The American Film Institute voted Miracle on 34th Street the eight greatest fantasy film of all time. Did they miss the point?
Maybe it comes down to perspective. As a child, the film is about legitimizing Santa Claus, proving whatever theories a child’s mind drummed up to keep believing. It’s not fantasy, it’s imagination. As an adult, the film is more about the commercialization of the holiday on trial in New York, one side trying to justify their means to make a buck, the other trying to keep the spirit of the season alive.
Who knows, maybe the AFI sees the spirit of Christmas as a fantasy, long lost in a sea of commercials, hot products, and overpriced eBay auctions. It’s Edmund Gwenn that shows maybe the spirit is still around, even if he is only playing Kris Kringle.
Things have certainly changed since 1947 (remember when retail was about sales people, not a teenagers first job?), the commercialization becoming worse, but there is a spark every time this movie is played, a small hope that a child’s faith will be restored in the meaning of the holiday.
Natalie Wood is that child, playing a young, still impressionable little girl, raised to believe in reality, not fantasy. It’s a way for her to deal with her mother’s divorce, facing the truth of the matter without coating it for her young mind. It has damaged her, but it’s Kris Kringle who gives her the greatest gift of all: the concept of imagination. He teaches her how to play, accept, and understand a child-like mind, something she never would have had otherwise.
A promo for Miracle on 34th Street, a clever bit with various Fox actors expressing their fondness for the film, has an exec infuriated with the trailer during a screening. That preview states the film is romantic, a comedy, heartwarming, tender, and more. The exec storms out stating that no film can do all of that, much like the reception the film was given under the Fox rule of the day. If they only knew what magic this story had truly captured before the profits started to roll in.
Fox’s Blu-ray transfer for this classic is more than competent, the AVC encode (proper 1.33:1 aspect ratio) efficient at cleaning up the light, consistent grain structure without fault. It never breaks down or appears anything other than film-like. It’s certainly pleasing to the eye, even without the razor-sharpness of a Casablanca.
That’s not to say this is soft. In fact, the sharpness is right where it needs to be without appearing artificially altered. Close-ups of Kris Kringle are well defined, his beard surprisingly detailed and resolved. The patterns of leisure suits come through flawlessly, the lack of flicker or shimmering a pleasant surprise. Shots of the city, at times done via projection and others shot live (all of the Macy’s Parade) vary in their quality, although never distractingly so.
There is a slight hint of judder in a few select shots, a minor issue, the print barely even moving enough to notice. The original nitrate has apparently been lost, this transfer likely sourced from a close relative of that negative. The downgrade introduces a few notable problems, including some rampant haloing around high contrast edges, not a digital issue, but an analog one. Not much can be done to alleviate the issue. Knowing the original is lost does however make it more impressive that little to no significant damage exists on the print. This is one step shy of pristine.
Blacks are deeper than previous DVD editions, giving the film a slightly richer, bolder quality without appearing unnatural. The gray scale is wonderful, transferring all of the necessary shades beautifully. Whites don’t reach the same lofty goals as the blacks, leaving the film slightly flat, although it’s important to again note that it looks natural, not overdone. Cranking the contrast benefits no one.
The DTS-HD 5.1 mix gives listeners little to fear; it’s merely a bullet point. The original mono is here as well, although compressed.
The case and menu may say 5.1, but it’s clear from the opening this will stick to the stereo channels, which is wonderful. The score loses nothing in terms of fullness or richness by being kept in the front. In fact, it probably benefits. After the terribly faded and flat Fox fanfare, the music during the opening credits sound miraculous. Even after the adjustment, it still does.
It’s the power of the music itself that gives it a luster and sheen, while it certainly doesn’t hurt that the fidelity is truly stunning. Definition is wonderful, the light drums clean, and the highs crisp. Various mixes of “Jingle Bells” are as flawless as they come, suffering from no notable problems. Any hiss or popping has been eliminated if it existed, and it’s hard to believe any loss of clarity has occurred.
Dialogue is just as pristine, maintained in the center without being distorted. It’s nearly as clean as most modern soundtracks, aside from the slight echo that is always present in films from the era. Best of all, the rears are silent. There are no gimmicky surround effects, no city ambiance, or anything else. That has been split naturally across the three front speakers, and the effect is spot-on. That is just enough to bring the audio forth into a modern sound era.
Maureen O’Hara provides a solo commentary track, followed by an episode of AMC Backstory, a 22-minute making of. A section of Fox Movietone News provides a look at the Oscars as Edmund Gwenn accepts his prize. A 15-minute look at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is rounded off by a poster gallery, the final extra. Note the colorized version is not here, that edition hopefully a long forgotten error in judgment.