Hef's Movie Notes: Miracel on 34th Street

By Hugh Hefner

The only movie that would make sense at the Mansion tonight: A Miracle on 34th Street (some say there are miracles on Charing Cross Rd too - but of a different sort)

Tonight: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood in the five-star Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street, a hardy Christmas perennial that wasn’t released during the holiday season.

The reason: Darryl F. Zanuck knew that most Christmas films released during the holidays were commercially unsuccessful in their initial releases, so 20th Century Fox released Miracle on 34th Street in July.

It didn’t promote the fact that the film was about Santa Claus and Christmas in their advertising either. So the film became a summer hit that ran the rest of the year.

Valentine Davies, the screenwriter of The Glenn Miller Story and The Bridges at Toko-Ri, conceived the story. George Seaton, the screenwriter of The Country Girl, wrote the screenplay.

20th Century Fox purchased the screen rights in July 1946. The film had several working titles during production, including It’s Only Human, The Big Heart, My Heart Tells Me, Mr. Kringle and The Miracle on Herald Square.

On November 6, 1946, Zanuck provided his opinion on casting and the screenplay. “It is excellent, fresh, exciting and delightful,” the studio chief said. “I definitely want to use [Fox contract player] John Payne.  Mark Stevens does not fit the part at all and in any event, it is essential that we have a box office name with [Maureen] O’Hara.

“The only conceivable excuse we have for making the picture from a box-office standpoint is the combination of O’Hara and Payne, who have already established themselves (with the public.)”

O’Hara’s American career had begun with Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939, and she was a major star at Fox.

Payne had played opposite Alice Faye and Betty Grable in a string of successful musicals.

They had starred together in To The Shores of Tripoli (1942) and Sentimental Journey (1946).

Payne was under suspension at the time and was looking for a suitable property to go back to work. He read the screenplay of Miracle and liked it a lot.

So did Maureen O’Hara.

And so did everybody else.

Working on the film was apparently as joyous as the film itself. Part of the reason was the inspired casting of Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle.

He was perfect for the part—although he had played a villain in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1946).

O’Hara said, “Edmund Gwenn was Santa Claus. I mean that literally. He believed he was Santa Claus!”

Certainly little 8-year-old Natalie Wood believed that Gwenn was the real Santa. She was upset when she later saw him out of character when the film was over.

Wood became a major star later—in Gypsy, West Side Story, Rebel Without A Cause and The Searchers.

But in Miracle, her mother told the youngster to play the way Margaret O’Brien—the reigning child star at the time—would play it.

Today Margaret O’Brien says that many fans “really think it is me in that movie.”

O’Hara says today that shooting the picture was “a remarkable experience. The whole project was charmed from start to finish. Every day, it was magic. We had a wonderful, happy, magical time making the movie. You can talk to anyone who was there. It was just bliss from beginning to end.”

This was not a low budget picture. At a time when most feature films cost $750,000, the budget on Miracle was $1.5 million.

Much of it was shot on location in New York City.

It required the cooperation of both Macy’s and Gimbels—two famous, competing Manhattan department stores.

It also included coverage of the traditional Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade to welcome Santa Claus to New York.

Shooting began in New York City on November 26, 1946 and concluded on February 22, 1947. Additional scenes were shot on February 28 and March 1, with a day of retakes filmed on March 24.

The picture came in just a little over budget; on April 29 it was screened separately for the executives of Macy’s and Gimbels, who loved it.

The preview audience was enthusiastic as well—and a release date was set for June 4, 1947.

Right from the beginning, reviews for Miracle on 34th Street were ecstatic. Hailed Variety: “This is actually the story of Santa Claus on trial. … A sleeper with mass appeal, the picture is Edward Gwenn’s first to last.”

The Hollywood Reporter called it the sleeper of the year, because the story had been intentionally kept under wraps. Critics actually applauded at the end of the screening—an unusual occurrence.

The New York Times recommended Miracle as “the freshest little picture in a long time. … A delightful surprise … devoid of mighty stars and presented without the usual red-velvet ballyhoo.”

Despite its humble origins and intentionally unpretentious presentation, the delightful fantasy captured the hearts of critics and audiences alike.

And it won an Oscar nomination as Best Picture of the Year. It also earned Oscars for Edmund Gwenn for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Story and Screenplay.

As the box-office grosses grew steadily throughout the summer, fall and holiday season, it returned a remarkable $3,546,000—for a net profit of $1,627,000.

When O’Hara talks to fans today, they don’t mention The Quiet Man—or any of her other John Ford classics. They refer to her as the lady who knows Santa Claus.

So now, from 1947, Miracle on 34th Street.


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