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Stephen Schochet

 

 

 

A Miraculous Movie (Miracle On 34th Street)

by Stephen Schochet

 


It was originally titled The Big Heart. Darryl Zanuck, the shrewd head of Twentieth Century Fox, couldn't buy the image of Santa Claus in a court room. But like so many ventures Miracle On 34th Street (1947) came about because of passion, in this case that of Director George Seaton, who had gone to New York on his own and made arrangements with management from the real Macy's and Gimbels to film in their department stores. Impressed by Seaton's commitment, Zanuck gave the show a green light.

The toughest casting choice for Miracle On 34th Street was who would play the little girl who didn't believe in Santa Claus. Seaton agonized over it, until the assistant director remembered an amazing child prodigy from Santa Rosa, California who could cry on cue. Her name was Natasha Nikolaevna Gurdin renamed Natalie Wood after director Sam Wood. At age seven Natalie possessed none of the typical child star precociousness. She earned the respect of her Miracle co-workers with her professional demeanor, earning the nickname One-Take-Natalie.

Like all filmed on location movies there were logistical problems. The sequence where Saint Nicholas was taken to Bellevue was done without permission. The hospital's staff would not cooperate because they had been portrayed badly in earlier films; they were not swayed by the sight of a sickly, freezing cold Santa Claus, played by Edmund Gwenn, bundled up under blankets waiting. The filmmakers were forced to shoot only the car containing the white whiskered mental patient approaching the building's entrance; they recreated the famed psychiatric ward's interiors back in Los Angeles. Another difficulty was getting permission to shoot the Macy's parade from the apartment dwellers on 34th street which had to be done right the first time, there could be no retakes. The film crew paid the ladies of the house to place the cameras in their windows. In some cases their husbands came home, complained about the inconvenience and demanded their own equal share. Edmund Gwenn, who would win an Oscar for his Miracle performance, suffered from a bladder control problem but couldn't stand the thought of someone taking his place in the parade. The children who stood on the sidewalk waving at Santa never saw the long tube under his cloak.

Overcoming his initial reluctance, Darryl Zanuck who was famous for his memos, made suggestions to improve the movie's story. The mother Doris, played by the lovely twenty-seven-year-old, Maureen O'Hara, was too cold; she would scare a man like Fred (John Payne) off. It was explained that she had been burned by an earlier relationship and thus she didn't want her daughter believing in fairytales. Zanuck also warned the Miracle crew that they shouldn't overplay the scenes where Macy's employees send their customers off to go shopping at Gimbels; just some simple dialogue was enough to get the point across. The loud cheering by preview audiences when Santa Claus was declared sane in the courtroom scene did not convince Zanuck about Miracle's commercial prospects. He released it in July, the busiest time of year for moviegoers, and told his marketing staff to hide from the public that the film was about Christmas.

One reference in Miracle On 34th Street that became dated was when Kris Kringle's psychiatrist mentioned a man in Hollywood who passed himself off as Russian Prince and owned a restaurant. It was a dig at Mike Romanoff, a colorful fraud whose Rodeo Drive eatery was a fun sanctuary for the famous on both sides of the law. One night FBI head J. Edgar Hoover was dining at Romanoff's when he was approached by an actual jewel thief named Swifty Morgan. "Like to buy these gold cuff links?" Amused, Hoover offered $200. "Oh come on John the reward is more than that!"

 

 

Author Stephen Schochet is a professional tour guide in Hollywood who years ago began collecting little known, humorous anecdotes to tell to his customers. His new book isHollywood Stories: Short, Entertaining Anecdotes About the Stars and Legends of the Movies! The book contains a timeless treasure trove of colorful vignettes featuring an amazing all-star cast of icons including John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, and many others both past and contemporary. Tim Sika, host of the radio show Celluloid Dreams on KSJS in San Jose has called Stephen, “The best storyteller about Hollywood we have ever heard." Buy the Kindle version here.

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