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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.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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