knowledge on the Macy's Thanksgiving parade she's picked up from her mother, who has organized it for all her young life. The brilliant gimmick that lets Fred "prove" Kris is THE Santa Claus through the inspiration of the overworked mail sorter who convinces his foreman to send "all them Santy Claus letters" to the courthouse.It's practically perfect; gently sentimental without treacle, loving and respecting its holiday without glurge. It's one of the few Christmas pictures I can sit through without wincing.

Oh, and did you know that 20th Century released it in May? Seriously. Weird, yes, but there it is: May 2, 1947. You can look it up.Now this is America. And as you know, here if something works once, that means it needs to be done over. And bigger. With more stuff. And preferably in color.

And that's what happened to "Miracle". Actually, it happened FIVE times; two one-hour television versions in the Fifties, a musical in the Sixties (but all sorts of awful musicals happened in the Sixties, so it wasn't exactly the worst of its type...), a TV movie in the Seventies, and, finally, a theatrical movie in the Nineties.

The 1994 movie version, for some reason, has been in heavy rotation on the usual calbe channel suspects lately; Lifetime, "Family", Hallmark. Its really kind of intriguing, in a sort of true-crime-story way, to see the difference between the America that had just emerged from the abyss of World War 2 and the one that was the Sole Superpower, the Indispensable Nation, the gigantic economic and political colossus then at the height of its power and wealth.The players are all there; Richard Attenborough as Kris, trying to look Gwennishly charming and succeeding in looking merely dyspeptic. Dylan McDermot replaces Payne, looking more intent but less decent. Elizabeth Perkins, whose ability to play vulnerably intelligent women I truly enjoy, does so here and deftly as always. Mara Wilson does a decent job as Susan, although she never manages Wood's luminosity or her skeptical intelligence (which is a problem, because the story calls for convincing the prenaturally adult Wood to feel and love childishly to be a Santaesque labor, whereas Wilson comes off as just a nice kiddo).

John Hughes directs.

That's not the problem.

The problem is that the story was perfectly suited for the sunny, lighthearted good sense of the Forties. The original never felt strained, never lectured, never brooded or pouted. It was a straightforward tale of whimsy, well-told, but with a good-humored wink towards the audience.

The Nineties version has none of this. It is uneven in tone, sometimes childishly callow, sometimes cynical, and adds a disturbingly strong, wildly out-of-place thread of religious piety to the plot, disturbing since the entire story is based on the central reality of that very Anti-Christ of American commercial Christmas, Santa Claus.

I should add that the religiousness comes across to me as rather mean-spirited, not presented as a sort of warm God-fuzzy but rather as a failure on the part of the irreligious. You first encounter it when Fred comes over to have Thanksgiving dinner with Susie and her mom. They don't say grace, you see, and Doris (inexplicably renamed "Dorie" in this one) is made to act embarassed and contrite about it. Because people who don't have God or religion can't really be good people, right?

The tone is very reminiscent of the sort of "Christmas Wars" then being fought at the time the remake was made, and the film shares something of the sour and accusatory tone of the time. Very unpleasant.

The injection of God and worship into the original cheerfully irreligious story is jarring in more ways than just the way it places God and Santa uneasily alongside each other. It rips the wonderful setpiece out of the climax of the story.

Instead of the endless chain of letter-carriers tromping into the courtroom with their bags and bags of Santa letters - proving that the U.S. Post Office believes Kris to be the "one and only" Santa - we have a very strained and badly skewed moment involving the little girl, a Christmas card with a dollar in it (WTF?) and the motto "In God We Trust" circled with hi-lighter.(Don't get it? Me, neither. The film has the trial judge go into some long-winded explanation about how the U.S. Department of Treasury can believe in God with no hard evidence so the people of New York can believe in Santa Claus in the same way (conveniently ignoring such precedent as Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984) in which the Supreme Court held that the motto has "lost through rote repetition any significant religious content" and called it mere "ceremonial deism"). Yeah, yeah, I don't buy it, either. It's crap, and badly written crap, at that).Not content with replacing the best scene in the flick with a pottage of claptrap, Hughes then proceeds to add one last bit of bizarre business. His Dorie and Fred get married (at Midnight Mass, no less, slamming your head against the Jesus is The Reason For The Season wall again in case you forgot the whole "In God We Trust" thing) and then go house-hunting.The house thing is right out of the 1947 original, where city-bound little Susan wanted the Forties American Dream House in the 'burbs for Christmas. In that version the house is the setup for the punchline (Kris really IS Santa, see..?) as well as the Fred-and-Doris kiss-and-let's-get-married-and-be-happy-families that makes the Happy Ending of the story. Fade to black.

In the Hughes version, same setup, except instead of just wanting the house for Christmas Susan had Three Wishes (John Hughes - Brilliantly Original Thinker, eh?); a dad, the house, and a baby brother. When they get to the house, Susan announces that she now has ALL her wishes. Fred and Dorie goggle at her, at each other, then down at Dorie's womb. Booiiiinnng! Santa is like Christmas' Fertility God, see? He puts babies in ladies' tummies!


Anyway, I don't enjoy the Nineties version enough to sit all the way through it, but it keeps turning up like the mouse the cat keeps dragging inside no matter how often you toss it into the yard. So I've now seen almost all of it mow in bits and pieces.

And between the nonsensical alterations, the strident piety, and the overall dark and charmless tone, the newer version of "Miracle on 34th Street" just seems to me to say something very unkind about us Americans of 1994 and 2010. I know the flaws of the Forties, I know all about the flaws of the people who lived at that time; they were and are my parents.

But it just seems that the sort of people who made that movie were different people than the ones who made the last one, and that based on the difference between the films, the changes that occurred in the people weren't particularly good ones.

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