“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion,Chapter 4: Is Kris Crazy, Or What? [Corrected]


(The Introduction is here.; Chapter I is here.;Chapter 2 is here; Chapter 3 is here.)

When we last saw Kris Kringle, he had become a big hit at Macy’s by sending shoppers to Gimbel’s, and even was making inroads on young Susan’s precocious skepticism after she heard him speak Dutch. The story really begins going off the ethics rails at this point.

Doris decides that it would probably be responsible to have Kris checked out by the company psychologist, Mr. Sawyer, since her Santa is, after all, nuts. Yah think? In truth, it is per se irresponsible for Macy’s to knowingly employ a Santa Claus operating under the delusion that he is really Santa. The first authority a store would consult in real life, yes, even in the 1950s, would be a member of the legal department. If anything happened to a child in Macy’s store while sitting on the lap of a man who openly claimed to be a mythological figure, the lawsuits would write themselves. Thus the story really takes a turn toward an indictment of capitalism and corporate ethics: Macy’s is willing to put children at risk for some extra profit. Luckily, nobody has noticed in the past half-century.

Here we have a famous breach of competence by the screenwriter, George Seaton. While boasting to Doris about all the mental acuity tests he has passed, Kris says,

“I’ve taken dozens of them. Never failed one yet. Know them by heart. “How many days in the week?” Seven! “How many fingers do you see?” “Four!”….No damage to the nervous system! “Who was the first President of the United States?” George Washington! “Who was Vice-President under John Quincy Adams?” Daniel D. Tompkins! I’ll bet your Mr. Sawyer doesn’t know that!”

He doesn’t know that because it isn’t true. Tompkins was Vice-President under James Monroe, the fifth President, not Adams, #6. It drives me crazy when Hollywood allows historical misinformation to pollute the minds of the historically ignorant public, because there’s no excuse for it. Even before the internet, this fake fact could have been checked using any dictionary or encyclopedia. Nobody cared enough to bother. To make the mistake worse, John Quincy Adams’ VP was, unlike Thompkins, an important historical figure, John C. Calhoun.

Kris dutifully goes to his appointment with Sawyer, and behaves, it is fair to say, like a complete jerk. He is condescending and openly contemptuous, harassing him with his own diagnostic questions. We are supposed to be amused at this because Sawyer is portrayed as an irritable, officious man with a comb-over, an ugly mustache and an irritating voice.


And his first name is “Granville.” Boy, the kids in grade school must have had a ball mocking him for that. Where does an old guy who is playing Santa Clause in a department store get off behaving superior to an actual professional trying to do his job? Kris is the villain here, but by shrewdly playing on stereotypes and biases, the film successfully turns the audience against Sawyer. We get to hear him talking irritably to his wife on the phone, and he complains about her brother and tells her that she needs to be more frugal about “the allowance” he gives her to run the household. This means, of course, that he’s not a trustworthy psychologist and that Kris was right to be disrespectful to him.

The manipulation of the audience here is pretty extreme. If you are watching this with your children, it might be appropriate to point out that Kris’s bad conduct is being endorsed, and Sawyer’s responsible conduct is being undermined. It is another bit of Cognitive Dissonance Scale gamesmanship:

Cognitive Dissonance-SMALL

Unattractive, irritating people are below the midpoint on the scale, and thus drag their otherwise admirable conduct down. At the same time, it’s a nice, pleasant, jolly old soul who is being a jerk, and better still, being a jerk to someone whose looks and manner cause the audience to be biased against him. The result? Kris’s bad behavior in the interview creeps into positive territory.

Homely, cranky Mr. Sawyer reports to Doris that Kris should be fired, while Dr. Pierce, who is employed at the nursing home where Kris lives–this little detail is conveniently soft-peddled as the movie goes on—defends his employer’s resident. Dr. Pierce looks like a nicer version of Sawyer, a bit like Walt Disney, with hair and a pleasant, sonorous voice. Again, these are more manipulative Cognitive Dissonance games. If the actors in the two roles were reversed, Mr. Sawyer’s assessment would seem like the reasonable one: Kris is laboring under a delusion, and such people are inherently dangerous and unpredictable. Dr. Pierce stoops to the logical fallacy of anecdotal evidence: there’s a famous restaurateur in Hollywood who thinks he’s a Russian prince, or so they say, and he’s never hurt anybody, so, ipso facto, Kris Kringle, who thinks he’s Santa Claus, isn’t dangerous!

This is how Hollywood is undermines critical thinking.

Sawyer predicts that Kris will eventually snap and become violent (“Look at the way he carried that cane!”) and Doris is worried: if something happens, she’ll be responsible. She can see him getting into trouble—“All that’s got to happen is a policeman to ask his name. A big argument. Clang, clang! Bellevue!” So Dr. Pierce suggests that Kris stay with someone who can steer him away from confrontations.

Pro Tip: if your Santa Clause needs a chapperone to keep him out of trouble, children shouldn’t be sitting on his lap. But Doris’s aspiring lawyer boyfriend Fred volunteers to have Kris stay with him He has an ulterior motive:he sees Kris as an ally to chip away as Susan’s cynicism, while Fred works on bitter Doris. This, of course, means leaving Susan to spend a lot of time alone with a man Fred barely knows and who thinks he lives at the North Pole.

Good plan! Except that the fact that this works out in the end is pure moral luck.

Susan tells Kris he can prove that he is the real Jolly Old Elf himself if he brings here what she wants for Christmas: a house. This would be a good time to inform the child that Santa doesn’t bring houses down the chimney on the night before Christmas, but instead, Kris succumbs to emotional blackmail, as little Natalie—I mean Susan—says that if he can’t get her a house—with “a backyard with a great big tree to put a swing on” yet—then she’ll know he’s only ” a nice man with a white beard, like mother said.” Kris irresponsibly gives the girl hope, saying that “he’ll do his best,” and asking if he can keep the picture.

Sometimes adults—even adults who think they are Santa Claus—heck, even Santa Claus— have an ethical obligation to say, “no.”

Back at Macy’s, aspiring Santa stand-in and fresh-faced young employee Alfred tells Kris that he is depressed. Mean Mr. Sawyer told him that because he likes to play Santa Claus at the YMCA and hand out presents to the kids, he suffers from a guilt complex. After Alfred reveals that he has sessions with Sawyer every day, and the psychologist has told him he hates his father—did you expect to find anti-Freudian propaganda in a Christmas movie?—Kris is furious. And what happens? He barges into Sawyer’s office and hits hm in the head with his cane…just like Sawyer said he would.

How this is supposed to help Albert is never made clear.

11 thoughts on ““Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion,Chapter 4: Is Kris Crazy, Or What? [Corrected]

  1. Wow, what a Christmas downer, Jack. Channelling Scrooge or the Grinch? I always thought the whole point was that Kris really was Santa Clause, not just an old man with dementia. You know, “willing suspension of disbelief” and all that. I never thought of the film as denigrating capitalism, psychologists, the post office, weak-kneed judges, or cynical politicos like Fred Mertz. It’s a 73 year old Christmas movie. I suspect we could poke holes in any film with respect to morality and ethics if we wanted to.

    • You really thought he WAS Santa Claus? How? He lives in a nursing home. He’s mucking around with one family in NYC when he’s supposed to be be preparing for the big night. Whatever the story is about, it isn’t about the “real” Santa Claus.

      • Think about it: he advises parents where to buy what their kids ask for. What is this Santa, a shopping consultant? He claims to know how the reindeer are hooked up to the sleigh—what do they DO, if he doesn’t make and deliver toys?

  2. I love this movie, but, from an ethical point of view, these scenes are, to borrow a phrase from our leftist friends, “problematic”. The real Santa Claus should not whack a smarmy psychiatrist over the head because he’s mad that Sawyer is psychoanalyzing one of the employees. That’s his job.

    If Alfred doesn’t like it, being a reasonably grown fella, he can find someone else to chat with besides the shrink.

    What can we say about a company that employs a psychiatrist to analyze the employees? Wouldn’t there be a conflict of interest as we must assume the psychiatrist is looking out for the company’s best interests and not necessarily that of the employees? I wouldn’t want to go to a mental health authority employed by my boss.

  3. The fellow who believes he’s a Russian prince (described by Dr. Pierce in the film) is not a resident of the Brooks Home for the Aged, but the owner of a very successful restaurant. Other than that fact-check, I think I understand the points you’re trying to make, although I haven’t yet decided whether or not I agree with them. You’ve certainly given us a lot to think about!

  4. Freudian psychology was and is complete rubbish. The real outrage is that actual therapists took it seriously for years, and that colleges still attach relevance to it, due to the sunk cost fallacy.

  5. I actually noticed some of these ethical discrepancies in the movie. I may be giving the script writer’s too much credit, but I thought it was a brilliant use of unreliable protagonists, throwing in tiny clues to foreshadow that “Santa” isn’t all that he seems, to add extra depth to the ethical lesson of the movie. Chris confidently stating that he could pass any psychology exam, but butchering some of the questions anyways. The ugly psychology predicting chaos, nobody believing him; then everyone surprised when it comes to pass. Even the retirement home director suggesting a chaperone to hedge their bets. I think there might be a lesson in still believing in hope and mercy even when one’s naïve beliefs are tarnished by harsh reality hidden in the movie.

  6. “anti-freudian propaganda”. You never explain why it’s propaganda, nor why a movie, even a Christmas one, should be free of conflict. And we know that unethical assholes use psychology to kafkatrap and gaslight people, just like Sawyer did. Just look up “critical social justice”. Or read Cynical Theories.

    And as far as using imagery to convey a message (ie. making Sawyer unappealing, to get the audience to be against his views), the left does this all the time. Would you ever complain about that? Your hypocrisy is ethically alarming.

    • Propaganda: “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view” The cliche Freudian analysis connected to the film’s villain, and simplified to absurd levels as well as ridiculed. Meanwhile, the sentence in question reads, “After Alfred reveals that he has sessions with Sawyer every day, and the psychologist has told him he hates his father—did you expect to find anti-Freudian propaganda in a Christmas movie?—Kris is furious.”

      That’s not even criticism. the comment is an “aside”—see, you can tell because its between those little lines.

      Wait, are you saying that I am biased against the RIGHT? Tell you what: why don’t you read a bit here before you make a bigger fool of yourself.

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