Welcome to our monthly column, The Great Debate, where two genuinely intelligent critics face off to decide precisely which ring will rule them all. For this Christmas edition, Film.com's Laremy Legel will argue in favor of the sentimental "Miracle on 34th Street." Internet charmer Brad Brevet will hold it down for the wildly popular "It's a Wonderful Life." When Brad isn't debating Laremy, he's the editor-in-chief and sole proprietor of RopeofSilicon.com. Gentleman, get your snowballs ready, we're about the rumble!
Laremy Legel, Team "Miracle": First things first. I want to compliment your excellent taste in podcast partners, as I often find myself listening to the cleverly named Brad and Laremy on Movies and just supremely enjoying around half of it. Well done there, good sir.
Now onto your regularly scheduled beating. This might be over before it even gets started, as I win based on the title alone. Mine has "Miracle" right there, the best your film can come up with is "Wonderful." If I offered you a miracle or a "wonderful bisque," which would you choose? I think we both know the answer to that, Brad, and it wouldn't involve crabby snacks.
Next up, my "Miracle on 34th Street" is the proud owner of three, count 'em, three Academy Awards. Lead Actor? Boom. Best Writing? Boom. Best Screenplay? Boom! I forgot to check, how many Oscars did "It's a Wonderful Life" win? I'll wait while you use NONE of your fingers to tally that result.
Finally, my film had an amazingly innovative trailer structure that featured a dead ringer for Jean Dujardin. You're not going to do better than that, especially in this economy.
So, I guess the question is … Do you just want to waive the white flag and watch "Miracle on 34th Street" together? I'll even buy the popcorn.
Brad Brevet, Team "Wonderful": Why, thank you for the opportunity for discussion, Laremy, and while I would never suggest "Miracle on 34th Street" is a loser, I'm forced to say had you not mentioned the Oscars it won (an award we all hang our hats on when determining the best anything), I wouldn't know which version you were talking about. After all, "Miracle on 34th Street" has only been remade about a thousand times, something I think they tend to do with all classics ... Right?
Thankfully, I know there is no confusion when we talk about "It's a Wonderful Life," a film where the only remake was a 1977 TV movie called "It Happened One Christmas" (I had to look up that one up to realize it even existed). What's that you say? No one would be so bold as to remake a classic? Don't I know it! "Gone with the Wind," "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever," "Casablanca," "Citizen Kane" and "It's a Wonderful Life." Now there's a handful of films anyone can appreciate.
As for the Oscar conversation, yeah, three is nice, and that's exactly how many director Frank Capra won before he was nominated for "It's a Wonderful Life." Beat that!
Laremy, Team "Miracle": Okay, in my defense, there were only like six people even competing for Best Director back then. Let's see good ol' Capra take on the likes of the Coen Bros., Paul Thomas Anderson and Marty Scorsese. Consider that feint fully parried, Brevet!
But let's get back to the good stuff, that good stuff being "Miracle on 34th Street." If you recall the plot, it was about Santa being institutionalized and the battle to establish his bona fides. So, in a way "Miracle on 34th Street" foretold both "To Kill a Mockingbird" AND "Silver Linings Playbook." For better or worse, "Miracle on 34th Street" heralded the rise of practical effects and reality television. What am I on about? The entirety of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade footage didn't involve extras … because it was shot in real time. That's right, the actors all had to nail their lines and scoot to the next location, as there was no way a Thanksgiving parade was going to get a re-shoot.
Lastly, did you know "Miracle on 34th Street" stood for social progress as well? Maureen O'Hara's character (Doris Walker) played a divorcee, a choice that alienated certain religious leaders of the time. But that's "Miracle on 34th Street:" for you, innovatin' while still captivatin'.
Brad, Team "Wonderful": Oh, you wanna talk story? You wanna talk competing with the Coens, PTA and Scorsese? How about Frank Capra selling the darkest drama as the happiest holiday movie ever!
"It's a Wonderful Life" is depraved, Capra snowed everyone. We're talking about a movie where a guy has been ground so far into the ground he is one second away from killing himself, leaving his loving family to fend for themselves. On top of that, while angels may get their wings whenever a bell rings, by the time this film ends, the bell tolls for thee, George Bailey. Yeah, the townspeople may have thrown you some change, but I'm pretty sure the authorities are still going to be out to get you. You want real? That's real!
Oh, and I think the snow is real pretty.
Laremy, Team "Miracle": Hmmm, you've given me food for thought with your "dark" angle. I'm forced to admit that I love me some "It's a Wonderful Life." But were you aware that Edmund Gwenn's portrayal of Kris Kringle remains the only time Santa won with The Academy? And are you cognizant this salient fact drives Tim Allen absolutely batty? If my movie in any way gives Tim Allen a reason to ponder his career, I call that a small moral victory. My guy Santa also hits a psychologist in the head with a cane. Does "It's a Wonderful Life" have any cane violence? Even you're man enough to admit that people getting hit in the head with a cane is good cinema.
My film is also the only Christmas film that I can think of that was released in May. That's pretty counter-culture, now isn't it? "Miracle on 34th Street" also out-duels "It's a Wonderful Life" with the critics, 94 percent to 93 percent on RottenTomatoes. Yeah, it's only one percent (and don't you go reviewing "It's a Wonderful Life" to even the score), but it's still scoreboard material. Lastly, I know you're going to throw "Gentleman's Agreement" at me because it beat "Miracle on 34th Street" for Best Picture, but why don't we make a gentleman's agreement that I'm crushing you right now?
See what I did there?
Brad, Team "Wonderful": Words are mightier than the sword (or cane in this case), my friend, and when those words are coming out of the mouth of Lionel Barrymore as Henry F. Potter, you take note as Henry Potter is one of the best, most often overlooked villains in cinema's history. That said, don't think I'd ever discount cane-on-head violence, there's no better sort. However, when it comes to movies, can "Miracle on 34th Street" lay claim to inspiring one of the very best horror-comedy Christmas films ever?
You didn't think Kingston Falls in "Gremlins" was named for Kofi Kingston, the Ghanaian professional wrestler, did you? No, it was named after Bedford Falls, and it's why "It's a Wonderful Life" is playing all throughout the movie. Homage city, population "It's a Wonderful Life."
And by the way, I think we can all agree there is something special about "It's a Wonderful Life," and in fact, it was the first film James Stewart starred in after returning home from serving in World War II. Come to think of it, the fact it lost Best Picture to "The Best Years of Our Lives," a film about servicemen attempting to return back to their pre-war lives, is almost too ironic for words. What could possibly be better than the real thing?
Laremy, Team "Miracle": We're about to turn this one over to the Internet jury, and you've played well so far. But even you can't make up for the stunning ineptitude of "It's a Wonderful Life"'s tagline which is: "They're going steady … straight to your heart!" That's awful, and if I even mumbled anything resembling that little chestnut to you, you'd immediately shun me. And that would be totally fair, no one could blame you. "It's a Wonderful Life" is also massively narcissistic, showing George as the fulcrum of everything. Without George, Harry, Uncle Billy, Mr. Gower and Violet are all doomed. That's a lot of ego for a Christmas movie.
Which leaves us with the perfect Christmas film, "Miracle on 34th Street." The holiday season is all about aspiration, not bitterness and angels having to bail you out, and "Miracle on 34th Street" crushes the hopeful yet sentimental vibe. Sure, Kris Kringle has to go through some fires, but he's Santa! His whole gig is a constant struggle! Plus, in the end, he gets Fred and Doris together, saves Christmas and gives Susan the house of her dreams. That's the spirit of Christmas, an ultimate expression of generosity, giving "Miracle on 34th Street" the clear victory over "It's a Wonderful Life."
I'll give you the last word. It's been a pleasure, and I look forward to podcasting with you in the very near future.
Brad, Team "Wonderful": You've played well. You've tried your hardest, and in your defense, you were fighting as an underdog. Unfortunately, while all you say is quite true about "Miracle on 34th Street," a truly wonderful Christmas film, no film makes up for what I believe to be the very best Christmas film ever ... "It's a Wonderful Life."
Just looking over the list of top ten Christmas movies I made two years ago, I didn't even name check "Miracle," not because it isn't good, but because it's so pedestrian. After all, what kind of uplifting Christmas film puts Santa in jail?
You say Santa gives Susan the house of her dreams, well, George promises Mary the moon. THE MOON! Not only does he hold together the entire town of Bedford Falls, but he promises to give Mary the fifth largest satellite in the solar system. My guess is she would also, by right of property ownership, own the Transformers buried on the dark side of it, but that's for the lawyers to figure out.
As for who won this battle, wel, that's up to the people. You were a worthy opponent, but no film and no one beats a classic.