Why I have to watch Miracle on 34th Street

Sometime this holiday season I am obligated to see Miracle on 34th Street for the first time. I’m too old to have a good excuse for never seeing this Christmas classic. I can only lamely point to a general apathy toward an old black-and-white about a guy who claims to be the real Santa. But I’ll probably love it. I do love many black-and-whites. Casablanca for one. And Miracle does have a 94% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again so does Juno and that didn’t do it for me. Sorry.

But back to Miracle. I have to watch it as payback for all the 1940s films I made my partner sit through during the research phase for the first book in the Mantis trilogy. It’s not that I actually forced her to watch them with me, but with tight schedules I had to appropriate dozens of our Saturday movie nights to watch films that I had DVR’d off of Turner Classic Movies. In advance of those movie nights I would scour the upcoming listings for TCM, hunting for any films shot in the late ’30s or early ’40s, especially if it was set in any of the cities featured in Mantis—Manhattan, Lisbon, Marseille, the Casbah. I also had my eye out for a few precious movies I had read about that I absolutely wanted to see. I would record whatever I could find. So I always had a slew to choose from for our Saturday nights. My lucky partner!

Many of those films were horribly boring. Sorry, babe. Still, the suffering—from my POV at least—was worth it because the films gave me stuff like fashion and idioms that are hard to get from other media. TCM would also invariably come through on my must-see list, as they did when they aired The House on 92nd Street, a 1945 semidocumentary film based on an actual 1941 FBI sting of a Nazi spy operation.

Aside from providing detail on the FBI’s counterespionage efforts and a decent glimpse of spy tradecraft at the time, the film—one of the few films ever shot on location in Manhattan during the ’40s—gives a rare tour of actual New York streets. Most films at the time, like The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) and Citizen Kane (1941), were shot entirely or almost entirely in Hollywood studios.

One of the other few on-location films actually happens to be Miracle, which uses actual footage of the 1946 Thanksgiving Day parade. That’s after the war and beyond the time period of the trilogy—I was very particular about wanting to see early-’40s and not post-war footage—but for the rare glimpse of Manhattan around that time, I will be grateful.

Of course, one old Christmas movie is hardly a fair trade for what I put my partner through. So it’s her choice of movies for quite some time.

While I set off to fulfill my Miracle obligation, you can enjoy a brief clip from The House on 92nd Street. By the way, many of the FBI agents are played by real agents. Enjoy.

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