While many dust off their DVD of the classic 1947 Christmas film, “Miracle on 34th Street ” at this time of year, how many have actually taken the time to notice that Doris Walker, the divorced single mom played by Maureen O’Hara, was, in fact, a working mom who was well ahead of her time?
True, it’s hard to overlook the cherubic performance of a young Natalie Wood as Doris’ second grade daughter Susan, complete with her enthusiastic bubble gum chewing and heart-breaking request for Santa to get her and her mother a house in the ‘burbs with a swing hanging from a tree in the backyard.
And you just cannot get through a viewing of “Miracle” without wishing you could have Edmund Gwenn's Kris
Kringle over to your house for dinner, or at least over to share a plate of cookies and a cup of tea.
But what struck me recently after watching the 60-year-old movie, was how distinctly modern and trailblazing Doris Walker was. Consider these facts:
Doris Walker ran the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in
New York City, the marquee event for the store which kicked off THE crucial retailing month of the year. In the beginning of the movie, she was walking around with her clipboard – dressed in sophisticated duds, including a dress and heels, in New York, in November (Can you say, “Brrrr?”) – directing people to their proper location and giving the ax to a drunken Santa.
She had her own office and her own assistant.
Walker was the only woman in a high-level meeting with the big guy, Mr. Macy, and when she entered the room, all her male colleagues rose to their feet . . . something that never happens today.
She was clearly educated – she made reference to her fluency in French – and seemed unfazed by her status as a rare working mom who had to work on Thanksgiving or late on some evenings.
She had a nanny/housekeeper, Cleo (Theresa Harris) who looked after Susan and took care of all things domestic in the Walker home. In order to worm his way into Doris’ heart, Fred Gailey (John Payne), the Walkers’ bachelor neighbor, took Cleo and Susan to the zoo and visited with them frequently while Doris was busy at work. And when Cleo was unable to take care of Susan one day after school because of her own domestic crisis, Fred pinch-hit for Cleo and brought Susan to Macy’s where her mother worked. (Even in 1947, just like today, child care arrangements occasionally fell apart.)
While the circumstances surrounding Doris’ divorce from her husband, Susan’s father, were left vague – Susan told Kris
Kringle that she never met her dad because he and her mother divorced when Susan was a baby – it was also unclear as to whether Doris was a professional woman before Susan was born, or became one out of necessity after the divorce. Either way,Doris successfully scaled the career ladder in a day and age when female executives – particularly female executives with young children -- were distinctly uncommon.
As compared to other popular Christmas films – two of my favorites, “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” leap to mind – this is one of the few to feature a working mother who was brimming with self-assurance. (However I must admit that the mom who “mistakenly” smashed the odious leg lamp in “A Christmas Story” in a rogue plant watering incident seemed slyly confident when she was forced to subvert her husband’s lunacy.)
Although Doris Walker’s rigid pragmatism was corrected by the end of “Miracle,” when she began to develop faith in things even “when common sense told her not to” (like regaining faith in romantic love after a divorce), her character was a distinctly strong working mom role model when there were precious few on the silver screen.