Rewind: Miracle on 34th Street

Susannah Finlay defends the capitalism of Miracle on 34th Street

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Beginning with the inevitable disappointment of my ‘Secret Santa’ present, followed by a festively violent round of musical chairs and reindeer ice cream at lunch, the course of the last day of the autumn term was the same every year. Then, back at home and revelling in the luxury of a half day at school, I’d slot in my old video cassette of Miracle on 34th Street.

Set in Macy’s department store, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the film would be soullessly, depressingly commercial. Even the nature of its release in 1947 points towards a penchant for mindless consumerism. Arguing that warmer weather would sell more cinema tickets, the studio-head of Twentieth-Century Fox insisted that despite being set at Christmas, the film should be released in early summer.

Indeed, the film reflects a sense of the creeping consumerism which had latched itself to the festive season over the previous decade. In 1939, the retailer Montgomery Ward created a character called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in order to attract children to its stores. And only a few years before, Coca-Cola launched its advertising campaign featuring a fat Santa in a red coat, altering the public’s perception of Father Christmas forever and heralding the rise of the newly commercialised Christmas of the 20th Century.

“Make a buck, make a buck”—the mournful refrain of Alfred, the sensitive Macy’s employee, seems particularly apt in this context. The influential Catholic Legion of Decency went so far as to dub the film to be “morally objectionable in part”, primarily because Maureen O’Hara played a divorcée. But Macy’s is a far cry from the manger, and the wholly anti-religious department store setting can’t have helped.

But there’s something commendable about the shamelessness of the setting. It seems refreshingly honest, especially when juxtaposed with the dewy eyed sentimentality of today’s anxiously awaited John Lewis adverts, for example. Instead of shying away from the reality of modern Christmas by retreating to a quaint polar landscape, or indeed the moon, director George Seaton had the guts to embrace the frantic commercialism now synonymous with the festive season with perceptive wit and dry humour.

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So I don’t necessarily subscribe to Alfred’s insight that “there’s a lot of bad-isms floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism”. After all, what could be more Christmassy than frenzied crowds of shoppers, hour-long queues and overdrawn bank accounts?