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Festive Films Part 1: Miracle on 34th Street and the case of Christmas in May

Written by Oli Goldman.

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In 2011, I wrote my Masters dissertation exploring the history and construction of the Hollywood Christmas film and patterns of distribution. The following is an abridged extract.

When the remake of Miracle on 34th Street was released in November 1994, many reviewers discussed it unfavourably in relation to the original from 1947. Brian Koller wrote that it was ‘a pale shadow of a Christmas classic’, while Clarke Douglas described the original as ‘the well-known Christmas movie’, before suggesting that Richard Attenborough, in the role of the elderly man hired as a department store Santa who may well just be the real thing, ‘never gets to say “ho ho ho,” and neither will you.’ Ouch. What rarely gets mentioned is that the original film, long considered a festive favourite, never came out at Christmas; it was in fact released in May.

Daniel Eagan suggests this was due to an industry strike that ‘left Fox with a shortage of titles to distribute that spring. [Darryl F.] Zanuck, never a strong supporter of the film, put it into limited release in May 1947’. Eagan’s statement implies that Zanuck, Fox’s Vice President in charge of production, didn’t think the film would be a success, hence releasing it at an ill-fitting time of the year. But this contradicts with a memo Zanuck wrote to the producer of Miracle on 34th Street William Perlberg in 1946. Zanuck was extremely positive about the screenplay: ‘It is excellent, fresh, exciting, and delightful’. However, the memo also emphatically suggests that Zanuck’s interest lay in the film’s romance between the film’s adult characters Doris and Fred, played by established stars Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, rather than the ultimately more enduring storyline in which Doris’ cynical daughter Susan (a young Natalie Wood) gradually comes to believe Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is Santa Claus. Due to this, the idiosyncratic release date appears less unusual: Zanuck saw the film primarily as an appealing romance rather than anything to do with Christmas, which is reflected in the hilariously self-reflextive trailer for the film where a selection of demographically divergent Fox stars attest to the film’s broad appeal - without ever mentioning Christmas!

While Miracle on 34th Street’s May release date may seem an anomaly, its out of season release was in fact in line with contemporary films, such as Christmas Holiday (released in June 1944), and Christmas in Connecticut released in August 1945. Even It’s a Wonderful Life had originally been scheduled for release on 30th January 1947, but was only brought forward to 20th December due to RKO’s delayed production on Sinbad the Sailor. There doesn’t appear to be a sense of cultivating a specifically ‘Christmas’ audience for these films and their appropriation as Christmas films have been assigned retrospectively.

So how was Miracle on 34th Street established as a ‘Christmas classic?’ Alongside the 1994 remake, there have been several other versions released for Christmas. Lux Radio Theater produced a broadcast which aired on 22nd December 1947, the same year as the film’s release, where it was introduced as ‘the new Christmas classic of our time’. Indeed, Gwenn, O’Hara and Payne all reprised their original roles for the broadcast. In the space of eight years, there were four more radio adaptations, all scheduled in the run-up to Christmas.

The first television remake was Fox’s forty-six minute version airing on 14th December 1955. Although it is a naturally condensed, it is remarkably faithful to the original film (and was in fact broadcast before the original film was ever shown on US television). The second was broadcast live on 27th November 1959. The third and (thus far) final television remake was broadcast on 14th December 1973. Alongside the radio adaptations, these three televisual remakes helped establish the film’s festival television broadcast tradition. The role of television was also essential in establishing It’s a Wonderful Life as a Christmas classic. Jonathan Munby writes that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life drifted into relative oblivion until 1974 when no one remembered to renew its copyright…with no copyright claims, It’s a Wonderful Life became part of the public domain, and television companies saw obvious profit in screening this ‘free’ film as part of their Christmas programming’.

Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life were never originally conceived or released specifically for Christmas audiences. Multiple repeats and remakes across radio and television have established them as Christmas perennials, retrospectively helping to create the Christmas film genre itself.

You can read part two of our Festive Film Series here and part three here

This article was published on December 15, 2016.