Friday, November 29, 2013

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
seen @ Herald Square Plaza, New York NY

I don't remember my family shopping at Macy's a lot while growing up. I definitely remember going to Alexander's and JC Penney and Sears, but I don't remember going to Macy's, either at Herald Square in Manhattan or anywhere else. There is at least one Macy's here in Queens, near (but not part of) the Queens Center Mall.

Department store shopping could be fun as a kid, but a lot of the time, my mother would pick out stuff from the store catalog, like Sears, and order things like clothes through the mail. She would let me go through the catalog and identify whatever shirts or sneakers or pants struck my fancy. Sometimes she'd get the wrong size, other times I decided I didn't like the item as much as I thought I did, for whatever reason. Looking back, I tended to get a lot of dorky clothes this way, and a lot of the time, it was my own fault.

I don't remember which of my toys came from department stores. I remember going to children's shops like Child World and getting toys and clothes there. There was an Alexander's in Flushing that I'd go to for toys, school supplies, and little rinky-dink trinkets. I seem to recall hitting their gumball machines for prizes fairly often.

Of course, I associate department stores with my childhood because nowadays, it's all about Amazon and similar online websites. Lots of the department stores I remember shopping at as a kid are gone now. I go to sporting goods stores like Modell's for my clothes and the only time I go out of my way to get toys now is if they come out of my cereal box.

I popped into the Macy's at Herald Square recently. I forget what I was doing there; I might have been killing time waiting for some other appointment, but I hadn't been in there in a long time, and I was just curious as to what it looked like now. They still have the wooden escalators, and many of the old facades and door frames are still intact. The building has held up remarkably well. Regardless, I rarely do any shopping in Manhattan anyway. Whatever it is I need, chances are good I can get it cheaper in Queens.

So the original Miracle on 34th Street, as we all know, is set in and around Macy's at Herald Square, and last Friday, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), as part of their 20th anniversary celebration, screened the film in the relatively new pedestrian plaza right outside Macy's. They actually ran it all day and into the night. Host Robert Osbourne was there to introduce the evening showing; that's the one I went to. It was my first time seeing the man himself in person. He looks the same as he does on TV. Maybe a bit taller.

TCM had a sweet set-up. The plaza covers a substantial amount of real estate between 35th Street to the north and 33rd Street to the south, where Broadway and Sixth Avenue intersect. (It's hard to describe what it looks like in words, so that's why I took pictures. Look for them on my WSW Facebook page). Basically, though, there was a truck with a giant video screen high up on a pole, at the 34th Street end of the plaza, and love seats, sofas and even a rocking chair that TCM provided in addition to the chairs and tables normally present. They had a food truck in the back, along with one of their brand new tour buses. (If you don't know about that, read this.)

A brief word about TCM: I watch it a lot more now, due to the direct and pervasive influence of my classic film blogger friends. It is without question an excellent resource for old movies; the fact that they're commercial-free makes watching it a joy. (Seriously: don't you HATE the way some networks, like AMC, jump into commercials without easing you into it at least? It can be so jarring to finish watching a quiet scene and then all of a sudden, BAM! a car commercial, which is always louder. Hate it!) I'm not as fanatical a viewer of TCM as some, but I'll watch it if there's something good on - often times, for the blog, but not always. The TCM Film Festival looks like a lot of fun, from what I've read about it; I'd love to go one day. And that's about it. 

The Herald Square plaza, like the Times Square plaza and others around the five boroughs, are relatively recent additions to the New York landscape, built for the express purpose of calming traffic and making it easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to get around. In a televised debate before the November election, Mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio made a curious statement in which he said that "the jury's out" on whether or not the Times Square and Herald Square plazas were of value, a statement which completely ignores all the evidence that conclusively proves otherwise. This is especially troubling given that he has put forth a plan for the city in which the goal is to eliminate all traffic fatalities.

If DeBlasio had been in Herald Square last Friday, he would have had ample reason to retract his statement. We lucked out on the weather, for one thing; it was cool, but not cold. I took my coat off during the screening and felt fine the whole time. Also, the love seats and chairs made the screening inviting enough, but there were also dozens of other people standing around outside Macy's, taking in the movie or buying snacks from the food truck. It was a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere, in an environment that didn't even exist five years ago, and could not have existed without the commitment made by the city, under Mayor Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, to rethink how we use our streets. I really hope our new mayor will continue in that tradition, because projects like the Herald Square plaza are nothing but good for New York.

As for the movie itself, well, it is far and away my favorite Christmas movie of all time. It's a clever story, well told, that doesn't fall prey to easy sentimentalism and holiday-infused treacle even though it very easily could. It makes good use of the location shots in and around Herald Square - at times, there would be an exterior shot of Macy's and I'd turn my head and look at the real Macy's to the right of me, and marvel at the changes between then and now. And Edmund Gwenn will totally make you believe that Santa Claus is real. This is not just a great holiday movie, it's a great movie, period.

One of the things that Gwenn's character rails against is the commercialism of the holidays, which leads, of course, to his idea of sending customers to the competition if Macy's didn't have an item, an idea quickly adopted by the department store as a whole. It's Black Friday as I write this, a concept which I'm sure didn't exist back in 1947, but in recent years, the shopping event has leaked over into late Thursday, Thanksgiving... and according to this Huffington Post article, Macy's at Herald Square, the same place depicted in Miracle as a business that put people over profits, joined in the "fun":
..."WOOOOOOOOOOOO!" come the screams as shoppers jockey for positions. First they must make it through the heavy outer doors, as security personnel loom over the scene, and then through a second logjam at the inner doors. Finally, they enter the media funnel, and brave photographers step into the flow of traffic, cameras flashing like strobes. Phones thrust in the air record the scene and the shoppers take in the attention, waving to reporters and howling all the way.... 
Michael Kors and Coach, right up front, fill up in a flash and the crowd begins to spread to every corner of the sales floor. A girl bolts by me, hand firmly grasped around her friend's wrist as she drags her toward Michael Kors, gaze fixated on a red tote. "Hurry up!" she squeals as her friend stumbles on the leg of a table.
This was on Thanksgiving night, friends and neighbors.

I don't know what to make of this, especially in a time where the disparity between the rich and the poor in America is wider than it has ever been. I know this wasn't the main theme of the movie, but I think it's certainly worth examining. We pay lip service to the holiday season as a time of selflessness and generosity, but we're still greedy bastards at heart, and the lessons taught by a movie as timeless as Miracle remain unlearned over sixty years later. So, I dunno. I think in the end, we get exactly what we deserve. Sorry, I realize this is a depressing way to talk about such an uplifting movie.

Once again, look for my pics from the event on the WSW Facebook page.


  1. I have Valentine Davies original story of "Miracle on 34th Street" in a compilation of Christmas themed stories and the movie may be the most faithful adaption of a story I have ever seen. A perfect balancing act of grounding the fantasy in reality.

    The big shopping day in Canada is, or was, Boxing Day on Dec. 26th. However last year retailers started in on this Black Friday stuff in an effort to stem cross-border shopping. I've never participated in either Boxing Day sales or cross-border shopping so they aren't targeting me and my pittance. I'm hoping it doesn't catch on up here, but it's probably a vain hope.

  2. Cross border shopping? Wow. I can only imagine...

    I forgot MIRACLE was based on a book. Good to know it's a fine adaptation as well.


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