Over the holidays we watched the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street. It is one of my old favorites, though I found it very strange watching it again. The part that seemed most ridiculous was that Kris Kringle bangs someone over his head hard enough to have a concussion, and just walks out like everything is normal and okay. Then the victim’s boss pressures him to drop charges. Lawsuits anyone?
I got curious about how the 1994 version of the movie handles the issue, so the other night my husband and I watched it. Actually, we watched it over two nights because we didn’t want to stay up too late, but that is beside the point. The point is I took three pages of notes about the difference between the two movies and wanted to write them up here. I liked the old version much, much better than the new one.
They still had Kris Kringle hit someone with a cane. In both cases the person hit had made a comment declaring that there was something wrong with people who dress up as Santa Claus. In the old version, the store psychologist had said that people who dress us as Santa Claus must have some sort of guilt complex they are trying to compensate for. In the modern version the person implied Santa is a pedophile. In the second movie the violence takes place in public and everyone around, including Kris Kringle, is absolutely horrified. There is a suggestion the person wasn’t seriously hurt, certainly no concussion leaving him to be found unconscious.
I liked the romance theme of the old version much better than the new one. The mother and her romantic interest seemed more grown up. The earlier movie mentioned their work more than the newer one did. The two fall in love, talk about plans. When he makes a decision to leave his law firm she’s not sure about going through with the plans, but comes around. It sounds more mature and responsible than the later version, where he proposes, she gets mad because she doesn’t think she’s given him any indication that she would want to get married. Then she suddenly turns around and marries him because hey, Santa arranged their wedding. It’s a bit more dramatic than having their relationship just flow naturally but a lot less romantic. I don’t know if people used the term “friendzone” in the 90s but the movie basically accuses her of putting him there and then magically and without reason marries them. It makes me think of this post over at Ms. Marx about why the Friendzone stuff isn’t funny.
It seemed to me the new version implies there’s something wrong with the woman. Okay, the old version does too, but differently. In the old version she’s wrong for never allowing creativity, imagination, fantasy into her daughter’s life, but she’s obviously a very successful woman. She has hired help looking after her kid and cooking, but that makes sense since she’s a full time working single mother. In the second one her daughter implies there’s something wrong with the fact she had part of Thanksgiving supper catered, like she isn’t living up to modern expectations about women’s abilities to do everything. Where as in the early movie she doesn’t want her daughter believing Prince Charming would rescue her, in the later movie she’s accused of being hard on men, like there’s some flaw in her that if she just got passed the flaw she would see how wonderful the guy is and be in love with him, and the fact she doesn’t want to marry him is her problem.
But beyond those plot problems, what struck me most about the two Miracle on 34th Street movies is that the second one is more religious than the first. Or rather, the earlier version isn’t religious at all, while the second one struck me as incredibly religious, and much of it in subtle, interesting ways.
In the older movie, the defense lawyer tried to argue that Kris Kringle wasn’t insane for claiming to be Santa Claus because that is his identity. There was no discussion of flying reindeer, magic workshops or anything else, just a question of whether they can prove that is or isn’t his identity. In the later one the issue was less about identity, and more about whether or not we can believe in what seems impossible.
The latest version has the father-figure making the argument to the little girl that Santa Claus’ existence is basically Pascal’s wager. We can’t know if it is true or not, so better to believe than suffer the risks of not believing. Then when Santa gets into trouble everyone takes to wearing badges and flying signs that say “We believe.” They mean they believe in Santa, but the “in Santa” is absent. The show is about belief, and not just in Santa.
Throughout the movie Santa is a stand-in for God. The Judge says they aren’t there to prove if God exists but about the existence of a being “just as invisible and just as present.” The question of whether or not Kris Kringle is really Santa Claus is not resolved by proving the post office is willing to recognize him as such, like in the 1947 version, but in making the comparison with the “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill and saying that the “the state of New York, by a similar demonstration of the collective faith of its people can accept and acknowledge that Santa Claus exists.” He exists because people want to believe he exists.
The implication of the second movie seems to be the mirror image of the Judge’s concluding statement. If we can believe that Santa exists, then why can’t we also believe that God exists? The movie mentions how belief in Santa is not natural but taught. Without coming out and fully saying it, the movie implies the same could be true about God.
Another idea from religious discussions that crept its way into the second movie was a line about Santa as a symbol of putting aside human greed and selfishness, and an implication that if you don’t believe in Santa you’re doomed to be selfish forever. To me that sounded like echoes of the belief some people hold that you can’t be a good moral person unless you believe in God. Yet despite that there isn’t as much focus on trying to make the world a less selfish place. In the older version, Santa Claus is there to try to make the world a nicer place. He gets the heads of two big companies to shake hands, declaring a truce of sorts. If he is a stand-in for God, he’s a God more concerned with peace and good will rather than the second one, where the story is more rapped up in whether individual people – and not just the girl and her mom, but huge crowds – believe in him. That focus on getting lots of people to believe made the second version feel very American to me, and not in a good way. It reminded me that America is the place that at times tries to declare tomato paste a vegetable, legislate what pi is and claim that dinosaurs walked the earth with humans and that too often when people disagree fall back on the claim, like Dorey in the movie said that, “you have the right to believe whatever you want…” instead of attempting to understand the differences in beliefs.
I’m glad I didn’t bother showing it to the kids. They can stick to the 1947 version.