Greg Bruce and Zanna Gillespie debate the merits of one of history's most beloved Christmas films.
Shonkiness of religious moralising: 5
Shamelessness of corporate advertising: 5
Shakenness of faith in Rotten Tomatoes: 0
I cannot in all good conscience review Miracle on 34th Street without being fully transparent about my raging New York-o-philia. I'm not entirely sure when it set in properly but it was probably somewhere between Sesame Street and Annie. I find joy in almost any film set on those sidewalks and frankly, I don't understand how I've never seen this one before.
There are enough 1940s Manhattan street scenes in this film to keep me going at least into the new year, and that's to say nothing of the interior Macy's department store content, which is also to die for. Throw in the unparalleled magic that is New York City during the holiday season, and I was sold before we were even past the opening credits.
The story? It has its flaws. It's hard to watch 1940s storytelling through 2020 eyes. The acting is overly dramatic, there are plot holes, casual fat-shaming, so many white male characters that some looked confusingly similar, a mother who's a stereotypical career woman, ergo too cold-hearted to sing lullabies to her daughter, and a love story that within a matter of days goes from vague flirtation to "Hello darling, I've booked our usual table at Luigi's", without so much as a kiss or any other evidence of their conscious coupling.
Putting the foreseeable flaws aside, it would be hard to find eyes more twinkling or cheeks more jolly than those on Edmund Gwenn, who plays Kris Kringle. He has a magic about him and I think his portrayal of Santa probably influenced depictions of the merry fellow henceforth.
Miracle on 34th Street is a religious allegory about belief without evidence. I was glad, however, that even when it came down to a court hearing over whether or not Santa is real, it didn't cross over into evangelical territory. I like my Christmas movies light on Christ and heavy on mas...sive sleighs pulled by flying reindeer.
I wouldn't take your little believers to see this film unless you're prepared to answer questions like: "Why did those people want to put Santa in Bellevue psych ward?"
But if you're a fellow New-York-o-phile, cinephile, nostalgia-phile or Christmas-o-phile, then this 74-year-old film is a festive feast with all the trimmings.
It was a struggle to engage Zanna in conversation about this, one of history's most lauded Christmas films. Maybe it was because, in the face of Christmas shopping and chaos, she's fast running out of steam; Maybe it's because there just wasn't much to say about it.
"What did you think?" I asked her after it finished.
"I liked it," she said.
"In spite of the fact it was objectively bad?" I said.
Usually this kind of provocation would set her off but, instead, she offered up a brief and perfunctory thesis about how it played into her love for New York and Christmas and nostalgia. It didn't seem to occur to her that these needs could have been fulfilled far more efficiently by a photograph - say a snowy night scene of Times Square in the 1950s - which could have been absorbed more or less instantly, thus saving her the 101 minutes it took to watch what appeared to be a fully paid, feature-length advertisement for the Macy's department store.
The movie contains some of the worst, least nuanced courtroom comedy-drama in history, accompanied by some of the most gag-inducing, misguided moralising in the history of morality cinema. "Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to", one of the characters tells us, even though we live in an era in which we can see how that stupid platitude has been responsible for - to take just the nearest example - nearly 300,000 Covid deaths.
Nevertheless, I, like Zanna, am a big fan of Christmas, New York and nostalgia. In theory, this movie should have held at least some appeal for me. And I did feel things at times - watching the Macy's parade through the window of the hopelessly romantic Manhattan apartment of one of the central characters, for example. But whenever feelings like this bobbed up, they were swept away by the vast wave of disappointment I felt at the movie as a whole.
Of all the few things I have faith in, probably the strongest is the film review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, on which Miracle on 34th Street has an astonishingly high 96 per cent rating, indicating near-universal critical acclaim. Having now seen the film, I would renounce my faith if I could, but faith is beyond reason, and Metacritic.com is just not as good.
Miracle on 34th Street is screening in select cinemas and streaming now on Disney+