Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas Classics on Early TV: “Miracle on 34th Street” (1955) and "A Christmas Carol” (1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles asked if we could screen the 1955 20th Century-Fox Hour TV version of The Miracle on 34th Street, and as luck would have it I had a DVD I’d burned from our downloads not only of that show but also the 1949 version of A Christmas Carol (written and directed by Arthur Pierson, who also did the 1951 film Home Town Story — which begins like it’s going to turn out to be a liberal screed against greedy businesspeople, except Pierson goes all Ayn Rand on us and has the businessman turn out to be the hero in the final reels — and that peculiar TV-movie Hill Number One, which Charles once described as “an infomercial for rosary beads,” a tale of the time between Good Friday and Easter and notable only for James Dean’s film debut as the Apostle John). We’d watched both these before ( so I’ll only make minimal comments on them here: the 1955 Miracle on 34th Street, though only half as long as the original movie, holds up surprisingly well, and at least one performance — Hans Conried as the harried Macy’s store manager Mr. Shellhammer — was better than its opposite number in the 1947 film (a little-known actor named Philip Tonge). It was also daring of the new writer, John Monks, Jr. (adapting a screenplay by the original film’s director, George Seaton, based on a story by Valentine Davies), to make the heroine, Alice Walker (Teresa Wright), a divorcée (in the original film she was a war widow, and they could have made her one again just by moving up the war from World War II to Korea), and to have motivated her initial distrust of male lead Fred Gaily (MacDonald Carey) by her bad experience with husband number one. Of course the main thrust of the story is the charming old man, Kris Kringle (Thomas Mitchell), who thinks (or knows) he is Santa Claus and who is ultimately adjudged sane when Alice lobbies workers at the U.S. Post Office to deliver letters addressed to Santa Claus to Kringle at the New York courthouse — thereby allowing attorney Gaily to prove that since a U.S. government agency acknowledges Kringle as Santa Claus, the court should, too. Mitchell, perhaps because he was used to playing alcoholics in most of his roles and thereby slurring his words, leaves out the “t” sound in “often” that Edmund Gwenn pronounced in the original movie, but other than that his performance is reasonably similar and quite charming in its own right. The 1949 Christmas Carol was hosted by Vincent Price — he sat in an armchair reading from a large-size edition of the Charles Dickens story — and it’s a pity he wasn’t cast as Scrooge since he would have played him considerably better than Taylor Holmes. But this version, though only 26 minutes long, managed to get the high points of the story in (indeed it contains almost as much of the original as the twice-as-long CBS version from 1955 we’d just watched with Fredric March as Scrooge and Basil Rathbone as Marley’s ghost, mainly because that one was padded with so many songs that really didn’t advance the story, though they did have a certain charm), and I still love the special effect by which Marley’s ghost (Earl Lee) bursts through Scrooge’s door (the set was made of paper) to confront him, even though the ghastly moan Marley emits when Scrooge challenges him was electronically generated instead of coming from Lee’s mouth and vocal cords.