Why the Studio Kept Santa Claus Being in Miracle on 34th Street a Secret

We look back on the most unusual rollout for a Christmas movie in Hollywood history: the release of Miracle on 34th Street.

Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street
Photo: 20th Century Studios / Disney

If you ever sit down to watch 20th Century Fox’s original trailer for Miracle on 34th Street, a few things might appear strange. Right off the bat it’s unique—unprecedented even—to market a new release without any real footage from the film. Other than a few seconds of the movie’s opening titles and an actual shot from the picture’s final seconds, audiences were told nothing about Miracle on 34th Street other than it was “hilarious!” “exciting!” and, dare they say it, “groovy!”

There was of course a reason for this: 20th Century Fox, and more specifically studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, had absolutely no faith in the feel-good holiday movie and didn’t even want the audience to know it was a holiday movie. Zanuck’s insistence that the film open in New York City on June 4 probably added to their skittishness toward the subject matter.

An all-time Christmas movie classic today, Miracle on 34th Street pivots on the marvelous idea that Macy’s shopping mall Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn) believes he genuinely is Santa—even going by the name Kris Kringle on his identification. And to prove this, he’ll even take the matter to court with the help of a couple of doubting Thomases like his boss, career woman Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), and her precocious daughter Susan (Natalie Wood).

An ingenious concept by Valentine Davies, who’d go on to write a book out of his high-concept, and penned for the screen by the film’s director George Seaton, the story enchanted everyone who came across it. Except Zanuck. He didn’t like the concept on the page and was reluctant to greenlight it; and then he liked it even less when he saw Seaton’s cut of the movie.

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“[Darryl] Zanuck wasn’t sure it would be a success, so he had it released in June when movie attendance is highest, rather than wait for Christmas,” O’Hara wrote in her memoir ‘Tis Herself. “In fact, the publicity campaign barely talked about Christmas at all.”

Director Seaton’s original pitch was for the film to open in New York City on Thanksgiving, likely in no small part because the movie itself opens during the then quite regionally specific Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. However, Zanuck balked at the idea, believing the film would vanish from theaters quickly.

Some accounts suggest the studio head was knowingly gaming the tiered rollout of theatrical releases in the 1940s—wide releases would not become common until the 1970s—and that Zanuck foresaw the advantage of Miracle on 34th Street playing in major cities during the summer and then trickling down to the smaller and rural parts of the country in the fall. Yet given that Zanuck was reportedly astonished his Christmas movie was doing big business all the way through Christmas, it’s likely he didn’t believe the actual hype his studio plastered in the marketing for the film.

Which brings us back to that trailer. How do you market a Christmas movie where the main character believes he’s Santa without, you know, mentioning Christmas or Santa? The answer was to market a five-minute sketch in which a parody of a studio executive (who seems both as oblivious and ultimately wiser than Zanuck) wanders around the Fox lot hearing studio stars not in Miracle on 34th Street gush about how wonderful it is.

In the trailer, which you can view below, a nondescript boss named Bob rejects Fox’s marketing department for claiming a movie can be both exciting and tender (he insists he doesn’t need to watch it to sell it). However, as he prowls his own studio, he runs into Rex Harrison, the future Professor Higgins himself trying to cut an unconvincing figure as a man’s man. Harrison proclaims, “I never heard laughs like that in the theater before. Don’t miss it… I don’t know if the women will like it, but it’s a great man’s picture!”

Elsewhere, poor Bob bumps into Anne Baxter, who he helpfully reminds audiences just won an Oscar for The Razor’s Edge. After the congratulation though, he’s flummoxed to learn Anne also adored 34th Street but “I don’t know how the men are going to like it [because] it’s a great woman’s picture.”

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Finally, the now totally befuddled exec runs into teen star Peggy Ann Garner—just adorably learning to drive—and singer-actor Dick Haymes. Now just what exactly the married with children 30-year-old Haymes is doing in a car with the studio’s teen sensation is never explained. But what is, is that Dick was kept “on the edge of his seat every second” of the film’s last 20 minutes, and that Peggy Ann thought the movie was “really groovy” too.

So Bob finally resigns himself to the fact he needs to watch this sucker, and after he does, he tells us it’s all of those things, and you’ll also love it! Just don’t ask what it’s about!

The secretive marketing campaign carried over to the film’s poster, which put hand drawn portraits of O’Hara and co-star John Payne across 50 percent of the one-sheet, as well as their names above the title. Gwenn’s Kris Kringle, however, is relegated to the background in a brown suit as he hugs young Wood like a dear old grandfather.

Nowhere in any of the marketing are the words “Christmas” or “Santa Claus” even teased. It’s a bizarre gambit for what was so clearly a holiday movie. And yet, it didn’t matter.

When audiences and critics finally saw Miracle on 34th Street for themselves, they were as charmed then as we are more than 70 years later. Gwenn, who’d go on to win an Academy Award for playing Kris, much to Zanuck’s delight (the film also won a screenplay Oscar), instantly became iconic with the kind twinkle in his eye and entirely earnest depiction of a Santa Claus who walks among us. Genuinely, there may be little as endearingly cheerful as watching Gwenn’s St. Nick sing Christmas carols in Dutch with an orphaned immigrant.

Wood’s still convincingly natural performance as the skeptical child who’s made a true believer also made her the child actor of her age and launched her on to a movie star career..

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Miracle on 34th Street remains one of the shinier highlights of the Christmas movie canon, and the rare example of a film changing the holiday season itself. Indeed, it was the movie’s actual footage of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, breathlessly filmed over a few hours during the real 1946 event, that turned the local tradition into a national celebration that would soon be televised from coast-to-coast in the next decade on a newfangled technology called television.

Not bad for a film the studio was afraid to show even one red cap or white whisker of in its ad campaign.