I’ve never believed in Santa Claus, but I’ve always wanted to. That’s never been more the case than now when so much seems so grim. That’s why I chose Edmund Gwenn as my character actor of choice for this year’s What a Character! Blogathon. As you know Gwenn plays Santa Claus – the real one – in George Seaton‘s 1947 classic, Miracle on 34th Street. That portrayal is what Edmund Gwenn is best remembered for and it earned him his only Academy Award. Perhaps even more important to me is the fact that Gwenn’s Santa Claus never fails to bring me to the brink of believing. And I am grateful after each and every viewing of Miracle on 34th Street.
“Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind… and that’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do something about it.”
Edmund Gwenn was 71 years old when he became Kris Kringle. Although Miracle on 34th Street brought Gwenn a level of fame he’d not achieved to that point, a level of fame few other character actors ever achieved, he’d been acting since the age of 18 with successes on stage in movies on both sides of the pond.
Edmund Gwenn was born Edmund Kellaway on September 26, 1877 in London. Gwenn, who changed his last name early in his stage career, pursued acting against his father’s wishes, which caused a rift in the family. Somewhat ironically, Gwenn’s younger brother, Arthur Chesney (born Arthur William Chesney Kellaway), followed in his footsteps.
Gwenn made his stage debut in 1895 and got his big break in 1902 in London when George Bernard Shaw chose him for the play, Man and Superman. After that Gwenn never stopped working, with the exception of the time he served in the British Army during World War I. After the war he returned to the stage and, in 1921, made his first US appearance on stage in productions of A Voice from the Minaret and Fedora. However, aside from the few early U.S. productions Gwenn remained in Britain appearing in role after role on stage and in film. He remained a working actor for his entire career appearing in stage plays when not acting in movies. This remained true even throughout his career in Hollywood. Among Gwenn’s best reviewed Broadway performances were The Wookey, which opened on September 10, 1941 and ran for 134 performances and Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. The latter was his biggest hit. The Three Sisters was produced by Katharine Cornell who also co-starred along with two other character actors of repute you may recognize, Judith Anderson and Ruth Gordon. That play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 21, 1942 and ran for 123 performances. Time magazine proclaimed it “a dream production by anybody’s reckoning – the most glittering cast the theatre has seen, commercially, in this generation.”
Edmund Gwenn’s movie career began in 1916 with an appearance in The Real Thing at Last, a terrific short based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth that satirizes the film industry. I got to see a (poor) copy of this a few years ago at a friend’s house and enjoyed it immensely. Gwenn’s first feature film was B.E. Doxat-Pratt‘s The Skin Game in 1921. Ten years later Gwenn reprised the role in Alfred Hitchcock‘s remake of the film, which was the actor’s second talking picture following Cecil Lewis’ short, How He Lied to Her Husband (1931). Both of those were produced by British International Pictures Ltd.
Gwenn’s movie career flourished throughout the next three decades. He’d become one of the most reliable character actors who could be called upon to add a bit of humor to films spanning several genres. Edmund Gwenn was summoned to Hollywood in 1935 by RKO Radio Pictures to play Katharine Hepburn’s father in George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and he never looked back. Hollywood would depend on him for the rest of his life.
The rest of the 1930s offered Gwenn plenty to do in movies directed by such luminaries as Michael Curtiz, Carol Reed and Mervyn LeRoy. But it was 1940 that proved to be a banner year for the career of the British character actor who made three standout movies that year. The first is Alexander Halls’ The Doctor Takes a Wife starring Loretta Young, Ray Milland and Reginald Gardiner. Another was the brilliantly cast Pride and Prejudice directed by Robert Z. Leonard. And finally Foreign Correspondent, the third movie Gwenn made with Alfred Hitchcock. The death scene of Gwenn’s character in Foreign Correspondence is among the director’s most memorable and proved the amiable Gwenn could play a villain convincingly.
Edmund Gwenn also collaborated with Hitchcock in the aforementioned The Skin Game, Waltzes from Vienna in 1934 and as a light-headed sea captain in the darkly humorous The Trouble with Harry in 1955. I should also mention that Gwenn’s connection to Alfred Hitchcock spanned across mediums as he appeared in several radio versions of Hitchcock movies and his last acting role was in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents titled, “Father and Son” in 1957. There’s also a connection by association since Gwenn’s brother, Arthur Chesney, starred in Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927).
There are several other movies Edmund Gwenn made in the 1940s that are worthy of a mention. For me these include Tay Garnett’s Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941), Fred M. Wilcox’s Lassie Come Home (1943), John M. Stahl’s The Keys to the Kingdom (1944), Edmund Goulding’s Of Human Bondage (1946), Michael Curtiz’s Life With Father (1947), and Louis King’s Thunder in the Valley (1947) in which Gwenn plays what may be his most unlikable character, by the way. And then of course there’s his pièce de résistance, his greatest movie legacy, Miracle on 34th Street, in which he co-stars with Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and an eight-year-old Natalie Wood.
I assume most people have seen Miracle on 34th Street so there’s no need to offer details. I will say it’s still as enchanting and delightful a movie as it was more than 60 years ago when it was released. Of Gwenn’s portrayal of Kris Kringle aka the real Santa Clause I’ll make note of Bosley Crowther’s commentary. The New York Times reviewer noted, “Gwenn plays Kris Kringle with such natural and warm benevolence that, if ever the real Santa wants to step down, Mr. Gwenn is the man for the job.” Crowther went on to use such adjectives as “candor,” “charm,” “warmth” and “genuine generosity,” all of which exemplify both the character and the actor.
Maureen O’Hara: “…by the time we were halfway through the shoot, we all believed Edmund really was Santa Claus. I’ve never seen an actor more naturally suited for a role.”
It’s hard to imagine today, but 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t want to make Miracle on 34th Street. Zanuck thought the story was of little import and that audiences wouldn’t show up to see it. George Seaton wanted to make the picture though and agreed to accept another three assignments from Zukor if the chief agreed to green light the movie. Thank goodness for all of us all parties got on board and audiences proved Zukor wrong. Miracle on 34th Street grossed over four times its budget in its initial release.
Edmund Gwenn became the all-time favorite screen Santa Claus for many people, not just me. It’s unfathomable that anybody else could play this role. I’ve never seen the 1994 remake in which the great Richard Attenborough plays Kris Kringle because it seems like blasphemy to me. Incidentally, Edmund Gwenn was the second choice for the role of Kris Kringle in 1947. The first choice was Gwenn’s cousin, another great character actor, Cecil Kellaway, who turned down the part.
Miracle on 34th Street received four Academy Award nominations – Best Picture (one of only three Christmas movies to be so honored along with It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife), Best Writing Screenplay, Best Writing Original Story and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Edmund Gwenn, who took home the movie’s only statuette. When Gwenn stepped onto the stage at the Shrine Civic Auditorium to accept his Oscar from presenter, Anne Baxter he began his speech with, “Whew! Now I know there’s a Santa Claus.”
Before I move on – you may like to take a few minutes to watch a video my co-hosts Rob and Annmarie and I did over at Classic Movies and More wherein we visit a few of the NYC sites where Miracle on 34th Street was shot. Also, I strongly recommend you listen to the following Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Miracle On 34th Street, in which Maureen Ohara, John Payne, and Edmund Gwenn reprise their roles. From December 20, 1948.
Edmund Gwenn’s career didn’t slow down in the 1950s. He kicked off the decade in delightful fashion playing alongside two other character actor favorites, Charles Coburn and Spring Byington in Alexander Hall’s Louisa (1950). He followed that gem with his second Academy Award nominated performance for his portrayal of William ‘Skipper’ Miller in Edmund Goulding’s Mister 880 (1950) starring Burt Lancaster and Dorothy McGuire. Of Gwenn’s performance in Mister 880 Bosley Crowther wrote, “Most valuable in this presentation is the talented Edmund Gwenn, who plays the kindly counterfeiter with charming ingenuousness.”
I’ve never seen Goulding’s Mister 880, but I’ve listened to the following Lux Radio Theatre production of it in which Mr. Gwenn reprises his film role.
Edmund Gwenn made far too many movies to mention here so I’m just spotlighting some of my favorites. For the 1950s I’d choose Gwenn’s stint as an adoption agent in Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist (1953). Another favorite is his Dr. Harold Medford, the myrmecologist who tries to save the world from giant ants in Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954). Finally, there’s his captain in The Trouble With Harry in 1955, which for me makes the movie. The Trouble With Harry is probably my least favorite Hitchcock outing, but Gwenn manages the performance in the movie adding the perfect touch of humor to what is a series of extremely awkward circumstances.
Edmund Gwenn also starred in numerous TV anthology series throughout the 1950s ending his acting career with the appearance in Alfred Hitchcock Presents. My curiosity was piqued a few years ago when I read details of one of his early TV appearances, an episode of The Ford Television Theatre titled, Heart of Gold from 1952. In that episode Gwenn plays a snowman that comes to life, which sounds perfect for this time of year. Heart of Gold also stars TV’s Superman, George Reeves and it is on my “must watch” list.
Edmund Gwenn was married once to Minnie Terry, niece of the famous British stage actress, Ellen Terry. The marriage was brief and the two never had children, which means Gwenn left his most important legacy to us in the form of over 80 movies. The versatile Gwenn remained a British subject his entire life. He died of pneumonia after suffering a stroke on September 6, 1959 in Los Angeles.
Everything I’ve read about Edmund Gwenn mentions the fact that he was beloved and admired by everyone who ever worked with him. He was, by all accounts, the amiable sort who took his work seriously, but always took time to offer a smile and support. It seems that all people ever felt toward him was affection and admiration – exactly what one would imagine people would feel toward the real Santa Claus.
As I mentioned above, this is my contribution to the What a Character! Blogathon. Paula is hosting Day 3 of the blogathon at Paula’s Cinema Club so be sure to visit. And if you missed the previous days, you can access them in the following links:
What a Character! – Day 1 – Hosted by Kellee
What a Character – Day 2 – hosted by Aurora