Filmmaker John Hughes Recalls Christmases Past
`I COULD never hope to write a better Christmas story than `Miracle on 34th Street,' '' explained producer/director John Hughes. ``The original movie by George Seaton and Valentine Davies was brilliant. Its message of putting faith on trial is just as vital today as in 1947.
``I regard myself not as an originator, but as a guardian. That's why I put their names, even though both are deceased, on the 1994 film.''
``It's such a compelling story, the notion of putting Santa Claus on trial. I feel in '94 it has a relevance that I don't think Seaton and Davies could have ever predicted.
``In our litigious society to put faith on trial, and then create an argument that supports it, is something I think people would want to see.''
Hughes, who grew up, lives, and films his movies in the Midwest, feels his middle-American roots make him closer in values to the average filmgoer. His home and studio are in Chicago.
``I identify with the audience because I am the audience,'' he confided. ``I make pictures I want to see, and want to take my kids to see.''
Certainly, his all-time hits, ``Home Alone'' and ``Home Alone II,'' prove his point.
``A big part of growing up for me was going to J.L. Hudson's in Detroit to see Santa Claus. Later, it was taking my kids to Marshall Fields in Chicago to see Santa. I think those department stores played a bigger role in our lives than we realize.
``I can remember when I was a kid going into the department stores and seeing clerks that I'd seen the year before... having the man who ran the toy department ask if I'd liked the firetruck my dad had such fun buying. Those small personal things - you don't notice they are passing: Then, you stop and look back, and there's an accumulation of all those little losses that adds up to a great single loss.
``I think of it at Christmas when you go to those huge discount places, and you can't find a clerk. You stand in long lines, and your package isn't rung up, it's scanned. Where are the people? You have to say Merry Christmas to a computer.
``There's a scene in `Miracle on 34th Street' when a mother whispers to Santa that her husband's on half pay, and the gift her son will ask for is too expensive. She tells him not to promise he'll get it, so he won't be disappointed.
``It's then that Kriss Kringle, played by Richard Attenborough, tells her he knows where she can get the present cheaper. She responds, `How dare you tell me to shop somewhere else!' Kriss replies, `Well, I don't think it really matters to the company, just as long as the child is happy.' This is the antithesis of corporate thinking, so it always gets a big laugh.
``I hope it starts people thinking. If these large companies thought more about the overall well-being of their customers, it would start a tidal wave of goodwill. And that you can't buy!''
Edmund Gwenn, who played Santa in the original movie, won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, so finding the right actor to play the '94 Kriss Kringle was vital.
``I thought Sir Richard Attenborough would be wonderful,'' Hughes admitted. ``I know he's primarily a director - `Gandhi,' `Chaplin,' and `Shadowlands' - but he had turned actor last year in `Jurassic Park,' so I sent the script to him.
``He phoned from his home in England and said he'd like to have lunch and discuss it.... When he arrived, I was surprised that he had a beard. Then, he put on his half-glasses to read the menu, and looked up with those sparkling eyes, and a shiver went through me. He is Santa.''
By the time lunch was over, they were discussing dates and wardrobe fittings.
Hughes's favorite scene in the film was taken from life. When the little deaf girl sits on Santa's knee, the mother tells him, ``You don't have to talk to her, she can't hear; she just wants to look at you.''
Attenborough knew how to sign ``What's your name?'' and the youngster had no idea he could sign. ``The look on her face that's in the movie is what really happened. And the look on Sir Richard's face as he waves goodbye contains this great sadness. The mother had gotten used to accepting less for her child than someone else would have accepted for theirs.''
John Hughes will continue to write from life, and whether you're from the Midwest or not, you won't need an interpreter.