Welcome to the tail end of the 2015 holiday season! Maybe you’re already sick of it because it’s been going on since mid-September, but for some of us, these last few weeks of concentrated and unavoidable Christmas mark a special time of year. But this year there’s one spot open at the table. Maureen O’Hara, who passed away in October, was the shining star of the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street making this the first Christmas season without the woman who played Doris Walker.
Fortunately, O’Hara left an truly enduring legacy with her performance as Doris and provided generations of moviegoers with a fantastic and rare feminist role model. Here are a few reasons why:
Doris Walker was a boss
Not of the entire Macy’s operation, but she was a woman in a pretty important position. As the event director, she was part of some of Macy’s most high-profile goings-on, including the famous Thanksgiving Day Parade. We meet her when the parade is in progress and she’s forced to make an executive decision: replace her drunken hired Santa Claus with someone who is… well, sober and available. But hey! She actually stumbles into Kris Kringle himself (Edmund Gwenn). That’s beside the point (even though it’s the premise of the whole movie), but the fact is we’re watching an educated woman (who speaks more than one language) with a serious corporate career in a 1947 movie. That’s pretty unusual. Yes, parts of the movie are a little old-fashioned, as we should expect; we womenfolk don’t expect men to stand when we enter a room anymore. But Doris Walker placed just as much value on her career as she did on her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood). Which brings me to my next point…
Doris Walker was a single mother
At least she was in the beginning, and she had no problem staying that way. As Susan states, her parents divorced when she was a baby and her mother never remarried. It clearly didn’t end well, as Doris expresses while explaining her reasons why she raised Susan to be rational and whimsy-free; she didn’t want her getting her hopes up over a Prince Charming who turns out to be a huge disappointment. Fred Gailey (John Payne), her handsome neighbor who happens to be a lawyer (which comes in handy during the whole Santa thing), is clearly trying to woo her by way of her young daughter, but is she having any of it in the beginning? Not really. She’s friendly and cordial, but she sure as hell doesn’t need him around. He’s just sort of… inserting himself. Sure, he helps her realize that believing in something a little out of the ordinary might not be so bad, but as it turns out…
Doris Walker does not have her mind changed by a man
Well, not directly. Yes, Kris Kringle is a man, but in the context of the story, Kris is more a symbol of discovering one’s own faith instead of serving as a fatherly or superior male character. At first, she just feels bad for an elderly gentleman who seems nothing but sweet and harmless and ends up mistreated and doubted. But through watching her daughter — to say nothing of a straight-up court hearing that proved the government recognition of the existence of Santa Claus — Doris digs up that last little seed of whimsy inside of her that she thought had died. Fred certainly didn’t change her mind. In fact, the relationship they started was a bonus, an afterthought. This was about Doris.
As much as we’re watching the jaded citizens of New York City learn how to believe in Santa Claus during Miracle on 34th Street, we’re watching a story about a woman finding a way to think and love more freely. But when we meet her, she isn’t miserable, she isn’t in trouble, and she’s definitely not the damsel in distress. Doris is doing just great, but there’s just one little knot that needs to be untied before she can be truly happy. Kris Kringle and the spirit of Christmas undo it.
Could another actress have played Doris Walker besides the Queen of Technicolor? Sure. But they might not have had the same power and presence as this tall, brassy dame. Maureen O’Hara brought serious confidence and grace to an atypical character in the Golden Age of Hollywood, one whose impression and influence will last long after her passing.