MIRACLE ON 34th STREET **. Directed by Les Mayfield. Produced by John Hughes. Screenplay: George Seaton and John Hughes, based on the 1947 screenplay by George Seaton; story by Valentine Davies Photography, Julio Macat. Procuction design, Doug Kraner.Music: Bruce Broughton. Cast: Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, Mara Wilson, J. T.Walsh, James Remar, Robert Prosky, Joss Ackland. A 20th Cent. Fox release. 114 min. Rated PG.
The original "Miracle On 34th Street" (1947), directed by George Seaton and written by Valentine Davies, always turns up like a good penny during the last two months of the year. It was remade as a 1973 TV-film, not as good as the original. The 1947 film is a charming fantasy about Kriss Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), a seasonal Santa at Macy's who claims to be the real thing and proves it to everyone's delight -- especially as he sets Macy's and Gimbel's vying in being nice to customers. The fine cast also includes Maureen O'Hara, a 9-year old Natalie Wood (who does not believe in Santa) and that scene-stealing, lovable plebeian Thelma Ritter in her movie debut.The two New York stores allowed location shooting and the use of their name. 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck, certain that the film would flop, released it in midsummer. It proved to be the studio's most profitable film of the year and has been shown like clockwork ever since. Oscars went to Gwenn (supporting actor), original story and screenplay.
The remake was directed by Les Mayfield, a very good documentarist whose second non-documentary feature this is, after "Encino Man." It follows the original closely, but what changes were made are not improvements.
The old Macy's store is replaced by the imaginary Cole's. The amusing Macy's-Gimbel's rivalry becomes commercial skullduggery by the imaginary Shopper's Express discount emporium, headed by villainous Joss Ackland in a role too tiny for his abilities. The overall tone is quite darker than in 1947.
The 1994 actors are, by and large, indifferent and without personality. Elizabeth Perkins as the mother cannot erase memories of the original's Maureen O'Hara who brought beauty and charming Irish vitality even to her non-Irish roles. Dylan McDermott as her suitor is not half as good as John Payne, who was himself just a pleasantly bland performer.And I miss sorely the incomparable and irreplaceable Thelma Ritter.
Richard Attenborough's Kriss Kringle is the only element that gives the original a run for its money. His interpretation is very good, less jolly and somewhat more introspective than Edmund Gwenn's. I cannot possibly takes sides. Nor can I choose between Natalie Wood and Mara Wilson ("Mrs. Doubtfire"), although I remember Natalie enunciating clearly --which Mara does not. There is a lot of mumbling in the 1994 edition, and the sound levels of the print I saw were sometimes uneven.
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on TV a few days ago was an impressive sight and sound affair. The film's recreation is modest but skillful. However, while the new ending is also Kriss Kringle's vindication in a courtroom, it drags, it is unfocused, and the change from the simplicity of a deluge of mail to some specious sohistry about dollar bills, is strictly alien corn, as is the "I Believe" gimmick. Corny too is the overuse of heavenly choir music.
The new version is not without some good points. Prosky and Walsh are good. The mother and daughter are well matched physically. In a heart-tugging bit, Kriss communicates by sign language with a deaf little girl. Attenborough's shortish beard is genuine, not a Santa Claus add-on. Better yet, while movies have always cheated with eyeglasses by using obvious window-pane glass in lieu of corrective lenses, Attenborough's bifocals look like the real thing.
How this film will affect young kids I cannot tell, but for this adult it was slow and at times dull. What really matters though is that the 1947 film cannot be updated to our day and retain its full appeal, as there has been a huge loss of innocence since 1947. What was then a feelgood movie that you could relate to is now artificial to a great extent and does not jibe with the current blase ethos of older children or grownups.
Both movies go mercifully easy on "Ho, Ho, Ho!" but the new one is rather short on "Ha, Ha,.Ha!" I go most of my laughs after the film. A reviewer in a respectable magazine called the doubting Mara "a dubious little girl." And a key maker of the film, talking on TV about the courtroom changes, said that today's society is "litiginous". Vertiginous, isn't it?
Copyright Edwin Jahiel & the News-Gazette