The remake I watch of Miracle on 34th Street is the 1994 remake of a much remade Christmas story. Valentine Davies, who wrote the 1947 version says that he got the idea while he was waiting in line at a big department store during the Christmas season. The write-up of the novella he wrote says that the story is “about a disillusioned woman, her skeptical daughter, and a mysterious man who believes he is the real Santa Claus.”
In my version (1994) the woman is truly disillusioned. She says that she was not unhappy when, at the age her daughter is now, she believed in Santa Claus, but that when she grew up and found out it was all false, then she was unhappy. The daughter in this version is not disillusioned. She wants to believe in Santa Claus as much as she can get away with. My favorite line of hers is the plaintive question she asks her mother one night, “Do I have to not believe in Santa Claus all at once?”
The intriguing thing about this presentation for me is that the real Santa Claus is spending some of his (otherwise uncommitted) time before Christmas as a department store Santa Claus. The store in the version is called Coles. He isn’t one or the other. He is both, simultaneously.
Susan Walker, the daughter, is urged to join the Santa Claus line by her mother’s boyfriend, Bryan Bedford. They have a little chit-chat before Susan tells Santa confidentially, “I know how all this works. You are an employee of Coles.” Santa pauses a little, clearly gauging the effect of various correct answers and finally says, “That….is true.”
The question the movie raises is how to deal with the fact that one—only one—of the department store Santas, is also the real Santa. Always the presupposition of the film is that he is one or the other. He is the real Santa or he is Coles’ department store Santa.
They do some fancy stepping at several points, the fanciest is by the judge who is declaring the failure of the effort to commit Santa to an asylum, says that “Santa Claus exists and he exists in the person of Kris Kringle (gesturing at the defendant).” The first “Santa Claus” in that sentence refers to the mythical being who delivers toys to little children on a global scale in one night. The second refers to the man in the courtroom. The mythical Santa, the judge says, “exists in the person of” this actual Santa.
Pretty fancy, right? The ineffable exists in the person of a physically present person. And Santa the person plays with the persona too. He recalls a truth about “believing parents” and their children that he learned from Easter Bunny”who winters in Australia as you know.” This defendant Santa asks the prosecutor whether he has remembered to take down the old TV antenna because he remembers that he ripped his pants on it last year. It was the mythical Santa who ripped his pants; it is the physically present Santa who asks the question of the prosecutor.
Once Santa leaves the scene on Christmas eve, the fun is over. All kinds of miraculous things happen after that, but they aren’t really any fun anymore. The fun is this “imposter Santa Claus”—at a department store, they all have to be imposters, right—who speaks Russian and Swahili and who comforts a deaf girl in sign language, and who wears a suit rich with actual gold.
And throughout the whole film, no one ever uses the word “Incarnation.”