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: