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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

THE REEL REALS: Edmund Gwenn

Edmund Gwenn aka Kris Kringle
Edmund Gwenn performed a miracle, not just on 34th Street, but in Hollywood: he won an Oscar for playing Santa Claus. How is that even possible? He is now so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness-- as familiar as Dr. Suess or the Statue of Liberty-- that few take stock of the great artistic feat fleshing out such a fantastical, fictitious character was. He took one of the most beloved mythological personalities of all time-- a cartoon of our hopeful delusions-- and made him real. He gave Kris Kringle a personality and a warmth that was genuine and full of heart when a lesser performance would have registered as cheesy, or worse, creepy. Today, we make holiday spirit spoof films like "Bad Santa" or "Elf." This isn't because we have necessarily lost our sentiment-- mankind has always been cynical. This transition is simply due to the fact that we need no more translations of Father Christmas and all that such a nostalgic spirit represents to our deeply hidden, childlike hearts in overgrown bodies. Ed marked that territory already. Game over. In one film, Ed saved Christmas for all time. 

Of course, while he is forever attached to this one characterization, Ed has many more accomplishments on his performance platter. He portrayed the similarly light-hearted and amiable priest who tries to convince William Powell's hilariously resistant, atheistic patriarch to be baptized in Life with Father. He was a Hitchcockian linchpin in both the macabre comedy The Trouble with Harry and the political thriller Foreign Correspondent, the latter of which makes you stop and go, 'Hey, wait... Santa? Wh-what are you doing, Santa?!?!" He contributed to Pride and Prejudice with Larry Olivier and Greer Garson, A Yank at Oxford with Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, and Of Human Bondage opposite Eleanor Parker (RIP) and Paul Henreid. And yes, he appeared in the iconic "Them!" In general, Ed took on the role of the moral father figure: the sturdy, aged man with the wisdom of life experience and a trustworthy face. His touches of comedy, grounded realism, and surprising character choices made him an eternal audience favorite. He would not be the star but once (when he went to the North Pole), but this was mostly due to the fact that he was in his fifties when he really started to make his mark in Hollywood. His fortune was better, in the end, for he was even more beloved than the model-T(insel town) stars of the era.

Ed was born with an adventurers spirit that he was finally able to hurl into his creative penchants, as well as athletic. Frustrated at his landlocked life (he had wanted to enlist in the Navy), the eternal, cuddly grandpa was quite the rebel in his younger days. His father opposed his career choice and predicted failure, but Edmund, his determination, and his talent, would prove his pappy wrong. It was a fortunate partnership with George Bernard Shaw that really opened doors for him as an actor, and after becoming a war hero, despite his poor eyesight, Captain Gwenn returned to the theater with full force, later doing some sparse silent pictures that eventually earned him a permanent place in Hollywood. Hitting his stride by the '30s, he enjoyed nearly thirty uninterrupted years on the silver screen before passing away at the age of 81. Had he not been struck down by a stroke and a following bout of pneumonia, he most certainly would have kept cracking the whip of creativity. Naturally, he will live forever as one of the most famous people in the history of cinema. More people know him than Gable. He's Santa Claus! 

God rest ye', merry gentleman. Thanks for the cinematic presents!

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