Natalie Wood’s Big Screen Miracle

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Natalie Wood (left) and Maureen O’Hara tackle the age-old faith vs. reason debate. Image: The Fine Art Diner

We didn’t realize child actor Natalie Wood was such a scene-stealer.

In Miracle on 34th Street, one of her first starring roles, nine year-old Wood plays a cynical girl who meets a department-store Santa (Edmund Gwenn) who may or may not be the real St. Nick.

Wood is charming and convincing here, but it wasn’t until we recently saw this film on the big screen that we realized how truly funny she is. Her eye-rolling at adults, for example, projects greater significance when her face is approximately 20 feet high.

The best thing about watching a classic film in the theatre is the opportunity to decompress a familiar story we’ve seen numerous times on television. A narrative that is easily three times your height yanks you into its world. We notice new-to-us details in the costumes and sets, but we also experience the film in a way we hadn’t anticipated.

For example, there is one brief scene where an inebriated woman reclines on a couch, sipping martinis. As she is handed a fresh glass, she removes the olives and sets the toothpick on the arm of the couch…beside seven other toothpicks. The camera deliberately lingers to give us time to calculate how many drinks this woman’s had.

See? There’s a dark edge to this movie, and it’s not afraid to sully the saintly image of Santa Claus, either. For example, here are some unorthodox images involving the venerable St. Nick:

  • a drunk Santa who passes out on a float just before the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
  • an angry Santa who strikes someone over the head and knocks them out.
  • a depressed Santa who sits slumped in a bathrobe in a mental institution.

Ah, now we’re getting to the heart of things. Miracle on 34th Street is not a glamorous movie. New York City looks grittier on the big screen than it does on television, as does the department store where much of the film is set. This is a movie about people making a life in a big city and grappling with some of life’s bigger questions:

  • What role do faith and reason play in our lives?
  • How do we define mental illness?
  • Who has the authority to say what is sane and what is not?

It’s no ordinary movie, this. Writer/director George Seaton has given us a smart script that’s unafraid to ask thorny questions, but also knows when to interject humour before things get too sticky. For example, during a courtroom hearing that will determine Gwenn’s sanity, the prosecutor (Jerome Cowan) discovers his young son has been subpoenaed to appear on the stand. We the audience can smell a set-up; at some point Cowan will have to ask this feisty kid who told him Santa Claus was real.

Seaton isn’t above toying with our emotions. There’s a scene where Gwenn meets an orphaned Dutch girl, recently brought to the United States. The girl has limited English skills, so he speaks to her in her mother tongue. Seaton captures such a genuine expression of joyful surprise on the girl’s face, it almost brings you to tears.

Much of the holiday fare produced by Hollywood in recent years feels shallow and trite when compared to films like Miracle on 34th Street. This film is a classic – and deserves to be – because of a thoughtful script and a nine year-old Natalie Wood who, in her way, guides us through some perplexing questions.

Miracle on 34th Street: starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn. Written & directed by George Seaton. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., B&W, 1947, 95 mins.

Ginger Rogers’ Surprise Baby

Ginger Rogers David Niven Bachelor Mother RKO Pictures 1939

Bachelor David Niven shows Ginger Rogers the proper way feed a baby.

They say 1939 was Hollywood’s best year. The Golden Year, they call it.

Some real heavyweights were released in 1939, such as Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. That’s quite a roster!

But there were some other, lesser-known movies released that year which, by themselves, still would have made 1939 a glorious year.

Take RKO’s comedy, Bachelor Mother. This delightful movie, starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven, is about a young, single woman struggling to pay the rent in the big city. On the day her boss hands her a lay-off notice, she stumbles upon an abandoned baby. Everyone assumes the baby is hers and convinces her to keep it, despite her loud and rigorous protests.

Yes, this is a ridiculous premise for a movie. Yes, this sort of thing would never happen today, and it likely never happened in 1939, either.

But who cares! There are so many great situations to explore and Bachelor Mother does not disappoint. We ourselves consider it to be one of the funniest movies ever made.

One of the reasons this movie is so amusing is the great Charles Coburn. He’s a professional scene stealer, but it’s easy when you have all the best lines. Check this out: Coburn, who plays Niven’s father, says, “I was young once, like you. I lived like you, looked like you. Then suddenly – overnight – I looked like this.”

We love the scene of a heated breakfast-table argument between Coburn and Niven, where a well-meaning butler keeps interrupting and Coburn keeps slamming – and losing – his spoon on the table.

This is not a movie of dramatic, thought-provoking performances; it’s light and breezy and extremely well done. Niven is everything you expect him to be – suave, articulate, rich. Rogers, as a hapless department store employee, is credible as a bewildered woman who suddenly has a baby thrust upon her. And that baby! He is one of the cutest, chunkiest babies on film.

Bachelor Mother is not usually considered a holiday movie, even though it takes place during the holiday season. But do yourself a favour and try to set aside time to enjoy it. You’ll find yourself quoting Charles Coburn’s lines days later.

Starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven and Charles Coburn. Directed by Garson Kanin. Written by Norman Krasna. RKO Radio Pictures, B&W, 1939, 82 mins.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Lovely. A run on the bank.

Another red-letter day in the life of George Bailey.

Please tell us you’ve seen this movie.

And if you haven’t – excuse us while we gasp and clutch our pearls in horror – may we ask: what is wrong with you?

You’ve know the basic storyline: George Bailey (James Stewart), owner of a small-town Building & Loan, finds himself in a no-win situation and contemplates suicide. But his guardian angel appears in the nick of time and shows him what his life would be like if he’d never been born.

Now, maybe you haven’t seen this movie because you think this premise is too syrupy. Not so! Stewart’s portrayal of a desperate man caught in a hopeless situation is wrenching. In fact, the reason why this movie was not a hit when it was first released was that a war-weary America thought it was too gritty.

Perhaps you think the movie might be too boring. While the film does cover a considerable span of time in one man’s life, the blend of drama and humour gives us a full picture of the main character. You can’t help but like George Bailey and, by the end of the movie, you’re practically on your feet cheering for him.

It may be that you think that this movie is “not for me”. Fair enough, but let us say that when we saw this movie at a packed theatre last year, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Can you believe the audience clapped – clapped! – at the film’s conclusion?

Go. Go now and watch it immediately. You know there’ll be at least 37 channels showing it right at this minute.

You’re welcome.

Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and the great Lionel Barrymore. Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra. Directed by Frank Capra. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946, 132 mins.