Miracle on 34th Street: 1947 vs 1994
That time of year is finally here, in which we can justifiably sit down in front of the TV with a big blanket and settle down to a Christmas film. I possibly overstepped the mark last week though, when I watched Miracle on 34th Street two nights on the run. No, I'm not weirdly obsessed with the film, I just happened to find both versions and was curious to compare them. I grew up with the re-make, and it's lovely. There are things I prefer in the new version. But when you put the two films together, it becomes clear that the original is just... better. I mean, it's a matter of opinion, obviously. But as a piece of film-making, I just think it's much cleverer and classier - if a little less kid friendly.
Miracle on 34th Street is the story of a department store Santa who thinks he's the real deal. But is he? The woman who hired him doesn't think so, and neither does her daughter, whom she has brought up as a non-believer. But, when the nice man who styles himself 'Kris Kringle' is put on trial for insanity, she must decide whether faith and principal are sometimes more important than cold, hard facts. The remake sticks very closely to the original in terms of the plot and even a lot of the scenes are shot for shot very similar. The message about the true spirit of Christmas shines through in both (if a bit more powerfully in the old film) but the two films each have their own unique style.
The big difference is that while the 1994 version is primarily a children's film - or at least a family film - I'd argue that the original is actually aimed at an adult audience. The old film never shies away from 'the secret'. The idea that Kris Kringle actually might be Santa is a subtle possibility rather than the accepted truth. On the other hand, the new film has been made with the knowledge that children will be watching, and those children shouldn't have the secret spoiled - so Kris talks to Reindeer and no-one other than the acknowledged sceptics and villains deny Santa's existence. The prosecutor, for example, asks him to remember his child's present at the end (rather than running off to buy that football helmet after the trial is over) and the lawyer neighbour, rather than just wanting to protect Kris and help the little girl to believe, chats with him about the Easter bunny and appears to truly believe himself.
I'm not saying this is a bad thing. It'd be mad to make a kids film which basically gives the game away. But because of this limitation, the new film struggles to make some scenes credible. The ending for example, is a big problem. The ending to the original (if you've not seen it I won't give the game away) is wonderful and clever and it works. The court scene is a big, satisfying finish to the story. In the re-make the court scene falls flat, as the defence's evidence is a bit contrived and pointless. It works as an argument for the court to accep the existence of Santa as a possibility, but it does nothing towards proving that Kris is the one and only. The result is that the new film ends on a bit of an unsatisfying anti-climax.
Despite the issues with the ending, there are some really lovely scenes in the re-make too. I love the bit with the letters in the original, but my favourite moment in both versions is the bit where Kris speaks to a little girl who is different... both scenes make me cry, because I'm just that soft. The version with the dutch girl is powerful because of what, in 1947, she was likely to be escaping from, but the reactions of the little deaf girl in the re-make make the scene pure gold.
It's true that a lot of the writing in the remake suddenly looks a bit hammy and cheesy when directly compared to the original film, but it's still worth watching. For one, it's not in black and white. And because I'm a child of the nineties I do get nostalgic with that corny, tinkly music that good nineties family films are never without. I also think that although the Kris in the original (Edmund Gwenn) is very good, Richard Attenborough was born to play Santa Claus. He's so warm and twinkly, and just looks so much the part. And although Natalie Wood (from West Side Story) gave a lovely and intelligent performance in 1947, I also thought Mara Wilson (Mrs Doubtfire, Matilda) was wonderful as Susan. She does 'sad' so well - when she tells her neighbour that she knows 'the truth' it breaks my heart. Elizabeth Perkins (from Big) is also good as Dorey (changed from 'Doris' in the original. You can never take a Doris seriously, can you?) although she's obviously going to be out-shadowed by Maureen O' Hara. The only one who lets the side down is Dylan McDermott as the lawyer. He's just too cheesy and bland. Like something out of a Hallmark film. John Payne in the original, is much better. And more attractive.
I prefer the subplots in the old film too. The psychologist is a good villain and not too over the top - unlike the posse of employees from the rival store who have it in for Kris in the re-make (and the drunken ex-Santa who comes back to accuse him of paedophilia. Bit dark, that.) I also prefer the way the romance pans out in the old film. In both versions there is an underlying whiff of sexism that bothers me slightly (a man let Doris/Dorey down so she's bitter and has brought her daughter up wrong because of it, they both need a man in their life to make it complete, etc.) but because the lawyer is much less irritating in the 1947 film, and Maureen O' Hara is a stronger presence, I root for them more. You feel they're better matched. Plus the romance as written is much more subtle.
So basically, I really like both films. Despite the superiority of the original. They both have a nice Christmassy message, a strong cast and leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. I'd recommend the re-make for the kids, and the old film for the grown ups. It made me laugh more - intentionally! That trailer (above) isn't too far off!
Have you seen both versions? Which is your favourite?