“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, Continued….Chapter 2: The Story Unfolds…

The Introduction is here.

Chapter I is here.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Kris is not really Santa Clause. The sooner you understand that, the more sense the movie will make.

Now onward:

2. The bad mother and the sneaky lawyer.

While Kris is enjoying his starring role in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, we meet Susan Walker, Doris’s young daughter, and Attorney Fred Gailey,  who lives in the apartment next door. Susan has been raised  to be a joyless little cynic, the victim of an arrogant and misguided single mother who needed to read more Bruno Bettelheim ( except that Bruno didn’t write The Uses of Enchantment  until 1976).  Doris, as we soon surmise, has allowed a bad marriage to make her suspicious of dreams, hope, and wonder, and she is passing her own disappointment in life off to her daughter at the tender age of nine. Nice.

Lots of parents do this, I suppose, but that doesn’t mitigate how cruel and damaging it is. I remember how horrified I was at Susan’s brainwashing when I first saw the film at about the same age as Natalie Wood was in the movie. My parents, particularly my mother, surrounded my sister and I with fantasy and whimsy. They went to elaborate measures to make Santa Claus seem real, and the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. At one point my sister, having read a story about a lollypop tree, planted a lollypop stick in the back yard. My mother pooh-poohed the idea, telling my sister that this was just a fantastic story she was believing, and that she was  going to disappointed.  Then, three days later, my father exclaimed as he looked out the kitchen window,  “I don’t believe it! Look at that!” And there, about four feet height and covered with lolly pops of all  the colors of the rainbow, was the lollypop tree.

My sister and I weren’t idiots; we knew that our parents had made the tree. But we played along, and the lesson was taught.  Life is more fun and bearable if you believe in the unbelievable, and are open to a little magic in the world. Our parents gave my sister and me a gift that made us love music, literature, humor, mystery, and surprises. Doris Walker, out of ignorance, grief or anger, was an incompetent and selfish parent. ” We should be realistic  and completely truthful with our children  and not have them growing up believing in  a lot of legends and myths like Santa Claus, for example,” she says.

And your authority for this proposition is what, Doris? Generations of children have grown to healthy, happy maturity being raised on myths, legends and fairy tales, and you, with your invaluable perspective as a department store employee, are confident in your certitude that their parents were wrong, and you are right. Wow.

I am thinking about the parents today who have accepted loopy transgender cant and are forcing their children to “choose” their gender identities rather than have them imposed on them by such irrelevancies as penises and vaginas.

Yes, this is a better way, and I’m sure it will work out well.  But I digress.

Fred Gailey, we quickly learn, is making friends with Susan because he has romantic designs on her mother. When Doris, is  informed by Fred this was his scheme, we hear this exchange:

GAILEY: I’m fond of Suzie, very fond, but I also wanted to meet you.
I read someplace the surest way to meet the mother is to be kind to the child.

DORIS: What a horrible trick.

GAILEY: It worked!

Now we know, unfortunately, what kind of lawyer Fred is: an unethical one who believes that the ends justify the means. If you are watching this with your ethics alarms turned off–and who isn’t? Well except me, but that’s my curse—this just seems like typical all’s fair in love and war Hollywood banter. One reason Fred doesn’t creep anyone out at this point is that John Payne’s super-power was seeming charming, harmless and lovable even while appearing somewhat devious, and even when he was playing villains. Payne was never a big star, but he was perfect in this role. Could any of his contemporaries pulled it off as convincingly? James Stewart, perhaps.

In case the audience hasn’t grasped that Fred has a loose concept of ethics, Susan talks her mother into inviting Fred to dinner, as Fred demurs, says he can’t, that he’ll “just have a sandwich,’ and convincingly acts as if the 9-year-old  is responsible for the idea. Then, once Doris is out of earshot, she asks him, “Did I ask all right?”

“That depends,” he says, indicating that Gailey is a Consequentialist. (I hate consequentialists! ) Then, after Doris announces when he”ll be expected for dinner, Fred tells Susan, “Honey, you asked just right!…It worked!”

There he goes again. And he has made an innocent child complicit in his deception.


3 thoughts on ““Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, Continued….Chapter 2: The Story Unfolds…

  1. “Lots of parents do this, I suppose, but that doesn’t mitigate how cruel and damaging it is. I remember how horrified I was at Susan’s brainwashing when I first saw the film at about the same age as Natalie Wood was in the movie.”

    It makes me wonder about Greta Thunberg’s parents.

    I did go back to read all these. I’m still not sure I agree with you on Kris on getting the Santa removed. I know it is just a movie, but he would have passed out and fallen off. He could have publically exposed himself, or he could have done a number of things drunk people tend to do. There is a reason why public intoxication is banned in most places. Why does the day matter if the conduct is unethical/illegal?

    • Or he could have worn a Dewey campaign hat! That would get the chubby fascist sacked.

      But your comment about Greta Thunberg is on the mark. Parents who channel their own wishes, fears and neuroses (or allow others like relatives, schools and governments to do so) into their children cause more damage than they often understand.

      Susan’s mother would have been fine if she’d perhaps used her experience to talk to Susan about the importance of not rushing into relationships, for example (we are not told what exactly caused the break-up between Doris and Susan’s father so I’m just tossing out a plausible relationship issue here). But instead she passes her cynicism onto her daughter in a pretty extreme way. I’m sure our host will examine the scene in question, but we will get to a later incident in which Fred bluntly assesses the problem by telling Doris, “We were talking about Susan, not you.”

      If only parents who insist their kids are acting, biking, dancing, mountain climbing or giving interviews to CNN of their own volition and not channeling the desires of the parents would have a few more people remind them who this is really about.

  2. Lucky you. My parents were loving, but outwardly focused on social ills, politics, the civil rights movement, etc. My sisters and I took the best of them and made up the rest. We turned out okay. My mother especially loved the holidays: Thanksgiving was the time to gather the “orphans” in our church — those with families out of town and alone for the holiday — and create a feast for all of them/us. Occasionally we had 30 people for Thanksgiving dinner — most of whom we knew, so it was fun. Christmas was sacrosanct: only the family for Christmas and always a trip to NYC — Radio City, etc., etc.

    They were not distant or overly strict, but they expected the best of us at all times. As I grew older and learned about their childhoods, I understood. My mother and I became great friends. So no “lollypop tree” for us, but a different kind of nurturing, and for me, the youngest, the best they could offer. And it was, in the end, enough.

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