December 2014

Line in the Sand:Is Miracle on 34th Street the best christmas movie?

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Barry Kaufman
As much as Courtney and I spend the year talking smack about one another’s deeply-held beliefs, you should know that even the two of us are capable of setting aside our petty differences in the spirit of the season. In fact, this year, Courtney gave me a really great Christmas present in the form of a total softball subject: I get to prove why her favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, is awful.

As an aside, you’ll probably read all about her views on why A Charlie Brown Christmas is awful in her portion of this column. Please forgive her, in the spirit of the season, and know that she only holds these views because she is incapable of joy. Anyway, back to Miracle on 34th Street and why it’s awful.
For those who only tend to watch Christmas movies that don’t double as visual Ambien, a quick recap: Miracle on 34th Street is the story of an elderly dementia patient who manages to talk his way into a cushy mall Santa gig at Macy’s before assaulting a psychologist and being put on trial. He is eventually sprung on a technicality, and zero miracles actually occur.

The closest thing to a “miracle” that we see is more of a total miscarriage of the justice system, and it occurs several dozen blocks away from 34th Street, at New York City Supreme Court downtown. If you think I’m being too technical in that last point, you should know that he escapes prosecution for assault because the United States Postal Service inadvertently acknowledges his Santa-dom by virtue of delivering him letters. This is the whole point of this movie, everyone: being completely pedantic.

Precisely what does leveraging a postal technicality in the name of evading assault charges have to do with Christmas? I’m asking this rhetorically. If you have an answer for that question, your holidays are much more interesting than mine.

Look, my basic set of criteria of what makes a good Christmas movie is as follows:
• It should be about Christmas.

Oh hey, look at that. We’re one bullet point in, and already Miracle on 34th Street has failed. Miracle on 34th Street is not a Christmas movie. It is a legal drama that, as a happy coincidence, happens to be centered on a mental defective who believes he is Santa Claus.

This is why this is not a Christmas movie. If you exchange “Kris Kringle” for “Lucky the Leprechaun,” you have a St. Patrick’s Day movie. Swap him out for “Groot” from Guardians of the Galaxy and you have an Arbor Day movie. Swap him out for a Terminator and you have the best movie ever made, but here I have clearly gone off on a tangent. (Note to Hollywood: I officially assert original intellectual rights to Terminator on 34th Street).

Now I understand some people have a bizarre attachment to this movie based on some misguided nostalgia. I’m really running a risk writing this column, as my own mother counts it among her favorite Christmas movies. Sorry, mom. It’s just not a good Christmas movie. It’s a fair-to-middling John Grisham novel, but a Christmas movie it ain’t.

Contrast that with A Charlie Brown Christmas special. To me, Christmas sounds like the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It looks like crudely drawn backgrounds that vaguely resemble the town where I grew up and experienced my first Christmases. And yes, Christmas even looks a little bit like elaborate dance sequences where Sherman does the running man dance for 10 straight minutes.

I’m not even that religious, but it’s not Christmas until I hear Linus tell me the true meaning of Christmas. It’s a simple, powerful moment that even leaves a lapsed whatever-denomination-I-am guy like me in awe.
It takes all the commercialism, all the hype, all the endless preparation, and yes, even all the legal battles of Christmas and sweeps them all aside for one moment. One moment where a kid with a blanket reminds us what Christmas is all about: shepherds abiding in a field or something. To be honest, I’m usually a wreck by the time he says “Lights, please.”

Spoiler alert: he mentions nothing about legal technicalities.

Courtney Hampson
You may call me a cynic. I have a hard time believing in many things. Like fate, or that everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe in religion. Or clip art and cartoons. And I definitely don’t believe in talking about politics at the dinner table… or on Facebook, for crying out loud.

I’m on the fringe of believing in ghosts, the result of one weird night at the Driskell Hotel in Austin, Texas. My sweet dog Darby, who died almost two years ago (right after Christmas), makes me want to believe in Heaven.

What I unequivocally do believe in is the spirit of Christmas. But (of course there is a but) I don’t believe that the Christmas season should start until the day after Thanksgiving. Nor do I believe that I should have to see Santa until he rides by at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Those are my rules. Live by them.

As a northern transplant, I had the great fortune of experiencing Christmas in New York City for many years. And there is nothing more magical than New York at Christmas. Going into “The City” to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, take in a show, peer into the windows at Macy’s, and eat a huge Italian meal was a tradition I relished. In fact, it is a tradition I still carry on today.

Therefore, as you can imagine, I fell madly in love with the best Christmas movie ever, Miracle on 34th Street, the first time I saw it. Since I don’t believe in movie remakes, it is the original (1947) version with Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood that has stolen my heart.

The combination of the nostalgia of a black and white film and the innocence of the era paired with a sassy and cynical six year old who doesn’t believe in Santa (reminds me of well, me, 35 years ago) is the perfect film to get even the grinchiest of grinches in the spirit of the season.

Let’s talk turkey here. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Writing: Original Story and Best Writing: Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture. And we all know it is an honor just to be nominated.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film (and shame on you), here is the gist. Marketing director for Macy’s needs a Santa who isn’t drunk to ride in the parade. Man who thinks he is Santa, and goes by the name Kris Kringle, volunteers for the gig. Kris is a pretty damn good Santa. Marketing director is a cynic, as is her six-year-old daughter. Cute lawyer who lives across the hall tries to get snooty marketing lady and her daughter to believe. Kris gets committed to a mental institution. Cute lawyer defends his sanity and goes to court to prove that Kris is indeed Santa Claus, using the thousands of letters to Santa, sitting at the New York City post office, as his proof.

As a self-proclaimed skeptic, it is only fair that I acknowledge the obvious, glaring, hard-to-believe moment in the film. I’ll concede that it is ridiculous to suggest that the United States Postal Service actually processed that many letters and that a supervisor actually suggests that the USPS—on their own time—deliver thousands of letters to the courthouse.

So now it is official. You must watch this film and you’ll believe. You’ll believe. You’ll believe.

P.S. Barry, A Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t a movie; it is a cartoon. And since I don’t believe in cartoons, well, I win. Merry Christmas. 

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