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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Miracle on 34th Street [Blu-ray]

 

(Les Mayfield, 1994)

 

 

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Fox & John Hughes

Blu-ray: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

 

Disc:

Region: All

Runtime: 113 min

Chapters: 24

Size: 25 GB

Case: Standard Blu-ray Case

Release date: October 6, 2009

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: AVC @ 18 Mb21

 

Audio:

English DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1; English 5.0 DD, Dub: French DD

 

Subtitles:

English SDH, Spanish & French

 

Extras:

• (zip)

 

 

The Film: 6
I had thought the matter of Santa's true identity was laid to rest in 1947 when not only the United States Postal Service, but the Academy of Arts & Sciences, assured us it was Edmund Glenn. But it was not only Sir Richard Attenborough who had his work cut out for him: John Hughes, the man who gave us Matthew Broderick, Molly Ringwald and Macauley Culkin – you see the trend - may have figured that he was about ready to tackle a script with a real child. Hmmm.

So, besides being in true color, widescreen and sporting a bang-up soundtrack – for the opening chorus at any rate - what do Mr. Hughes and company have to say for themselves? Well, for one thing, the remake kind of redefines the miracle (more on that shortly); but for the most part what it does is try to right what they (and other modern critics) see as a shortcoming in the original: the romance between Doris (here played by Elizabeth Perkins) and Fred Gailey (in one of the few character name changes from the 1947 movie, here named Bryan Bedford, possibly so that audiences would not get the "wrong" idea from "Gailey", played by Dylan McDermott). I was never one to find the O'Sullivan/Payne romance lacking in relationship to start with, but more on that much later.

Being the kind of concrete literalist that I am, I have this thing about titles: that they ought to guide our feeling about the events unfolding. They should engage expectation. We learn in one of the bonus features for the 1947 film that George Seaton’s original story had no title, and none of the beta titles that came along incorporated the notion of a “miracle.” Even so, we have come to respond to what is given as well as the movie’s legacy, and the notion of a “miracle” is there to stay. So, I ask: What miracle do you think happens in either or both of the two movies?

 


I admit it's a trick question, because the "34th Street" part of the title non longer has the cache as the center of a certain universe, especially at the corner of 34th Street & 5th Avenue and 34th Street & Broadway, a mere block apart. The latter is the location of Macy’s Dept Store where Kris Kringle is hired to greet the children. It's also where King Kong climbed the Empire State Bldg. And George M. Cohan remembered himself to Herald Square. Gimbel’s is on 33rd St., just a block distant. Since the Walkers and Fred Gailey (or Bryan Bedford) live some distance uptown from 34 St., and the courtroom is somewhere else altogether, and the house that Kris arranges for them is out of town, I suspect the complete title is an attempt to cash in on celebrity. Still, I think, the question about the "miracle" is still worthy of pursuit.

While you're giving the matter a think. . .

I used to live in New York City way back when the competition between Manhattan’s two largest department stores was like that between the Yankees and Dodgers when the two teams lived across the river from each other. For the longest time I took it that the “miracle” was Macy’s and Gimbel’s shaking hands, and everything about the competitive Christmas spirit which that act symbolized. These giants of industry came to see that commercial interests were consistent with customer’s needs – a radical concept even today. We learn in the supplements to the 1947 Blu-ray that the movie was completed prior to the approval necessary from the heads of the two department stores. If either denied their blessing, huge chunks of the movie would have had to be rewritten and reshot. That both stores gave the movie a thumbs up is a miracle in kind.

The new movie has no Macy’s, no Gimbel’s, and no rapprochement between their stand-ins. Instead, the “miracle” is seen elsewhere: Perhaps it is that the “people” come out into the streets in support of Kris, in support of the Christmas spirit in a kind of bloodless coup. In the context of the movie, the idea works very well since it helps to give impetus to the judge’s final decree.

There’s a naiveté in Seaton’s original that makes the whole thing work which does not exist in the remake. Hughes analyses and explains and is careful about how he goes about it. The judge’s wording when he talks about “In God we trust” is a brilliant exercise in diplomacy, but by the time we get there, what innocence there might have been has been pared away. Seaton’s “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to” may be simple-minded and hardly a generous explanation of faith, but it does describe well enough the relationship between faith and reason.

Spock is a fascinating, imperfect embodiment of anti-faith. He believes only in reason (what he calls “logic”). So does Doris, and for similar reasons. Spock comes to logic as a way of “controlling” his emotions, so that they will not rule him. Doris won’t believe in anything she can't see, touch or hear because she has been hurt by someone she trusted. The offshoot of that hurt is Susan, so it is only natural, if ill-advised, that she try to inoculate her daughter against the inevitable pain of betrayal. Natalie Wood’s Susan has completely bought into her mother’s notion about the universe, though she doesn’t know why her mother feels as she does.

But this is not Mara Wilson’s Susan, and it is the one dynamic in the remake that gives the movie a spark. The new Susan is younger than Natalie (almost 3 years) and wants to believe in magic and Santa, and she wants to trust others who are kind to her. She doubts her mother's counsel, though she respects and loves her too much to actually tell her directly that she harbors a secret desire to believe and trust as a child. Both Mara and Natalie devise a test for Kris to prove whether he is Santa Claus or just a nice man with a beard. It is an absurd test at any level, and both movies try to work around its absurdity. Hughes allows Mara to be satisfied with two out of three, but he goes to the trouble of showing us the smoke and mirrors that made her wish come true.

This is a huge mistake, for it allows common sense – i.e. reason – to creep in and explain what faith should have made manifest. Susan’s test is a child’s version of Doubting Thomas or Doubting John Denver: Show me a miracle and then I’ll know you’re God, and then I know I’ll be safe when I take the leap. If it were that easy there would be no magic to faith, no miracle in our own confrontation of our personal demons, and no reason to believe in Santa Claus.

Doris’ conversion is the penultimate miracle in both movies. Neither script explains it; she just knows that she has to support Kris and Fred (Bryan) despite the implications. She is swept away by the euphoria this produces, as is everyone else (or nearly), and in the midst of this euphoria comes to accept him as Santa Claus. Hughes tiptoes around this. He, himself, is not convinced. This is why he has to explain the house and why the house is necessary to convince both Susan and Doris. Seaton does believe, and offers no explanation for the house, which is also why he doesn’t have to explain why Doris and Fred fall in love, which is, after all, the ultimate miracle.

 


 

Image: 8/9    NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

What strikes us first is the rich color, especially red, and the pure white. It's so creamy it looks good enough to eat. These are Santa's colors, after all. There is a certain vivid look to the picture in general, reminiscent of Technicolor. It looks like the softness comes from filtration applied at the camera, rather than during the transfer process, which is done quite well, I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 6/8
The room-filling opening chorus that accompanies the credits suggests a promise of a soundstage worth writing to Santa about, but it is not to be. Given the opportunities – the parade and the bustle of the department store – is surprisingly devoid of ambient information. Aside from that oversight, the dialogue remains crisp and clear.

 

Operations: 6
The disc loads quickly enough (it's only single-layered) and, having no extra features, has only chapter thumbnails to guide us on our merry.

 

Extras: 0
(You're going to buy the 1947 version anyway, and that one has quite enough.)
 

Bottom line: 6
What can I say: the movie is much better than I expected, but it does go too far trying to politic and rational. The image is lovely and the audio clear. No supplements, though. If you must have your Miracle in color, this may be the better alternative to the colorized 1947 film, but do try it in Black & White first.

Leonard Norwitz
October 22nd, 2009

 

 

 

 


 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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