This 30-minute documentary about the movie, "Miracle on 34th Street," has several aspects. It gives some interesting information about its child star, Natalie Wood. It tells about the risk director George Seaton took for using the Macys and Gimbels names. It covers the publicity by 20th Century Fox for summer release of the film to hide the fact that it was a Christmas movie. It gives glowing accounts of many who worked with Edmund Gwenn who played Kris Kringle (and won the Oscar for best supporting actor). And it gives a glowing account of a love affair the entire cast and crew seemed to have with the making of this classic movie.
This Hollywood Backstory uses film clips from the movie, still photos behind the scenes, and interviews with half a dozen people. Rino Romano narrates. Those interviewed include performers Maureen O'Hara (Doris Walker), Robert Hyatt (Thomas Mara Jr.), and Alvin Greenman, (Rudy). Others are film historian Rudy Behlmer, Natalie Wood's sister Lana Wood, and Natalie's biographer, Suzanne Finstad. Finstad is an acclaimed author and journalist.
This is worth a watch by those who like to go more into depth about the making of classic films and the casts and crews. This review can't cover all that this short film packs in. So, I'll just give some tidbits that I think most will find interesting, as I did.
Robert Hyatt says the studio "didn't have any idea what they had on their hands." He says that at first, "they considered it a low budget B movie."
Maureen O'Hara says, "After the war, I was on the first plane I could get out to go back to Ireland and see my mother and my father. And I arrived in Dublin and the phone rang. It was 20th Century Fox on the phone. And they said 'you're to return to New York immediately because you're going to star in a feature called '"Miracle on 34th Street."' I was absolutely furious. Furious! I did go back to New York, but mad as hell." But when she read the script she realized it was a wonderful story.
Suzanne Finstad says that Natalie Wood had a huge workload. She was doing three films at a time, with different roles and accents. "And she would go back and forth from set to set, still not quite accustomed to going by Natalie, and was being called all these different names, many different accents." Later, she says Natalie "was an exceptionally intelligent little girl who had a photographic memory."
Lana Wood says her sister was the opposite of the Susan character in the movie. "Natalie was a very happy-go-lucky kind of child. And yet, she was able to portray the rather cynical, sophisticated little girl."
O'Hara said the day of filming the parade, "it was bitterly cold, freezing cold. And we were all pre-coached on everything they wanted because the parade wasn't going to stop to let us shoot anything. So we had to do everything quickly, quickly. And we did."
Edmund Gwenn contributed a great deal to the constant uplifting air in the production. Robert Hyatt says, "He was a really nice guy. He was always happy, always smiling. He had this little twinkle in his eye. He would come by the school room where I had to go to school, and he would do this little dance outside the door and just crack me up. And of course, I couldn't study history with Santa Claus dancing." Alvin Greenman says, "He always found time to talk to me. And he knew that it was my first picture. And he was very, very encouraging about what I was doing. And he said, 'You're going to get marvelous reviews in this movie," and he was right. He just was a dear, dear man."
Over 100 crew members descended on Macy's New York store in December 1946 to film the actual busy shopping season at its height. In January 1947, the studio recreated a Macy's set in Los Angeles for the final shooting of the Santa store scenes.
Finstad says that Natalie Wood thought Edmund Gwenn "was real at the time she thought he was Santa during the making of the film, so that at the end of the picture when they had a wrap party and he came without his beard, she was absolutely shocked. It was iconoclastic for her. She thought he was Santa." O'Hara says the same thing. "Natalie just adored him and was convinced he was Santa Claus."
The shooting wrapped on March 24, 1947. On April 29, Seaton showed the film to the heads of Macy's and Gimbels, separately. Behlmer says, "and they thought it was swell." The real test came in May with audience pre- screening. When people applauded, the studio knew they had a hit on their hands. But studio head Darryl Zanuck didn't want to wait over half a year to release the film. Yet they couldn't release a Christmas movie in the summer. So, the studio did some creative publicity and released the film in June.
Behlmer says, "They didn't want to have it labeled a Christmas movie. In fact, they did everything possible to kind of hide that fact. And the Gwenn character was in the shadows, in the background – this is the man who made the miracle on 34th Street. But you had no idea what this was all about."
Of course the film was a huge hit, and where most movies of the time played one to two weeks, "Miracle" played over six months in theaters up to Christmas. According to all sources, the making of this film was "heavenly." O'Hara says, "In most film there are trying moments and difficult moments. But, in "Miracle on 34th Street," it was just bliss from beginning to end."
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