The University Record, December 10, 1997

Christmas classic turns 50

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

He was born in New York, died in Hollywood, served in the Coast Guard and graduated from the University of Michigan. He wrote a number of Broadway plays, was president of the Screen Writers Guild and general chairman of the Academy Awards program, yet few would remember his name. But his Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street is remembered by anyone who "believes."

Valentine Davies' 1947 novel Miracle on 34th Street became a movie the same year, earning the author an Academy Award for the best original story. The film itself was nominated for the top picture. Edmund Gwenn, who played Kris Kringle, won an Oscar for best supporting actor, and George Seaton received one of the gold statues for his screenplay of Davies' story. Though not an award-winner for this effort, child actor Natalie Wood won the hearts of viewers as Susan Walker, the little girl whose doubt in the existence of Santa Claus is transformed by her association with Gwenn's Kris Kringle.

"Miracle on 34th Street stands beside It's a Wonderful Life as one of the two most enduring of America's holiday movies," says Frank Beaver, professor of film and video studies. "As with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street draws its continuing appeal by reaffirming ideas of faith in a modern, often cynical world. Both also find strong sentimental appeal in the reassurance of children for whom the Christmas holiday season means so much. Davies and Seaton in Miracle on 34th Street explore, philosophically, the always timely seasonal issues of faith and trust as the basis of real-life miracles."

Though a 1994 remake of the story is available, most critics find it an affront to the original. "Most good things are best left alone, and Miracle on 34th Street is surely one of them," wrote critic Joan Ellis who felt the war-weary world of 1947 was ready to be charmed. A colorized version of the original is also available on video.

From his days at the U-M where he worked on The Michigan Daily and performed in a 1925 campus opera that he co-wrote, Davies moved on to the Yale Drama School and then Hollywood. There, he wrote It Happens Every Spring, the screenplay for James Michener's Bridges at Toko-Ri, was nominated for an Oscar for best story and screenplay for The Glenn Miller Story and wrote and directed The Benny Goodman Story.


 

The road to Hollywood goes through
Ann Arbor for many writers

Writing talents continue to follow the path from U-M to Hollywood with such U-M grads as Dudley Nichols, who wrote the script of Paramount's For Whom the Bell Tolls and the original and screenplay of This Land is Mine. In 1935 Nichols won an Academy Award for his script of The Informer. He also wrote Stagecoach, considered one of the best Westerns ever made. Frank Gilbreth and his sister wrote Cheaper by the Dozen which became a hit movie with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy. Arthur Miller's works became famous on Broadway and in film adaptations. John Briley received an Oscar for his screenplay of Gandhi.

William Brashler, a one-time Chicago police reporter and author of The Don, also wrote The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, which became a major motion picture. And Chris Van Allsburg, artist, author and two-time Caldecott Award-winner, adapted his book Jumanji into the hit 1995 movie.

Todd Langen went from writing TV scripts to scripts for the first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films and Josh Greenfeld wrote the screenplay for Harry and Tonto, for which Art Carney won an Oscar as best actor. Husband-and-wife screen-writing team, David and Leslie Newman, list in their credits Superman I, II and III. Kurt Luedtke, a former journalist and executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, wrote Absence of Malice, which was nominated for an Oscar, and the film adaptation of Out of Africa, which won both an Oscar and a British Academy Award for best adaptation. James Burnstein wrote the screenplay for Renaissance Man, starring Danny DeVito, and Lawrence Kasdan wrote and co-wrote such hits as The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also wrote and directed Body Heat, The Big Chill and French Kiss.