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A Miracle of Filmmaking: The Secrets of Shooting ‘Miracle On 34th Street’ at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

It’s an American holiday tradition that’s become as much of a fixture of the season as Santa Claus himself. In 1947 a little film called Miracle on 34th Street surprised Hollywood by becoming one of the biggest box office sensations of the year—released in the summer, no less!—and in the decades that followed it’s become legendary as a holiday classic viewers return to year after year.

Fifty years after the filming of the movie, a gorgeous new two-disc DVD restores Miracle to all of its glory, with a plethora of extras including a fascinating documentary showing how writer-director George Seaton filmed several scenes on location at the famed Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1946—where star Edmund Gwenn, who won an Oscar for his performance, even served as the parade’s Santa Claus, though no one knew it at the time—and the venerable department store itself. Hollywood.com got even more scoop on the making of the film in our exclusive conversation with Robert Grippo, the parade’s official historian.

Hollywood.com: Prior to Miracle on 34th Street, the Macy’s Parade Thanksgiving Day Parade was an institution in New York, but did the movie really make it an American institution, more famous than IT already was?
Robert Grippo:
First of all, the parade started in 1924 and it was always very big in New York City itself and in the surrounding areas. It would get tons of coverage in The New York Times and The New York Daily News, the papers of the area of that era. The parade was always featured in the newsreels of the day. The interesting thing is that it was not called The Macy’s Parade. It was basically showcased as “Christmas Comes to New York—Great Parade in New York City Welcomes Christmas.” It really wasn’t until the movie came out that a spotlight was thrown on it nationally and was then known as The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. So the movie did give the parade a huge forum around the country.

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HW: I found it really fascinating that Edmund Gwenn, who plays Kris Kringle in the movie, actually played Santa Claus in the parade the year the filmmakers filmed it for the movie. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? It wasn’t very publicized until after the fact, and how did he react to being Santa Claus?
RG: Oh, from all accounts he loved it. In fact, after the parade was over, I was told by John Struass [the former head of Macy’s] that Gwenn did go upstairs to the executive area and they had a little reception for the children of the executives—apple cider, donuts, cookies, whatever—and he would be Santa Claus for the children of the executives. John Strauss got to meet him at that point as Santa Claus also. He said that it was just wonderful and he really enjoyed playing the part of Santa Claus. You could clearly see that he was enjoying himself doing that. The amazing thing is that there was no publicity about that until after the parade. The New York Times review of the parade the day after said “Santa Claus in the guise of Edmund Gwenn climbed off of the float and very gingerly climbed the ladder to Macy’s marquee.” That’s when people probably said “Oh my God, that was Edmund Gwenn!” Now, he wasn’t a star per say like a Cary Grant, but he was a character actor. Probably at that point his most famous role was in like Lassie Come Home. So the name probably would’ve been familiar and maybe his face, but again they didn’t know that until after the parade was shown in the movie that he was on that float.

HW: How hard was it to actually shoot the parade for the film without interrupting the flow of the event? Was that a huge undertaking for director George Seaton?
RG: Oh, sure, sure. The scenes where you see Maureen O’Hara talking trying to get Santa Claus on the float, the one who has drank a little bit too much at that point—those are filmed on 77th Street before the parade started, so they had to really get those scenes. Macy’s gave them total cooperation, with the stipulation the parade couldn’t be stopped. It couldn’t be redone again. So they had to get those scenes pretty quickly: the cast had to be ready for them, the crew had to be ready. They had to know what they were going to take. They had to know their marks and everything, what they were going to film, and then they had to get it right the first time. The scenes in the parade where you see the floats coming down, the cameras were positioned along the route so they basically were just getting the images of the parade coming down, but again that is such an achievement that it was done right the first time. They look so good too. If you watch those scenes it doesn’t look like you’re watching a movie. It looks like you’re watching the preparations for that parade. It was captured so great in that film, which is just marvelous. The scenes from Macy’s, too—there are very few instances where the spectators who are walking around the store and shopping are turning around and acknowledging the camera. It really is amazing. It’s a perfect filming of a real situation and I think that it adds to the fact so much, and it just ends up looking like a day in the department store. It doesn’t look like you’re watching a movie.

HW: It was fascinating to learn that Macy’s and its competitors had the option to say no after they saw the completed film. Was there really a plan in place if they did say no, or did George Seaton just think that this story was unbeatable?
I think that they were banking on it. Macy’s was allowed to look at the script and Macy’s cooperated. I think that they banked on the film being done so well, and I think that anyone in the public relations business would realize, “Wow, we can’t buy PR like this. This is great. It makes our store look good.” Even [Macy’s real-life competitor] Gimble’s—at first it does come across like “Well, if Macy’s is doing it we’ll do it too. We’ll send them back to Macy’s.” But there he is shaking hands with Mr. Macy, so it even portrayed Gimble’s in a good light. It was showing it as a fun rivalry between the two. So, like I said, I think that they were banking on the fact that this was all positive, and I think that both organizations saw that right away.

HW: When the film became something of a phenomenon, did Macy’s actually adopt the policies that are depicted in the film, where if they didn’t carry something they’d tell shoppers about the other stores in town where they could find the item?
On one of the releases, one of the Fox video releases, on the back of the laser disc’s jacket it mentioned that this was such a success that Macy’s had a program that year of a “Mrs. Claus” who told shoppers where things could be bought. So evidently they did adopt something of the idea. But it was a friendly rivalry between Gimble’s and Macy’s at the time. It was quite competitive in that they were right across the street from each other.

HW: In the DVD documentary we see that Maureen O’Hara has come back to Macy’s a couple of times recently for promotional appearances. Did any of the other actors ever come back to the parade or maintain a special relationship with Macy’s?
RG: Edmund Gwenn passed away about ten years later, so he never came back. After 1946 the film came out, summer of ’47, Macy’s had John Payne and Maureen O’Hara appear on top of the marquee on 34th Street at the parade, so they had them back. The film was a huge success, and interestingly enough if you read Maureen O’Hara’s biography, she mentions in there that John Payne for many years afterwards had written a sequel script and was trying to get it made. That would’ve probably brought them back to Macy’s, but unfortunately that never happened. So, the nostalgia for this film, the exposure of this film, really increased with home video. That’s when it captured all of America and people really started to come to this film again. I guess that’s when Macy’s tapped into and then the nostalgia of having her come back to the store. So they did a big promotion about that time. They brought back the mechanical store windows and the theme was Miracle on 34th Street. So that’s how they had her back. They hooked her with the windows being redone, and they also had her sign the videotape cases. So that was the first time she was back and then of course when she had her autobiography out. Macy’s has really honored the association that she’s had through the parade through that film.

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