Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is a jolly fat man with a bushy white beard, but if there's one thing sure to put him in a bad mood, it's people getting Christmas wrong. He is walking the streets of New York on the day of Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, pausing briefly to correct a shop window display that has Santa's reindeer in the wrong order, when he notices that the Father Christmas who has been hired for the occasion is drunk. Outraged, he seeks out the organiser, Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), to complain, but this leads him to playing the famed role himself, and all sorts of complications...
This delightful little film somehow became one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time, mainly thanks to its faith in the improving power of the festive season and a very clever script to back this up. Make no mistake, this was no movie for cynical pragmatists, although if they did settle down to watch this they might find their hearts melting just a little, but from the start we are meant to be in no doubt that there is such a person as Santa Claus, and that Kris is the man himself. This became Edmund Gwenn's signature role, garnering him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his trouble, and the Santa performance to judge all others by.
It may be corny, but there's enough of the bite of the real world in the film to make it all the more imperative that all that "Goodwill to All Men" stuff is taken seriously. Kris's main task is to win over divorcée Doris's little daughter Susan, played with endearing literal-mindedness by Natalie Wood, for as Doris's lawyer boyfriend Fred Gailey (John Payne) discovers, the girl is not allowed any fantasy in her life thanks to her mother who frowns upon such misuse of imagination in her eyes. Naturally, before the story is over Doris must be won over too, but making a modern family out of these three souls is Kris's real gift to them.
For what is regarded as twinkly, benevolent entertainment, which make no mistake it assuredly is, Miracle on 34th Street has a lot on its plate, and if you like to chew over the movies you watch then there's plenty of food for thought here. Take the commercialisation of Christmas, often thought of as a modern concern yet here is proof 'twas ever thus, as Kris is most upset about having the profit of the companies involved taking precedent over the more emotional side. He admits that getting those gifts is important, but also wants it acknowledged that there is genuine affection behind that action: basically he wants everyone to be happy, as shown by the lovely scene where, having taken the Santa position at Macy's department store, he talks to a little Dutch orphan in her own language, making her Christmas.
But what everyone recalls from this is that last act development where Kris is put on trial to prove that he is insane for believing he is Santa Claus. This comes about because he objects to one of those cynical pragmatists, psychiatrist Porter Hall, giving Kris's new friend Alfred (Alvin Greenman) unnecessary headshrinking sessions which make him miserable, and the psychiatrist is clonked on the head for his meddling. The little old man is promptly sent to a mental institution where he grows depressed until Fred hits upon the idea of proving he is who he says he is to release him. Interestingly, the story visits all of the main players in this drama for their own vignettes just to offer us the idea of how you shouldn't try to put nice old gentlemen (or anyone, really) on trial for something so harmless - and of course bolster our faith in the spirit of the season. Director George Seaton hinted both that Kris may or may not be the real Santa, but by the end of this you'll be on Santa's side all the way. Music by Cyril Mockridge.