Hanna and I watched Miracle on 34th Street over the weekend — the proper 1947 version, of course! — and it was interesting to consider some of the adult characters and their storylines in what is on its surface billed as a feel-good children’s story about wish fulfillment and belief and hope and goodwill during the holidays.
In the twenty minutes before the workday begins, here are some “history hat” observations…
- Susan Walker (the precocious child protagonist) is the daughter of a fairly high-powered career woman, Doris Walker (played by Maureen O’Hara) who works at Macy’s in a capacity that is never fully articulated but is high enough up in the management structure that she has the power to hire and fire staff. She also has a fairly spacious office of her own, and is in direct communication with Mr. Macy.
- In addition to being a Macy’s executive, Doris is a single mother, who was divorced from Susan’s father prior to the start of the narrative. The divorce is only passingly mentioned, and its made clear that Doris is relieved to be rid of the ex and in no hurry to pursue a new relationship.
- As a single mother with a career, Doris makes enough money to live in a Manhattan apartment and have hired help (see next point below). The apartment is swanky enough to be on the parade route, and Doris’ colleagues make a crack about her living “downtown.” There are some great scenes during the first half of the film that turn around apartment living and Susan’s relationship with others in their building.
- I couldn’t help but notice that there’s only one African-American character in the film … and she’s Susan’s caretaker / the family housekeeper.
- Despite the urban lifestyle of Susan, Doris, and their neighbor Fred (a junior partner in a law firm), the narrative pushes them toward the suburban family ideal through Susan’s Christmas wish for a house with a backyard and a swing; God forbid you raise a child in the city! Given that Doris and Fred have seemed fairly happy with their adjacent apartments and work lives up to the final minutes of the film, the ending is forced — and shouldn’t actually eclipse what the narrative is doing before then to tell a story about potential family configurations in mid-century America.
- Doris’ main sin in the narrative is her insistence that Susan be raised without cultivation of her imagination or a rich fantasy life; she finds fantasy harmful (has clearly been burned by it herself) and expects the other adults in the story to comply with her parenting decisions. There’s a great scene where she tells Fred off for going against her parenting choices in taking Susan to meet Santa at the department store; she expects her authority in these matters to be respected.
- Susan goes to a “progressive” school, she tells Kris Kringle: One can’t help but think of C.S. Lewis’ Eustace Clarence Scrubb who also went to an experimental school (of which Lewis was notoriously judgy) and suffered from a lack of imagination. I wonder what this fear of skeptical children by the mid-Century Anglo-American world has to say about larger patterns of parenting and family life?
- Throughout the story there are lots of male workers and professionals (psychologists, judges, lawyers, executives) who are undercut in their authority by the emotional landscape of childhood and family life … their children and wives stop speaking to them or make fools of them in public around the question of Santa’s existence.
- At the same time, corporate power and materialism is, ultimately, one of the underlying themes of the film: What Susan wants, and what makes people happy, within the narrative is the acquisition of things. Susan’s desire could be understood more metaphorically as a desire for childhood (a rich fantasy life, parents who have time and space to parent) … but rather than address those desires within an urban landscape, the solution in the film is to transport the family unit out of its modern urban setting and unfamiliar configuration and into the suburban domesticity that in 1947 American corporate and political power was extremely eager to push (upon the “right” people at least).
… and now I have to go prepare for a meeting, so I’ll leave it there. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or other classic Christmas films you’ve (re)watched this season! What struck you about them? What endures?