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Young Natalie: Thoughts on one of the great child performances of all time

Hi all, it’s Tim. With Natalie Wood Week upon us, there will be much talk of the actress’s run of films as a beautifully virginal ingénue, or her transition into roles as troubled adults and young women. But I want to pause on the threshold of all those Splendor in the Grasses and West Side Stories to pay tribute to the an earlier era in the Life of Natalie, when she became one of the best-loved child actors of the 1940s (and a good time it was for child actors, too).

The film that put her on the map was Miracle on 34th Street, of course, released when the actress was a mere eight years old in 1947. It wasn’t her first credited role (that would be the Claudette Colbert/Orson Welles vehicle Tomorrow Is Forever, from 1946), nor even the first movie to showcase her to good effect; earlier that same year, she’d been a solid presence in the supernatural melodrama The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, though that film ultimately didn’t ask very much of her besides being cherubic and innocent (this would remain true of a frustrating number of her vehicles throughout her later career). Simple, even if the simple ability to be a dazzlingly cute kid without it spilling over into tackiness was already enough to mark Wood out as more than just one more saccharine little girl ready to fill the void left by Shirley Temple’s ascendance into her late teens.

Miracle on 34th Street was something entirely different. This wasn’t just an able embodiment of the stock role of a tot being charmingly comic in the background while the adults were doing their thing (what Margaret O’Brien excelled at). The film put Wood front and center: it’s a movie about Santa Claus, after all, and even if the nominal A-plot involves Maureen O’Hara and John Payne falling in love while acting out the battle between reason and faith, that’s not the reason why anybody remembers the movie as fondly as they do. It’s a classic because of the guileless way it tells a story about why it’s smart and preferable to believe in a magical old man who gives away presents, and while both of the adult leads reinforce that theme, they are, after all, grown-ups. Christmas and Santa are really about childhood, which is why it falls to Wood’s Susan Walker to really live the idea that Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle is the real Santa. It’s no accident that one of the film’s most iconic moments is the scene where Susan tugs on Kringle’s beard, registering just a brief moment of awe-inspired shock that, yes, it really is part of his face.

It’s that moment, after all, that triggers Susan’s own arc, which prefigures her mother’s: raised to belief that fairy tales are just a bunch of nonsense and rubbish, the little girl is introduced to us as a bit of a prig, haughtily asserting that she’s too good for things like visiting the Macy’s Santa Claus, which is what makes that dazed look Wood adopts all the more important: it is the beginning of doubt, and the realization that there are more things in heaven and earth, and so on. By any means, the balance between cold reason and giddy belief is impressive here; and Wood was only eight years old when she struck that balance. Wood exploits (or anyway, director George Seaton exploits) the natural inclination of a ‘40s audience to think of children as precious and innocent, so that the character’s initial skepticism is even more jarring, making her evolution out of it far more meaningful than the story of a flustered adult being reminded of joy and delight, like so many other flustered adults.

Especially because the movie manages to stretch it out for so long. There’s no surer proof of Wood’s native talent as a child that the 96-minute film takes until its very last scene to resolve itself. Throughout the movie, Susan is torn between what she currently believes (that Santa cannot possibly exist) and what she plainly wants to believe (that this “nice old man with a beard” is telling the truth), and it’s that desire to have belief in the absence of actually believing that animates all of Wood’s best moments, and makes her late disappointment, couched in a reversion to the calm rationality that clearly isn’t sufficient for her, so disappointing. It helps immeasurably that Wood and Gwenn have flawless onscreen chemistry, making it clear just how much the little girl genuinely likes the old man, sucked into his charms just as readily as any of the adults who fall under his spell.

Wood is only the fifth-billed member of the cast, and she doesn’t even get her name in a larger typeface, but the movie knows that she’s the most important and interesting figure onscreen. It’s why the final scene is given over to her entirely, until the final beat: the A-plot having resolved in victory for the good guys, there shouldn’t even necessarily be a final scene like this one, except that the film has kept Susan’s doubts alive right up until the final moment, with Wood getting to play the most complex emotions she has in the entire film: sullenness at having finally figured out that, after all that, Santa really isn’t real; a noble attempt to keep it locked inside so as to avoid making the grown-ups sad on her behalf; and finally the explosion of outright ecstasy when she stumbles into the proof she’s spent the whole film waiting for. It’s a marvelously quick evolution of feelings that sends the movie out on a spirited high note, and clarifies what’s been secretly obvious all along: that Susan is the main character and Wood is the star.

You couldn’t ask for a better career-launching turn than the one Wood enjoys here, and as much good (and, sometimes, frustration) as there is elsewhere in her career as she grew up and became mature, I’d still rank this performance among her all-time best, and all the more impressive because she was doing it so naturally. That’s the very essence of movie stardom, and like her near contemporary Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood was head to toe a great movie star from the most tender age.

P.S. Because I can never talk about Miracle on 34th Street without sharing my all all-time favorite weird movie trailer:

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Reader Comments (13)

Terrific article and it is a signature role for her. Even that young and that early in her career she really registers and stands out from the crowd of kid actors with mixture of childhood wonder and maturity that stayed with her for most of her career.

You mention Margaret O'Brien and she's a great example to use to compare why most child actors can't make that difficult transition to adult roles. O'Brien was a very skillful, if weepy, child actress but everything about her was child like, the same held true for Shirley Temple and Peggy Ann Garner who appeared in that trippy trailer. Their putting on adult airs was disarming because of their overall childish demeanor, when they started to mature their specialness diminished and they became just one of the crowd. It was somewhat less with Shirley Temple but except for the Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, which used her immaturity to good effect, her adult films and her performances in them are on the precious side. She was wise to pursue other interests it keep her legacy in tact rather than sullied by a slow slide out of the spotlight.

Natalie, and the other actresses that made the leap, always interact with the casts of their films with a presence and ability to hold their own in a scene that other kids didn't possess. Watch her in something as inconsequential as Father Was A Fullback which reteamed her with Maureen O'Hara and she is playing a nothing part (a utility part as she called them) and she still manages to pull your attention when she's in a scene doing very little and competing with scene stealers like Thelma Ritter and Jim Backus.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Lord love this blog for features like this. Natalie Wood has always been one of my favorites.

This performance is such a nice foil to the current Chloe Moretz child star trend of arrogance and preternatural maturity. Where the Chloes of the world smirk and wink, Natalie Wood never tries to play her character as anything but the child she is. Even when Susan overestimates herself, Natalie is always perfectly judged.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

joel6 -- and that's just it. and why Jodie Foster also made the transition. They were born stars as opposed to child stars. maybe it's as simple as the cliche of an 'old soul' in a young child... and i think that's why i hoped that Haley Joel Osment would turn into something special as an adult. But very few child stars can do it.

tim -- thanks for this great post. love Natalie in this movie and agree that it's one of her best performances.

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Can we make it Natalie Wood year instead?

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRM

Thanks for a great piece on one of my favorite subjects - the (insufficiently celebrated) greatness of this particular performance. Your beautiful assessment has done it justice.

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKen

Love this movie (my go-to Christmas movie) and love Natalie's performance in it! You're right, it is so much more than the typical child star performance, and she really does carry the picture.

Oddly enough, Mara Wilson's performance in the 90s remake is just as good, or very nearly (even if the film itself isn't any great shakes). She (or her director) indulges in the cutesy-kid thing a bit more, but still has quite a bit of depth.

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

There's a great story about Natalie being at an intimate dinner party at Bette Davis' house. Bette was supposedly a bit "tight" and she told Natalie they should do a movie together. Natalie politely informed her that she had played her daughter in a movie (The Star, which Bette got a '52 BA nom for). Gotta love Bette.

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Wait, did Peggy Ann Garner say the movie was "groovy?" In 1946?!

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Despite your snide comments, that is the REAL Santa Claus in this movie, under the nom de plume of Edmund Gwenn. They even gave him an Oscar!

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Dave- YES! And that is merely one of the many reasons it's one of my favorite pieces of cinematic flotsam of all time.

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

That's amazing. I would bet money it's the earliest usage of that term ever used. I wonder where she picked it up. Fascinating. Thanks Natalie & Peggy Ann!

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Tim, out of curiosity, did you ever see the 1990's remake, the one with Richard Attenborough and Mara Wilson. I actually saw that one first when I was a child and this one when I was in college, and at the time I remember sort of liking it, but something about it seeming off. Though I was a big fan of Matilda at the time, so Mara Wilson was a big reason why I saw that film and largely enjoyed it. When I saw the 1947 version with Natalie Wood, I realized what was off about the remake. It takes the subject way too seriously, while the original version had more of a sense of humor about the whole thing (ironically, the remake was written by John Hughes). I remember the adults' stuff was boring and a lot of it just felt too ridiculous, but I really liked Wilson's performance as Susan. Hers is sweeter in a way, more a girl who doesn't understand why she doesn't believe and is looking for a reason to either believe or not and her chemistry with Richard Attenborough (who has always been a great presence in whatever film he's in) is very sweet. Of course, I love Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn in the original version (I particularly love Wood's delivery of "I believe, I believe, it's silly but I believe...")....

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

I haven't seen it, actually, given my baked-in antagonism to remakes, especially remakes from the '90s. But you've at least given me a reason to keep it in mind when this year's holiday viewing starts to ramp up!

July 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

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