This previous month, I watched Miracle on 34th Street as part of our tradition of watching Christmas movies during Christmastime.
When I watch old movies such as these, it always strikes me just how good they are.
There isn’t just a higher standard of cinematic craft in place, but the entire value system on which these old movies are built is drastically different from those of today.
In the film, a man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), claiming to be the real Santa Claus, becomes the Macy’s department store Santa Claus. He promptly sets out on a one man mission to spread genuine Christmas cheer.
What makes Miracle different is that it doesn’t cast the businessmen running Macy’s as dastardly villains, as a modern film might do.
Rather, it goes with the typical Old Hollywood policy of making sure that everyone gets their just deserts, no matter who they are.
Miracle on 34th Street not only demonstrates that businessmen weren’t typically castigated as scumbags in 1947, but that being decent is good for business.
A major theme in the film is the primacy of kindness and charity over the crass and ruthless desire to “Make a buck, make a buck,” as Alfred (Alvin Greenman) puts it.
Kris’s strategy for fighting this mentality is to refer the parents of children he sees as the department store Santa to other stores where they can find items that aren’t available at Macy’s.
Though his bosses are at first alarmed, the head of the store, R. H. Macy (Harry Antrim), makes Kris’s unorthodox tactic official store policy following an avalanche of public support.
As a result, Macy’s not only skyrockets financially, but sets an example for their competitor, Gimbel’s, to adopt the same policy. This feeling of charity and helpfulness leads the two stores to mend fences.
As I’ve written before, Old Hollywood was made up of people whose sense of morality bled into their art.
This principle is evident in Miracle on 34th Street‘s depiction of commercialism as a problem. Unless I’m very much mistaken, it’s the first in a long line of films to decry this particular ism.
The difference between Miracle‘s take on commercialism and others is that it presents a realistic motivation for someone like R. H. Macy to not be a Grinch.
Macy sums it up nicely when he says that by being “known as the helpful store,” they’ll make more profits than ever before. Mr. Macy is hardly a villain.
In fact, there are practically no villains at all in this charming picture, aside from the sleazy pseudo-psychiatrist Sawyer (Porter Hall).
Speaking of Sawyer, this leads us to one of the hallmarks of Old Hollywood: Justice is always served. Miracle is no exception.
In the course of the film’s events, the vindictive Sawyer is fired after orchestrating Kris Kringle’s unjust insanity hearing.
Fred Gailey (John Payne), the lawyer who defended Kris at the hearing, gets together with the Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the leading lady who rediscovers faith in the good things in life.
Even Alfred gets a direct commendation from Mr. Macy himself, a fine reward for a kindhearted boy who enjoys dressing up as a street corner Santa Claus and giving kids presents.
Things have certainly changed since then. Businessmen are almost invariably portrayed as bad guys in the movies.
“Corporation” might as well be a portmanteau of “corrupt organization.”
The question isn’t whether change has occurred. (It has.)
The question isn’t even whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. (It’s a bad thing, no doubt.)
The real question, the one I want to know the answer to, is why this change happened at all.
Image courtesy of hark.com.