Miracle on Main Street (1939)

While it's admittedly 1939's second-best Christmas movie about a woman down on her luck finding an abandoned baby that winds up changing her life for the better, Miracle on Main Street is still a solid, albeit weird, little film with notably progressive undertones. Moreover, those undertones are different than the likewise progressive ideas expressed in Bachelor Mother, the other film with that premise released the same year. But then there's actually a great deal separating them, starting with genre. Miracle on Main Street is a drama, a fact that does hinder its longevity - I'm finding comedies I'm seeing from the 1930s generally hold up, while dramas tend to feel dated.

This stars an actress simply billed as "Margo," (her birth name was María Marguerita Guadalupe Teresa Estela Bolado Castilla y O'Donnell, so I can understand wanting to simplify it for film) who's pretty interesting herself. Born in Mexico, she moved to the US and worked began a promising career in film until she was blacklisted when her progressive activism got her branded a communist. So, yeah, she was awesome as hell and deserves respect.

She also starred in this movie twice in 1939, because apparently two different versions were produced and released simultaneously: the English language version I watched and a second Spanish language version, featuring a different supporting cast called, "El milagro de la calle mayor." I've so far been unable to track down any footage of the Spanish version or any details beyond vague discussion. Based on the fact two of the three directors credited on that version directed the English release, I'm assuming it used the same sets and more or less the same script, though I can't confirm either. As always, anyone with more context is encouraged to chime in the comments or send us an email.

Regardless, this version opens somewhat awkwardly with a title card reminding the audience that the birth of Christ is celebrated in various ways in various places, cutting to a brief montage of Christmas celebrations, which culminate with a Christmas Eve procession. Some text clues us into the fact this is occurring in the "Old Spanish Quarter" of Los Angeles (though I'm pretty sure it's actually on a soundstage. This winds up being a bit of an aside, since it's a sleazy dance hall the procession passes by that's immediately important (though, for what it's worth, a couple watching the parade winds up becoming significant later on).

Maria (played by Margo) is a dancer in the aforementioned club, which purports to showcase exotic Egyptian dances, despite none of the performers being Egyptian. That's an in-world detail, incidentally - the whole thing is supposed to be fake. The establishment is run by Dick, who's married to the aforementioned Maria. 

After the show, Dick brings a customer backstage to meet Maria as part of a con to rob him, but the supposed stooge reveals he's an undercover cop. Dick knocks him down, and he and Maria run off in different directions. Maria, realizing the police are near, ducks into a church to buy some time. She prays in front of a statue of Mary for help eluding the police, looks down, and sees an infant child abandoned in front of a manger scene. She carries the baby out as if it's her own, and the police assume she's not who they're looking for.

She sees Dick when she returns to their apartment and tells him what happened. He assumes she'll return the baby to the church where she found it, though he doesn't stick around long enough to find out. The landlady bursts in to warn them the police are near, and Dick tells Maria to run, with the understanding they'll take out personal ads in the paper to reconnect. Maria's too tired to run, so - with the help of the aforementioned landlady and a drunken but well-meaning doctor, feigns an illness. Once again, the presence of the infant sells the illusion the cops are in the wrong place, and they leave her alone.

Originally Maria plans to take the child back to the church, but when she arrives she can't bear to leave him. Instead, she resolves to raise it by herself. She gets a little help from the landlady and doctor and takes a job sewing in her apartment, which eventually grows into a position as a designer. She also meets Jim, a wealthy man who was one-half of the aforementioned couple I mentioned earlier. At the start of the movie, he was getting engaged to a woman, despite having some disagreement over what constituted the ideal place to live. By the time we catch up with him halfway through the year, those disagreements have escalated into a divorce, in which... [checks notes] no one's really at fault.

Holy shit, a movie from 1939 in which a divorce is portrayed as an acceptable, albeit difficult, resolution to a relationship - this really is a miracle!

Sorry. Where was I? Oh yes, Jim and Maria fall for each other pretty fast, though the fact she's still technically married means they just remain friends. Jim believes the child is Maria's (in the usual biological sense), and he doesn't know about her past as an exotic dancer and accessory to various crimes. She's of course scared to tell him the truth, and things get even more complicated when he suggests she get a divorce and marry him. Before she can tell him the truth, Dick shows up looking for her.

Dick attempts to pressure her into getting some money from Jim in exchange for a divorce and keeping his mouth shut, and for a while, it looks like she's willing to go along with the plan. Then, when she realizes Dick will almost certainly continue to try to squeeze more money out of the situation, she reveals everything to Jim in a way that makes her seem like a cliche femme fatale. She doesn't just tell him that she found the child - she lies and says she was only using it as part of a long con. She does all this in front of Dick, who now knows he can't get any more money out of her and leaves. But of course in the process, it appears she's lost any chance with Jim.

Dick anonymously calls in a tip to the child welfare office, which sends someone to investigate. Meanwhile, he tries to hold up a store for some money and in the process is shot dead by the cop he punched at the beginning. With some help from the doctor and landlady, Maria convinces the welfare official she's the baby's biological mother. Jim shows up, as well (he's dragged back by the landlady, who corrects enough of his misconceptions about Maria to realize she's not the criminal she pretended to be). And, since Dick's dead, he and Maria are free to marry, rendering the welfare official's remaining concerns about her ability to support the child moot.

The movie cuts to the following Christmas, as the new family gets ready to celebrate. At the very end, we see Maria praying in front of the statue of Mary again, in case you missed the dozen or so hints you've (sort of) been watching a modern retelling of the Nativity.

Again, this one's dated, which is probably going to be a deal-breaker for most viewers today. The tone and story can be a bit too sentimental (though it doesn't go as far as you'd fear), and the pacing is somewhat unstructured (they integrate a great deal of music at odd times, even for the era). In addition, this doesn't feature any of the lavish sets or highly memorable shots that define iconic films of the '30s and '40s.

That said, the politics are surprisingly good. In addition to themes you'd expect around not casting judgment and the difficulties of raising a child as a single parent, this also raises questions about the legal system and policing. The cops aren't exactly the bad guys in the movie - in fact, they kill the primary antagonist - but particularly through the first half, they're an obstacle Maria needs to overcome, rather than a positive force. Interestingly, the child welfare officer, despite being yet another obstacle, is presented in a far more favorable light. The movie doesn't outright call for a better social safety net, but it kind of feels like it's written between the lines.

This also deserves credit for having feminist undertones. In addition to its protagonist, the movie's female characters are consistently looking out for each others' well-being. They're all flawed people, but there's still a sort of understanding they need to take care of each other to survive. Again, it's showing rather than explaining its point, but that's what makes it work.

Obviously, the Christmas setting primarily served to play off the Christ parallels, but it's worth noting it's all playing into progressive themes based on the idea the holidays are a time for advancement.

All of which makes for a film I couldn't help but root for. And, for what it's worth, Miracle on Main Street delivers an interesting viewing experience as it weaves between genres. At times, it starts feeling like a comedy or crime story, before inevitably returning to drama. I had fun with this one, but then I'm unusually invested in this stuff. I can't imagine most modern viewers would have an easy time overcoming the artifacts or dated style, and - again - this doesn't really have sets that leave you in awe.

In short, it's a fine movie and an unusual entry in late 1930s cinema, but it's nothing you need to track down.