Thursday, August 27, 2009

Miracle at Lincoln Center

I've been walking around with this huge smile on my face and no matter what happens I continue to grin irrepressibly. I am calm, contented, pleasantly placid, stubbornly serene. I have just seen the film Miracle on 34th Street for the 27th time or so, but for the first time on the big screen and in the commodious, cushy auditorium of the Lincoln Center Film Society to boot. It was terrific.

For the uninitiated, Miracle on 34th Street is the story of a Macy's Santa Claus who goes by the name of Kris Kringle and claims to be the real thing. At a hearing to determine whether or not he should be committed for being insane, his lawyer, who has become a dear friend, must prove that he is, in fact, who he says he is - the one and only Santa Claus. There is something about the clever script that makes all of this plausible, and the whole effort is helped enormously by the skill and charm of veteran English actor Edmund Gwenn, playing the Santa. Gwenn's performance is unparalelled for this kind of picture, though Hollywood did have the termerity to attempt a TV remake with Sebastian Cabot many years later that only reinforces the superiority of Gwenn's performance.

It may be of some interest to know that I saw this film as part of a retrospective celebrating the performances of Natalie Wood, who was only eight at the time and plays the little girl who becomes convinced that this Macy's Santa is for real. She is quite wonderful in it and very convincingly plays a girl who begins as a skeptic and is eventually won over by Santa's kindness and sincerity. And, indeed, it is those qualities of the Kris Kringle character in this film - his gentleness, decency, love of life, and knack for bringing people together - that make me, anyway, smile and, yes, cry whenever I see it. Especially when the Natalie Wood character is still doubting Kris and happens to witness him greet a little Dutch girl as he sits on his throne in Macy's. She is a non-English speaking refugee from a bombed-out city in Holland and has just been adopted by American parents. The American mother brings the Dutch child over to Santa and apologizes that her adopted daughter is unable to communicate with him. But before the Mom can finish, our smiling Santa pulls the little girl to his lap and begins speaking cheerily to her in perfect Dutch. This also gives the girl a chance to communicate to her new mother through this Dutch-speaking Santa how much she loves her. We see Natalie Wood's eyes popping with wonder as she watches these exchanges, while the new mother in the film and Steve, the appreciative viewer, pretty much dissolve in tears of joy at the same time. It never fails.

And to see this perfect little New York-based fantasy on a big screen at one of New York's great cultural institutions. Well, that is like a minor miracle in itself and why I wanted to share a few comments about it here.

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