Miracle on 34th Street is considered a must-see film at this time of year. (‘Christmas’ was omitted from the title for the May 1947 release.)
The triple-Oscar winner is a seasonal box of delights that once opened, reveals profound truths about public relations – and they apply today.
These address leadership, brand authenticity, mental health, employee relations, litigation support, corporate social responsibility (CSR), body image, creativity and risk, while conveying a message – believe in your own version of yourself.
As head of promotions at Macy’s, stressed single mum Doris, a stylish Maureen O’Hara, recruits a passer-by as Father Christmas for the iconic department store’s parade. The St Nick lookalike starts immediately, replacing his tipsy predecessor.
But new hire Kris believes he really is Santa and despite their mutual affection, this creates conflict with divorced Doris, who’s trying to raise her young daughter (Natalie Wood) to reject childhood fantasy for reality.
Strictly honest Kris, now full-time in his busy grotto, is a hit with the children but instead of pushing excess stock as instructed by department head Mr Shellhammer, directs parents to rival stores for unavailable items.
Shellhammer is horrified, but delighted customers reward this new-found integrity. Seeing the profits, chief executive R H Macy tells his communications team to promote the policy far and wide.
“From now on we’re the helpful store, the friendly store, the store with a heart, the store that puts public service ahead of profits – we’ll make more profits than ever before! In the meantime, you guys get together and figure out the best way to promote this thing.” This crisp instruction is a world away from today’s lengthy briefing processes.
Soon, amid talk on the sad commercialisation of Christmas, even rival stores bring cheer across the US with their honesty and transparency.
Freed from hospital, where he’s briefly committed after a run-in with a quack psychologist, Kris starts a CSR-style bidding war among retail bosses to equip his residential home with a much-needed X-ray machine.
But the state intervenes in the form of Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Mara, who argues Kris’s beliefs prove he’s of unsound mind. Step forward defence lawyer Fred, Doris’s beau. Played by film noir stalwart John Payne, he enlists the press, unleashes a courtroom zinger involving the DA’s family and rediscovers his life’s mission. Cue happy ending.
‘Miracle’ is a modern film conveying timeless rules about communication – credibility doesn’t require normality; ‘insane’ ideas are often best, honesty pays, and be true to your dreams. It’s a PR masterclass.
*Seen a film with a PR message? Please let me know in a space below.
**Don’t miss the trailer, where movie executives in a screening room watch as cinema platitudes appear to promote the film. The studio boss strides out dismissively to quiz passing stars Rex Harrison and Anne Baxter on their reactions (decades before hippiedom, a starlet calls it ‘groovy’). Returning, he accepts the use of buzzwords for a film that’s near impossible to describe – an original pitch that explores cliché.
***Two of the stars – Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle) and Philip Tonge (Julian Shellhammer) were British, as was the composer, Cyril Mockridge. The 1994 remake is good too.