Monday, January 09, 2012


Which do you prefer: the old 1947 version of "Miracle on 34th Street," or the newer 1994 version? It's not a fair comparison because the older version had a bigger budget and some of the best stars and technicians of the day. Good writing, too. Even so, comparison is still possible.

I maintain that the biggest advantage the old version had was a philosophical one. People in those days had a more interesting way of seeing the world. We see things through a depressing Post Modern filter, or at least we did back in 1994 when the remake was made.

Let's take a look at some examples.....

Here's the start of the 1947 version: the titles are superimposed over a traveling backshot of Santa walking along Manhattan streets.  Introducing a robust, confident character with a backshot is a great way to create suspense, and the immersion in the life of the city alerts us to the film's subtext, which is that the modern world (and specifically New York) is a wonderful place to live.

The titles finish and Santa, who we'd only seen from the back til now, rounds a corner and stops to kibbitz when a shopkeeper goofs up his reindeer display. The back and forth between the two men establish Santa's personality. It works fine.

Now here's (above) the 1994 version. It starts with a frontal shot of Santa walking down a single street. The shot is made with a long lens, which flattens the background and robs it of its character.  No reveal, no subtext, and no color. Why is everything brown? I understand that it's cheaper to shoot this way, but is this really the best the director could do? What went wrong?

What went wrong is that the producer handed off a sentimental 40s story to an unsentimental Post Modern director. Unlike Woody Allen, the director just couldn't bring himself to cast New York in a positive light.

In the newer film Santa's character (above) is established by having him react to an astonished kid who recognizes him. It's not a bad way to go, but the handling was unimaginative. Too many close-ups, too long lenses, too few extras and pedestrian dialogue. And that's not all. 

Also at fault is the flat, deliberately deadening Post Modern way of staging.  Like atonal music, it's a bleak style that's deliberately meant to be flat and unsettling. Flat anesthetizes the senses. It's a style that fights the sentimental story it's trying to tell. It's a shame because you can tell that Richard Attenburough (Santa) had real enthusiasm for the role.

Here's the old version again. Santa (unseen here) discovers that the parade Santa is drunk , and storms off to report the problem to the coordinator, Maureen O'Hara, pictured above. It's all staged perfectly and there's plenty of extras. Everybody's looking at O'Hara...she's the center of attention, which is a good way to introduce a star. 

Here's (above) how the Post Modern version introduces its star. She's in a dark media truck loaded with video monitors. What gives? The parade coordinator is our star, and we can hardly see her.  

Okay, it's a cheap way to shoot, but it also fits with the Post Modern, Phillip Glass, trance rhythm of the film. The Post Modern style looks for broad patterns, and resists the notion of making scenes stand out. That's an odd style to choose for a classy story that begs for virtuoso scenes.  

I'll add that video monitors are a Post Modern symbol of alienation. How depressing!

Here's (above) the old version showing Natalie Wood and John Payne watching the parade from O'Hara's apartment. Seeing the parade reminds us of the exuberance and grandeur of the city. What the characters say has extra weight because the visuals connect them to the grand adventure below. 

Here's (above) a similar shot in the new version. No grand adventure here. Why is everything so dark and flat? And why is the parade reduced to shapes passing by the window? Couldn't the filmmaker afford to rent some stock parade footage? 

The bleak graphic treatment makes me feel that the parade is either menacing or uninteresting, and that the foreground figures are hiding out to avoid it. How odd for a film that's supposed to be glorifying Christmas. You get the feeling that the director doesn't really care much about the holiday or about the city. What was the studio thinking? 

Do you agree? Rent both versions from Netflix and make the comparison yourself. 


Roberto Severino said...

I've heard of the original film, but I haven't seen either one. Hopefully TCM will show the original sometime this year (hopefully next month as part of that Oscar marathon they always have) so I can watch it. Always wanted to see Goodbye, Mr. Chips too.

Michael Sporn said...

Excellent comparison. On the new version, they credit the man who shot the film as "Cinematographer" not "Director of Photography". It's a slight. However, he's the one who probably chose the zoom lenses flattening out the characters. The director obviously approved. The director, Les Mayfield moved on from ENCINO MAN to direct the 1994 feature. Disney wasn't looking for anything great, and they didn't get it.

SparkyMK3 said...

Eddie, this is a very enlightening post! I've been wanting to study film theory lately, but you've given some valuable tips!

The flat=nihilistic tone and anti-senses pleasing ordeal is dead on! You've given me another helpful step in learning filmmaking!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Roberto, Michael, Sparky: I'm so glad that you see it too. I was worried that I didn't put enough evidence in the post.

I usually like it when a director imposes a style on a film but occassionaly you get a mismatch like this 1994 film.

An awful lot of made-for-TV dramas are shot in a way that doesn't fit the content. Of course the content is so artificial and so much the product of conflicting executive input, that you wonder if any style would fit it.

Stephen said...

What's sad about the remake is that it was theatrically released but looks like a made-for-TV movie. I caught the last half of the original over the holidays, and a bit of the remake. Your observations ring true, Eddie.

Jorge Garrido said...

I don't think the old film is sentimental at all. I find the film refreshingly cynical. It reminds me of Lubitsch a little.

I think the new one is sentimental.

In the old film everyone tries to manipulate everyone else and use everyone else for their own gain. The lawyer only defends the old man to impress Mauren O'Hara and Natalie Wood so he can get with Maureen. The judge just wants to get reelected. Mr. Gimbel only keeps Santa around as a marketing tool. The other department store owners follow suit so they can make more money doing it, too. Maureen's coworker gets his wife plastered so the old man can stay with him.

And in the end, a lie, that the old man is Santa, is found in court to be the the truth so everyone can get what they want. The kids are all being lied to.

The fact that the old man is or isn't Santa is irrelevant (and he probably isn't), the fact is none of the adults thought he really was Santa.

It's probably my favourite Christmas film, though.

Roberto Severino said...

Forgot to tell you Eddie, this has nothing to do with the post, but I've finally had the guts to send at least three different college applications to some very good Georgia universities (there's one about half an hour away from my house called Georgia State University that's pretty much my first choice at this point. My good friend Austin Papageorge was accepted into UGA back in November for early action). Hope you don't mind letting me tell you if I got accepted into any of them. I should know for sure by next month. 3.5 GPA before senior year grades are added isn't bad I hope.

Alex Printz said...

no eddie, I fully agree with you. I've been raised in a post-modernist, and the few chances I get to go back in time with cinema is exhilarating.

Bonus: Look at that awesome police balloon! I wish we had balloons like that... then I'd actually bother to watch the parade on TV!

Shawn Luke said...

Great analysis. I really enjoyed this. Thank you for sharing!

pappy d said...

Cool post!

I have to rent the new one, but it's too late for Christmas movies this year.

It seems like Christmas is playing on a video screen & it's a distraction from the human relationships in the movie.

Ben Leeser said...

Eddie, the way you talk about film is amazing. I wish I had your kind of critical mind.

Zoran Taylor said...

Kind of a weird idea to compare it to Philip Glass, which I'm not sure has any parallels to representational works of film. His collaboration with Godfrey Reggio on Qoianisqaatsi is hugely effective, though.

I think you're giving shitty modern filmmaking too much credit by calling it "postmodern". True postmodernism can never be altogether deadening -because it, by definition, always has the hatchet out for everything, that also includes itself. Woody Allen, for instance, KNOWS when he's going up his own ass and chooses to have fun with it. The results can be hilarious and totally refreshing. Like every real postmodernist, he understands that the "post" part is really a misnomer - the Modern Age has no official event, real or theoretical, that can be said to have put an end to it. We're still living in it. We must be. The notion of us "running out of things to say" is a front - what lies beneath it is sheer dehumanization. We as human beings are incapable of recognizing the latter except in its most painfully concentrated form, so we call it something else.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Zoran: Haw! You never know who reads this stuff. What you've written could end up in a homework assignment in Uzbekistan.

Zoran Taylor said...

I hope it does, Eddie. I hope it does...