Saturday, November 24, 2012

Miracle on 34th Street

Released in 1947 Miracle on 34th Street is one of three post-war films that used Christmas to tell a parable about the struggle between optimism and cynicism that occurred in America after the WWII.

Each movie, Miracle On 34th Street, It's A Wonderful Life and The Bishop's Wife tell the story of a person who has lost their way and finds redemption through the influence of magical messenger of goodwill.

In 1946 the war was over and there was a sense of relief and optimism in the country. Americans could start looking forward again.  Yet hundreds of thousands of American husbands, fathers and sons died in the war. Countless GI's returned home to high unemployment and labor strife. The war also revealed the dark side of human nature in the form of the Holocaust. In addition there was much uncertainty about the new cold war and the atomic age that was just beginning. Hope and prosperity were living side by side with anger, bitterness, cynicism and fear.

In the movie Doris Walker represents the new American. Cynical, hard-bitten, practical and unhappy. The two paths before her are demonstrated by Fred Gailey, the lawyer next door, a cheerful, optimistic man who believes in the both the goodness of humankind and the law, and Mr. Sawyer, the "psychiatrist", who represents the mean, bitter, angry person she is becoming.

Susan, Doris'  daughter, represents the future. The possibility that faith, hope and all the "intangibles" could be lost to her generation.

Susan is not the only child who needs saving. In a small but emotionally charged and poignant scene a little dutch girl is comes to visit Santa Claus. The woman with the girl explains she does not speak English. She is a war orphan living alone in Rotterdam and just recently adopted and brought to America. This girl represents the two worlds of the film. In the war she lost everything family, friends and home. But she has a new life awaiting her in America, if she will be open to it. You can see the sadness on her face as she sits on Santa's lap. Yet she also has hope, and when Santa sings to her in Dutch a her faith and hope are rewarded.

Sawyer and those like him can never be saved, but through the intervention of Santa Claus, Doris and Susan and the little Dutch girl have their lives pointed in a new direction, one of hope, happiness and possibility for the future. By the end of the film the entire city of New York has been transformed by Santa Claus.

If you put Miracle on 34th street in the context of the time period when it was made you will see that it is much more than a story about a girl who does not believe in Santa Claus.

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