For most of us who celebrate Christmas in North America, aside from a handful of childhood photo ops, Santa Claus will always be more concept than man, an idea we have to imagine rather than a tangible figure we can interact with. The very rules we’re taught to follow as children when it comes to Jolly Old Saint Nick reinforce this, placing Santa up at the top of the world where he watches with benevolent, all-seeing eyes, reachable only by letter and available to interact with the real world only once per year.
But of course, none of that has stopped popular culture from attempting to imbue Santa with some level of humanity over the years. Santa’s cultural omnipresence in the Western world means that he’s taken a starring role in numerous film and TV productions over the last century or so, and that means actors of many different stripes have been tasked with giving us their take on Kris Kringle. Whether it’s Ed Asner in Elf, Tim Allen in The Santa Clause or the legendary voice of Mickey Rooney in the Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials of the 1970s, we’ve got dozens of depictions of Santas to choose from every December.
And they all owe a debt to Edmund Gwenn.
With his Oscar-winning performance in Miracle on 34th Street, released 75 years ago, Gwenn gave us not just a great movie Santa, but the template for just about every movie Santa who would come after him. He wasn’t the first person to play Kris Kringle onscreen, but the combination of humanity and otherworldliness that he brought to the role echoes through cinema history as the definitive portrayal, and it’s all the more impressive when you consider just how grounded his version of Santa had to be.
From the very beginning of George Seaton’s film, Gwenn is tasked with walking a fine line that many of his cinematic Santa descendants never have to deal with, because Miracle on 34th Street never actually confirms or denies that he’s the real thing. He insists that he is, of course, and the film’s central conflict is built around that insistence, but at no point does Seaton definitively come down on either side of the argument. There are no clever asides which assure us that the stubborn adults are wrong about Kris, no flourishes of magic that can’t be chalked up to good fortune or coincidence. Gwenn has to simultaneously play Kris as the real Santa Claus and as a nice old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus. The plot demands he remain an earthbound, magic-less mortal, which means Gwenn has to assert his essential Santa-ness in other ways.
In the opening shots of the film, he’s just an old man out for a walk, animated and lively and ready to point out the flaws in a shop window’s reindeer display. Moments later, he’s accosting the drunken Macy’s parade Santa for shirking his duties, which is the confrontation which sets the plot in motion. We’re introduced to Gwenn’s version of Santa, in other words, through a pair of confrontations, not benevolent gestures. There’s something deeply human about his agitation, the care he takes with worldly things, and yet his dashing physicality betrays a certain magic. He walks with a cane, but never seems slow or feeble. He glides through New York City and, despite his overcoat and hat, you get the sense that with a change of clothes he could be leaping down chimneys at any moment.
When he does change clothes, Kris looks right at home in his Santa suit both in the parade and in Macy’s, but it’s striking that many of his best moments come when he’s not dressed as Santa at all. He seems to know everything about toys and Christmas, but when young Susan (Natalie Wood) chews gum in front of him, he’s fascinated, as though it’s an alien treat he’s never tried before. He approaches Susan and her unbelieving mother Doris (Maureen O’Hara) with a sense of bemused wonder, but also with the practical approach of a true problem solver, not judgmental but deeply, personally invested in proving them wrong about his own existence.
All of this forces us to consider why, if Kris really is Santa, he doesn’t just do a little magic to prove to everyone that he’s not delusional. It’s a question that John Hughes’ 1994 remake of Miracle probes in greater depth, but in the original it’s simply allowed to hang in the air throughout the department store scenes, the quiet moments at Doris and Susan’s home, and Kris’ eventual trial. This is because Seaton doesn’t feel it’s an important question to answer, but it’s also because Gwenn’s performance doesn’t require an answer.
In a telling moment in the middle of Miracle on 34th Street, we hear from the man who runs the elder care home where Kris apparently lives. He explains that he’s known about the Santa “delusion” for some time, but if all it’s doing is encouraging Kris to be nice to people, what does it hurt to let him keep believing that he really is Santa? It’s a short scene that sums up the whole trick of Santa Claus. He’s not just a fictional character, after all, but a shared cultural construct many of us have agreed to in order to imbue the holiday season with a little extra magic. He’s not real in the sense of being a tangible form we can touch and see, but he’s real in the sense that he lets all of us make each other feel good with a few carefully placed gifts on Christmas Eve. The caring, not the reality, is the point.
Everything Gwenn does in Miracle on 34th Street, from the way he strides down the street with his cane to the iconic scene with the Dutch girl to the way he reacts when Susan tugs his beard, is all tied to this simple idea. He is the embodiment not of magic or fantasy, but of caring, of feeling the holiday season moving through him in a deep, abiding way. In ways both large and small, he reminds us that the caring is the point, and that’s why he remains, after 75 years, the godfather of all movie Santas.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.