The holiday season traditionally kicks off with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and so does this iconic holiday movie. As with most holiday movies, but perhaps more than most, the entire concept of digging into the ethics of the plot of “Miracle on 34th Street” can be criticized as beside the point. Indeed, this ethics analysis of a classic Chritsmas movie received more flack than the previous two (“White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” ) combined. The movie, at least the 1947 original, is a classic; I don’t dispute it. It works dramatically and emotionally, it makes people feel good, and it has held up over time. That’s all a Christmas movie is supposed to do, and if it does it without really making sense or avoiding ethics potholes along the way, so what?
I sympathize with this view. However, our ethical standards and ethics alarms are affected by what we see, hear, like and respond to. If popular holiday movies inject bad ethics habits and rationalizations into our character, especially at a young age, that is something we should at least be aware of by the tenth or eleventh time we watch one of them.
One ethical aspect of “Miracle on 34th Street” that must be flagged at the outset is competence. The film is so effortlessly engrossing and convincing that it is easy to forget how easily it could have failed miserably. Actually, it is also easy to remind oneself: just watch any of the attempts to remake the film. There have been four of these, starring, as Kris Kringle, Thomas Mitchell, Ed Wynn, Sebastian Cabot, and Richard Attenborough. That’s a distinguished crew, to be sure. Mitchell was one of the greatest character actors in Hollywood history. Wynn was nominated for an Academy Award (for “The Diary of Ann Frank”) and Attenborough won one, Best Supporting Actor Award in 1967 for “The Sand Pebbles.” Cabot wasn’t quite in their class, but he was a solid pro, and looked more like Santa Clause than Mitchell, Wynn, or Richard Attenborough.
None of them, however, were as convincing as Edmund Gwenn. He made many movies—all without a white beard— and had a distinguished career in films and on stage, but even audience members who knew his work had a hard time reminding themselves that he wasn’t Kris Kringle while they watched the movie. I still have a hard time.
The rest of the cast is almost as perfect. The film is one more example of the special, unappreciated talent of Maureen O’Hara, who never seemed like a movie star, as lovely and strong an on-screen presence as she was. Her ability to anchor great movies while never dominating them is the epitome of the “collaborative art” they always blather about during the Oscars, but which is seldom truly honored. There were Katherine Hepburn movies and Bette Davis movies; there are Meryl Streep movies. Nobody ever talked about Maureen O’Hara movies, just great movies that had Maureen O’Hara essential to making them great. O’Hara was the female lead in four genuine classics: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Quite Man,” “How Green Was My Valley,” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” She never won any Academy Awards, nor is she ever named when the greatest Hollywood actresses are named, but how many actresses delivered four classics—not classic performances, but classic films? Hepburn ties Maureen with four: The Philadelphia Story,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Adams’s Rib” and “The African Queen.” Streep maaay be credited with one, if you count “Sophie’s Choice”; personally, I wouldn’t.
“Miracle on 34th Street” is an ethics movie in part because its artists committed to telling a magical story and charming audiences by working as an ensemble selflessly and efficiently. John Payne, as the idealistic lawyer in love with Maureen, is never flashy, just completely convincing. One reason may be that, as he told an interviewer once, the role of Fred Gaily perfectly matched his own ideals and beliefs. Payne never made another memorable movie in his long career; he was the classic bland, B movie leading man. He made Glenn Ford seem exciting. But he was the perfect choice for this story. Similarly, there have been more impressive child actresses than young Natalie Wood—Margaret O’Brien, to name one; Dakota Fanning, to name another—but none who was better at simultaneously nailing her scenes while never taking a viewer out of the film by making him think, “Wow, she’s so precocious! I wonder if she’s a midget?”
This is the magic of performing talent: they make audiences suspend disbelief because they seem to believe in the story and characters too. The director, George Seaton (who also directed “Airport”), not only wrote the script (that won him an Oscar, and deservedly so) and cast his movie brilliantly, he also made the correct decision to stick with a matter-of-fact, realistic, unadorned style that keeps the story grounded. There are none of the features and gaffes in this film that make other holiday-themed movies inherently unbelievable, like the cheesy battlefield sets in “White Christmas” or the heavenly dialogues in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
This is why the awful colorized version that Ted Turner inflicted on the world—this was one of the first movies to be subjected to Ted’s “improvement”—was such a disaster. The colored version looks fake, because it is. The original black and white version is set in a mundane, grey world like Doris’s—Maureen’s–view of life itself: no excitement, no romance, no fantasy, just cold, unadorned reality. No heaven, no magic, ghosts, nobody breaking into song and sounding like Bing Crosby. There’s no child’s point of view, like in “A Christmas Story.” No, all of us live in the world we are shown in “Miracle on 34th Street.” We would love the magic to be real, but we don’t believe in it any more.
We want it to be, though—and that’s why this movie works.
Meet Kris Kringle
The movie tells us right at the start that 1) the charming old man in the white beard can’t possibly be Santa Claus, and 2) that he’s nuts. That is, he tells adults who are paying attention this as soon as he starts complaining to a New York City storekeeper that his window display has the reindeer mixed up: “You’ve got Cupid where Blitzen should be. And Dasher should be on my right-hand side. And another thing…Donner’s antlers have got four points instead of three!”
- No Christmas display has ever distinguished between Santa’s reindeer (except for Rudolph), because the individual reindeer have never had any identifying characteristics in reality or myth. Are we to assume that there are name-tags on the models? If so, why wouldn’t Kris be complaining about the features of all of them, not just “Donner’s” antlers?
- The names of the reindeer, even if there are flying reindeer, were 100% the invention of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas,” originally published in 1823. No one has ever claimed that the author had some kind of special info on the actual names of the reindeer when he wrote,
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DUNDER and BLIXEN!
…and anyway, if he did, those were their names 120 years before the movie takes place. Nobody has ever claimed the reindeer were immortal, either. I suppose Santa Claus, in a nod to the poem’s popularity (it has been called the most famous poem of all time), could have adopted the practice of always having the reindeer named after the poem’s versions, and when one Vixen dropped of old age, the young reindeer that took her place became the new Vixen.
- A bigger problem is that the movie’s alleged “St. Nicholas” calls the seventh reindeer “Donner.” It gets confusing here. The original St. Nicholas was Greek, the Christian bishop of Myra, now Demre, in Lycia. Nicholas gave gifts to the poor, in particular presenting three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. THAT would be neat poem! Saint Nicholas is buried in Italy. He was later claimed as a patron saint of children (also archers, sailors, pawnbrokers, and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow). The name “Santa Claus” is derived from the Netherlands version of St. Nick called Sinterklaas, or “the Christmas man,” de Kerstman in Dutch. This explains “Dunder and Blixen,” meaning thunder and lightning in Dutch, and the movie later confirms Kris’s Dutch origins. (But why does he speak in a British accent?)
Never mind that: why would he call Dunder “Donner”? The “real” Santa wouldn’t. Though the original version of the poem got the names right (we know it’s Blixen and not “Blitzen” because it rhymes with Vixen), various editors, transcribers and the author himself kept changing the names in subsequent printings. Dunder became “Donder” and eventually “Donner,” which is a meaningless Anglicizing of “Dunder.”
Santa Clause, aka Sinterklaas,wouldn’t be confused: he named the beasts. He’s correcting the shop-keeper while passing along a misnomer?
- There’s always the chance that Kris wrote the poem himself, since nobody is 100% sure who did.
Well, enough of that. The next scene shows Kris encountering the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa pre-parade. He instructs him in the use of his whip on the reindeer! In the German Santa mythology, the jolly old elf used the whip on naughty children, but nowadays, using a whip on either kids or reindeer is pretty much excised from Santa’s methods, and should have been in 1947. It’s an unethical image…
…even though artists have worked hard to confuse us….
No, an ethical Santa Claus wouldn’t use a whip. He also wouldn’t put a poor old guy with a drinking problem out of work during the holidays, but that’s what Kris does next. He smells liquor on the costumed Santa, and shows no mercy:
“Don’t you realize there are thousands of children… lining the streets waiting to see you… children who have been dreaming of this moment for weeks? You’re a disgrace to the tradition of Christmas… and I refuse to have you malign me in this fashion. Disgusting!”
Then he tracks down Doris Walker, who is in charge of the parade, and gets the man fired. That’s just mean; there’s no way around it. I bet a lot of Macy Santas have had a few nips before and during the parade, and so what? How hard is it to say “Ho Ho Ho”?
Kris manages to get Drunk Santa’s job, having single-handedly gotten him sacked, no pun intended.
Why is Kris, if he’s the real Santa Claus, hanging around New York City and moonlighting in the Macy’s parade when the big night is just around the corner? This is no time for a vacation or boondoggles. If he’s really Santa, he’s goofing off, and he has the gall to tell a temporary parade Santa that he’s risking disappointing children!
Kris is not off to a good start.
Bad Mother, 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.
Kris Joins the Macy’s Family!
Kris takes Santa’s throne
Kris’s rave reviews as Santa in the Thanksgiving Day Parade are so good, Doris hires him play Santa at Macy’s flagship New York City store on 34th Street. He agrees, which is strange, when you think about how busy he should be at this time of year, supervising the elves and all. If he really is Santa, or even if he thinks he is, taking the job in New York is irresponsible.
His supervisor gives him a list of toys to “push”—toys that are overstocked. “Now, you’ll find that a great many children will be undecided as to what they want for Christmas. When that happens, you suggest one of these items,” Kris is told. “You understand?”
Kris says he understands, but later makes it clear in his comments to a co-worker, that he has no intention of “pushing” the merchandise.:
“Imagine…making a child take something it doesn’t want…just because he bought too many of the wrong toys.That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years!”
That being the case, there is exactly one thing Kris needs to do. He needs to quit. What he cannot do, and must not do, and has a clear ethical obligation not to do, is to accept a job when he has no intention of doing what the job requires. This is a sales job. If Kris doesn’t want to sell, then he will be accepting a pay check under false pretenses. This isn’t noble conduct, as the film would have you believe. It’s unethical conduct. It’s wrong.
Kris needs to put himself on his own naughty list.
Employer loyalty is not Kris’s thing…
On his first shift, a mother whispers to Kris, as Macy’s Santa Claus, not to promise Peter, the little boy on his lap, that he’ll get a toy fire engine for Christmas. “Nobody has any,” she says. Kris ignores her request (do we see a pattern here?) and tells the boy he’ll get his wish. Mom is hacked-off, but Kris informs her that another store, presumably one that the mother wasn’t aware of or hadn’t checked, has what she’s looking for, and at a great price, too. Mom is amazed, but grateful, and trots off to “Schoenfeld’s” on Lexington Avenue.
This is just the next step in Kris’s betrayal. The situation is exactly what he he was instructed to prepare for. “Oh, Santa has a much better gift in mind for you, Peter. You’re been such a good boy this year, what if Santa brings you a new toy cement mixer truck that mixes real cement! You’ll be the only one of your friends who has one! Ho Ho Ho!” (Actually, I had a truck like that when I was Peter’s age, and I liked it a lot better than a fire truck…)
Now, he’s not only not pushing Macy’s toys, he’s sending customers right out of Macy’s to another store! What else will Mom buy while she’s there that she otherwise would have bought at Macy’s?
Let’s pause a bit to ponder exactly what Kris, who we later learn, but now only suspect, thinks he’s really Santa Claus, thinks the iconic role consists of. Kids ask him for stuff, he sends the parents to buy it, and his function on Christmas Eve is…what, exactly? If he isn’t providing the toys, he doesn’t need a sack, or a sleigh, or flying reindeer. He doesn’t need a workshop or elves, if everything a kid wants is at Gimbels or another store. And if the job is for Santa to let parents in first world countries do his job for him, and he handles poor children elsewhere, why the hell is he hanging around Macy’s?
But I digress. Peter’s mother is touched and impressed with Santa’s apparently ethical, non-capitalistic conduct and, flushed with gratitude, tells Shellhammer, the head of the toy department, that she will now become a loyal Macy’s customer….after she buys the fire truck elsewhere. She assumes that Santa’s shopping consultant role is a store policy.
This is moral luck, Kris didn’t care whether his tip to the woman benefited Macy’s or not; it just did. Then Shellhammer overhears Kris as he excalates: a little girl wants ice skates, and Macy’s has ice skates, but he tells her mother to buy the skates at Gimbel’s, Macy’s arch rival, because their skates are better.
Coca-Cola has fired employees in the past for drinking a Pepsi.
Meanwhile, Fred Gailey, still lusting after Doris, takes the young Susan to see Santa. This would seem to contravene Doris’s explicit wishes: if she doesn’t want her daughter being enchanted by the Santa Claus myth, why is he doing this? In fact, he is trying to undermine Doris. His belief that her child rearing theories are harmful may be 100% right, but they are none of his business. This is a minor equivalent of trying to indoctrinate a neighbor’s child into a new religion or culture behind the parent’s back.
Doris catches Fred in his attempted counter-Doris mission, and tells him that she expects him to respect her wishes. In the process, she confirms his suspicion that its her own disillusionment with her broken romance with Susan’s father that is making her inoculate her daughter against illusions, hope, and idealism, which is what her campaign amounts to. Her reaction, however, when she blurts out a direct reference to her ex- is telling:
“They grow up considering life a fantasy instead of a reality. They keep waiting for Prince Charming to come along. And when he does, he turns out to be a…
…and she stops, embarrassed. Gailey says, “We were talking about Suzie, not about you.” So Doris knows, or should know, exactly what she’s doing,and should know it’s wrong.
Susan’s skepticism about Santa is shaken when she sees Kris speak Dutch to a little girl from the Netherlands. Hmmm. Wasn’t Kris Kringle Dutch? Kris is on a lucky streak, leaving the audience to wonder what would have happened if the little girl was from Mongolia. Alarmed that Kris’s verisimilitude has pulled Susan into–in her mother’s view—a dangerous fantasy, Doris asks him to tell Susan that he is not Santa. He refuses.
Ethically, this is a dilemma. She is asking him to lie to a little girl, from Kris’s perspective, since he sincerely believes that he is Santa Claus. (I suppose he could be a method actor: Daniel Day Lewis, on the set of “Lincoln,” reportedly insisted that he was Lincoln) refuses. Now what? She has a conflict of interest. Macy’s doesn’t care whether he’s a brilliant Santa portrayer or deluded–he’s a hit. Doris regards him as a threat to her indoctrination of her daughter. She decides to fire him, but she is biased in too many ways to be capable of an objective decision.
Before she can can Kris however, R. H. Macy himself calls her and Shellhammer for an audience. (Aside: Rowland Hussey Macy died in 1877, 70 years before the film. Showing him still alive is kind of creepy, making Macy seem like the immortal, rotting castle owner in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” The Macy family had sold its ownership of the company in 1895) Doris and the toy department manager are getting a bonus! Ah! Money makes Doris abandon her principles, and resolves her conflict.
Now Macy directs that sending customers to Gimbels and other stores is going to be the new store policy, creating good will. We see Mr. Gimbel presiding over an emergency meeting: the Gimbel’s Department store won’t be outdone; he directs that his staff be directed to show that Gimbel’s puts Christmas spirit over profit. It would now send customers to other stores if necessary, even Macy’s.
There really was a Mr. Gimbel when “Miracle on 34th Street” was made. Bernard Gimbel, head of the Gimbel’s chain and the latest in the line that began with the store’s founder, Adam Gimbel in 1842. As it turned out, Bernard Gimbel did have a heart and placed people above profit, once he had a little nudge. He attended an early performance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway in 1949. The plight of Willy Loman, an aging traveling salesman being pressured out of the only employment he had ever known, shattered Gimbel. He was filled with guilt and remorse: his company had fired loyal employees who had become “too old,” just like Willy. After a sleepless night, he called his managers together in a real life emergency meeting, and told them and all of his stores that announced a new and, for the times, a unique policy. There would be no more firing of over-age employees.
So far, so good for Kris. But his luck is about to run out.
Is Kris Crazy or What?
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 ethics dunce 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:
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 chaperone 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 makes a reasonable request…
Susan tells Kris he can prove that he is the real Jolly Old Elf himself if he brings her 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 him in the head with his cane…just like Sawyer said he would.
How this is supposed to help Albert is never made clear.
Boy, This Guy Sure Doesn’t ACT Like He’s Santa!
Everything so far has been laying the foundation for the climactic and justly famous courtroom scene. But before that can happen, there needs to be a pretext for getting the story into court. Of course, the fact that Kris committed assault and battery on Mr. Sawyer would normally be enough to get him there on a criminal charge, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with Santa Claus, so we have a lot of dubious plot machinations that make no sense at all. in rapid succession—got to get to that courtroom scene!—we get…
First, Sawyer acts like he’s been grievously wounded so he can credibly insist that Kris be committed. He’s a liar as well as a weasel. He’s also not very bright. He knows Macy’s has been using Kris a public relations cornucopia. He has to know that in any feud with a store Santa Claus who has made money for Macy’s, he’ll lose. Sawyer’s antipathy towards Kris to his own likely detriment makes no sense at all.
Doris refuses to have anything to do with sending Kris to Bellevue, the NYC mental hospital, to be examined. She is, however, unlike Sawyer, responsible for Kris, and has said as much. Her duty is to Macy’s, and her employee attacked someone. This is where conflicts of interest get you in the workplace, and she should have seen this coming. Her job is to fix the problem, and instead she acts helpless. I find this to be nascent sexism in the film: “just like a woman,” Doris is being sentimental when she needs to be practical and decisive.
Actress Maureen O’Hara, a notorious tough proto-feminist, must have been seething.
Let’s see now: Doris hired an inherently questionable old man as her Santa Claus. Then she has him room with her sort-of boyfriend, and have regular concourse with her young daughter, in defiance of the recommendations of the company psychologist. (He’s an ass, but that’s beside the point.) When the predictable crisis involving her oddball employee arrives, she can’t deal with it without her workplace actions also affecting her boyfriend, her child, and her personal relationships with both of them.
Good job, Doris!
Ethics Incompetence At Macy’s
A Macy’s manager, Mr. Shellhammer, takes over for Doris and says that the Bellevue examination is no big deal: all that will happen is that Kris will again answer all the questions (which do not appear to have any reasonable connection to mental stability: I bet most crazy people know who the first President was) correctly and “If he passes the test, he can return to work at once!” What kind of place is Macy’s? I have never worked anywhere that wouldn’t immediately fire an employee at any level who hit another employee on the head with a solid object. It wouldn’t make any difference what the reason was, what the object was, or whether the victim was injured. I’ve run (lets see now…) at least 15 staffs and organizations, and that doesn’t count theater productions. Engage in physical violence on my watch, and you were out.
Kris is not only a low-level employee, but he works with children. I find this plot cheat an insult to the audience’s intelligence, and dramatically, a turn that makes the audience’s suspension of disbelief impossible (well, impossible for those older than 12 or with an IQ above that of a radish.) It’s lazy screenwriting, and lazy screenwriting is incompetent screenwriting. How hard would it have been to come up with a reason to send Kris to Bellevue that didn’t involve violence?
Sawyer and Shellhammer get Kris out of the store and into a car that takes him to the loony bin—having him in his Santa suit is a nice touch— by telling him that Doris has set up a publicity shot with the mayor. Later, they tell Kris that Doris agreed to the ruse, and to taking him to the hospital. Now, sometimes one has to lie, but pulling an unwilling, non-consenting party into the lie is unconscionable.
Kris Forgets Who He Is, Or Thinks He Is, Or Something…
Stuck in Bellevue, Kris is author of the most unforgivable plot foolishness of all. He forgets that he’s Santa Claus! As he tells Fred, he was so disillusioned that Doris would betray him that he deliberately flunked the same test he’s passed so many times: he even said that Calvin Coolidge was the first President. (At least he knows Silent Cal was a President: how many current high school grads do?) He’s given up. He doesn’t want to go down any more chimneys or fly his sleigh, and will disappoint all those millions of children all over the world, leave Mrs Claus alone in the freezing Arctic, and put the elves and reindeer out of jobs, all because a mid-level Macy’s flack who didn’t believe in him anyway let him down.
Sure! Makes perfect sense, Kris! That’s keeping your priorities straight.
Kris’s conduct at Bellevue undermines the whole flimsy pretense of the film. He can’t be Santa Claus, because Santa Claus would never abandon his duties because of any single person or disappointment. My favorite line in his exchange with Fred, a classic of the “sounds good if you don’t think about it too hard,” is when Kris says,
“There’s Mr. Sawyer. He’s contemptible, dishonest, selfish, deceitful, vicious… Yet he’s out there and I’m in here. He’s called normal and I’m not. Well, if that’s normal, I don’t want it.“
Uh, Kris…by definition Santa Claus isn’t normal. There’s only one, after all, and we’re giving you the benefit of the doubt here.
Fred talks Kris Kringle into not giving up his suit and sack after nearly 2000 years because of Doris, and Kris persuades Fred to represent him as he tries to avoid a permanent padded cell at Bellevue. “I believe you’re the greatest lawyer since Clarence Darrow!” he says.
Wait—how does Kris know anything about what kind of lawyer Fred is unless…he really is Santa Claus?
Kris Gets Justice
It could be argued that the hearing (it’s not a trial) that serves as the dramatic climax to “Miracle on 34th Street” is the most memorable courtroom scene in movie history. That tells us something, though I’m not sure what. A more legally and ethically absurd spectacle would be difficult to imagine.
When we last saw Kris Kringle—if that indeed is his name—he was preparing to go to a hearing in which his sanity would be determined by a judge. (Insert Marx Brothers “Sanity Clause” joke here.) Lawyer Fred Gailey actually quits his law firm to take on the case, which he is handling pro bono. The hearing will he presided over by a judge played by Gene Lockhart, who has impeccable Christmas movie credentials, having played Bob Cratchit in one of the adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.”
The logical, legal and ethical aspects of the story go off the rails quickly, never to return. Mr. Macy orders Sawyer to have the case dropped, which makes no sense: if Sawyer were suing Kris for assault and battery, of if Macy’s had pressed criminal charges, Macy would have some say. But this is the state of New York saying that Kris is a threat to himself and others because he’s deluded. It’s a state matter now.
Sawyer goes to Fred and tries to get him to drop the case, saying “I represent Mr. Macy.” What, he’s a lawyer now? Not only does Macy have no role in this matter, Fred’s defending Kris, not prosecuting the case.
When Sawyer mentions that Macy’s wants to avoid publicity, Fred sees a little light bulb go on in his skull. “Very interesting,” he says out loud. “Publicity. Hmm. That’s not a bad idea! If I’m going to win this case… I’ll have to have plenty of public opinion!” Except that’s unethical. From New York’s Code of Professional Conduct, which wasn’t in force when the film was made but the principles were:
DR 7-107 [1200.38] Trial Publicity.
A. A lawyer participating in or associated with a criminal or civil matter, or associated in a law firm or government agency with a lawyer participating in or associated with a criminal or civil matter, shall not make an extrajudicial statement that a reasonable person would expect to be disseminated by means of public communication if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that it will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in that matter….
Saying that one’s client will need publicity to influence public opinion is a clear statement of intent to violate the spirit if not the letter of the ethics rules. Fred breaches the rules again when he goes to see the judge to persuade him not to sign Kris’s commitment papers. In an adversary proceeding, a lawyer must not meet with a judge without opposing counsel present; that an ex parte communication, and strictly forbidden. Of course, it’s also unethical for the judge to let him do it.
That’s not all in the realm of judicial ethics. After suggesting that the fact that Kris says he’s Santa Claus makes his insanity a forgone conclusion, Judge Harper, who is apparently an elected judge (a situation I regard as a “pre-unethical condition”) is visited by his campaign manager, Charlie, an old pol played by none other than William Frawley, now immortal for co-starring in “I Love Lucy” as Fred Mertz. He suggest that Harper withdraw from the case:
“This Kringle case is dynamite. Let some judge handle it that isn’t coming up for reelection..I’m no legal brain trust. I don’t know a habeas from a corpus. But I do know politics. That’s my racket. I got you elected, didn’t I? And I’m gonna try to get you reelected….You’re a Pontius Pilate the minute you start!”
Then the judge’s grandchildren make a convenient entrance, and snub him because he’s being mean to Santa. Later, when the hearing somehow is turned into a referendum on whether Santa is real, Charlie returns with a dire warning:
I don’t care what you do with old whisker puss… but if you rule that there’s no Santa Claus… you better start looking for that chicken farm. We won’t even be able to put you in the primaries….All right. Tell them the New York State Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus. It’s all over the papers. The kids don’t hang up their stockings. Now, what happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings? Nobody buys them. The toy manufacturers are going to like that. So they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees. Now you got the C.I.O. And the A.F.L. Against you. And they’re gonna adore you for it. And they’re gonna say it with votes. And the department stores will love you, too. And the Christmas card makers. And the candy companies. Oh, Henry, you’re going to be an awful popular fellow! And what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they take in a fortune. But you go ahead, Henry. You do it your way. You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there’s no Santa Claus. But if you do, remember this: You can count on getting just two votes: your own and that district attorney’s out there
Can we say “conflict of interest”? Sure we can—the screenwriter apparently can’t, but we can. This is a screaming conflict, and if Judge Harper’s judgment regarding Kris’s case is going to be affected by the considerations Charley listed, he has to recuse himself. The fact that many elected judges don’t recuse when they have a direct personal interest in the outcome of a matter before them is a topic for another day.
Incidentally, Kris’s case is supposedly being heard by the New York Supreme Court, which would not hold such a hearing today. Now hearings like the one involving Kris would be handled by New York City’s “Mental Hygiene Court,” but whether jurisdiction fell to the state Supreme Court in in the 1940s, I haven’t been able to determine. [Pointer: Catherine McClarey]
Chastened by Charlie, Judge Harper refuses to rule that there is no Santa Clause, and says he’ll hear evidence on both sides. Fred immediately calls Mr. Macy to the sand, who, when asked if he believes Kris to be the real Santa Claus, lies through his teeth, under oath, and says yes.
Gailey can’t ethically allow him to do this. All state ethics rules require a lawyer to avoid presenting false evidence and perjured testimony, which this clearly is. A lawyer might (as many have in similar situations) argue that he can’t say for certain that Macy doesn’t really believe Kris is Santa, but that a dodge, and a dishonest one.
Next, Fred calls the prosecutor’s young son to the stand. There are so many things wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin. The judge is obligated to refuse to let the kid testify: he isn’t a material witness, nor an expert, nor does he have any information with a bearing on Kris’s competence. The lawyer’s sole purpose in calling the boy is to discredit the opposing attorney, but attorneys are not parties, and what an attorney believes about a case is absolutely irrelevant. Attorneys don’t advocate what they believe; it’s what their clients want that counts. Not only is it unethical to try to impeach an opposing attorney, it’s meaningless.
At the same time, Fred is intentionally creating a conflict of interest for Mara, who represents the state. He can’t zealously cross-examine his own son. The prosecutor has no choice but to hand-over the job of grilling the boy to an assistant, but he doesn’t. He just looks embarrassed and lets the child make him look like a hypocrite, which he is not. The public in “Miracle on 34th Street” doesn’t comprehend that; the public in 2020 still doesn’t understand that lawyers do not endorse the positions of their clients, and should not be assumed to be doing so.
As he leaves the stand, Mara’s son reminds his father that he wants a football helmet, and Kris shouts, “Don’t worry, you’ll get it!” Wait: how does he know the kid will get it? He can’t promise that; he has no control over it at all, especially if the judge sends him to Bellevue. At this point, it is fair to question whether Kris is engaging in strategic dishonesty, which isn’t like Santa at all.
Mara tries to explain his lawyerly duty to his wife in a scene that is the closest thing to an accurate representation of what lawyers do in the whole film. For his part, Fred is being reprimand by Doris for risking his career trying to prove the impossible: that an old man wandering around New York when Santa should be preparing for the big night is really Santa Clause. Fred doesn’t defend his strategy by explaining that its the best and maybe the only way to keep Kris out of Bellevue. Instead, be blathers on about faith, as if a lawyer believing his or her client on faith is a virtue. It’s not; it’s dangerous and incompetent. The ethics rules require lawyers to be partisan, which means to give their clients the benefit of the doubt. Faith, in contrast, precludes the possibility of doubt. If Fred’s passion is faith, he’s in the wrong profession.
Of course, Mara has already proved himself to be a rank incompetent. He began the hearing by having the opportunity to examine Kris on the stand, and let him get away unscathed. Kris agrees to take the stand, which IS insane, and it was malpractice for Fred to let him. Although Kris says he’ll I’ll be glad to answer “any questions,” Mara asks him only three: what’s his name, where does he live, and does he believe he’s Santa Claus. In response to the question about where he lives, Kris gives an evasive reply: “That’s what this hearing will decide!” Hahahaha! Very clever. Mara should have asked, “Do you live at the North Pole? Are you married? How old are you? Do you have a sleigh? Does it fly? Is it pulled by flying reindeer? Will you be coming down people’s chimneys on Christmas eve? Everywhere? How do you do that? Tell me about the elves…” and so on. This is the easiest case for the state to win ever devised. Kris’s claim makes no sense; a strong examination should have him questioning whether he’s Santa Clause. And Mara only asks three questions, one of which he allows Kris to dodge.
After being humiliated by his son, Mara shifts gears, telling the judge that the state will concede, arguendo, that Santa Claus exists, but that Kris must show that he is “the one and only Santa Claus.” Of course, Mara could have conclusively proven he wasn’t when he had Kris on the stand, but never mind, Fred is stumped, even though that was the issue to begin with. If someone claimed to be J. Edgar Hoover, it didn’t matter that there was a real J. Edgar Hoover; the question was whether the guy claiming that identity was Hoover.
Then we see workers at the Post Office complaining about all those letters to Santa at the North Pole they have in the dead letter room. Seeing the headlines about the sensational Santa Claus hearing,one of the postal workers (played by a young Jack Albertson, long before he played Shelley Winters’ husband in “The Poseidon Adventure”) has the brilliant idea of getting rid of the letters by sending it all to Kris. [Aside: this hearing is going on forever! This would normally be a one-day affair. The headlines remind me of the gag in “Airplane!,” where newspapers al over the world report the plane’s plight while the crisis is in progress.]
Fred, while this is going on, tells Kris that he’s at a dead end. He has no evidence or testimony that can show Kris is the one and only Santa Claus. That’s OK, says Kris in response. Practical Doris has come around, and now says (in a letter) she believes in him after all! So even though the judge deciding to commit him will make delivering toys and fulfilling the dreams of millions of little girls and boys impossible this Christmas and probably others, Kris is satisfied with the trade-off.
He is nuts.
But those letters are delivered, so Fred tricks Marra into agreeing that the U.S. Post Office is a definitive authority for the purpose of deciding who Kris is. Marra, apparently a moron, doesn’t figure out that if Fred is promoting the Post Office, then he has some kind of argument that the Post Office has endorsed Kris as Santa Clause up his sleeve. He should concede nothing until he sees what Fred is trying to pull.
“United States postal laws and regulations make it a criminal offense to willfully misdirect mail or intentionally deliver it to the wrong party,” Fred says, and when the judge and Marra say, “yeah, yeah, whatever,” he produces the sacks of mail delivered to Kris because they were addressed to Santa Claus, burying the judge at his bench and ending the hearing with Kris averting the loony bin.
But the evidence isn’t what Fred said it was! The Post Office made no official ruling that Kris was Santa. In fact, the two postal workers who came up with the idea of delivering them to the courthouse did violate the law, or at least committed a firing offense. Fred hasn’t laid a foundation for admitting the letters as evidence. Who decided to send them to Kris? Did he have the authority? What was his thinking? How does the court know other letters to Santa weren’t delivered to someone else?
The Tell-Tale Cane
Free at last, Kris invites Doris, Fred and Susan to a Christmas party at the nursing home, where he will be Santa Claus, naturally. How and why he gets back to a small institution in New York City after his Christmas Eve ordeal is a mystery. At the party, Susan mopes because she didn’t get…a house. This means that Santa is a fraud, in her mind. I think Santa should have left coal in her stocking. She tells Kris that her mother was right all along: he was just a nice old man with whiskers.
As Fred drives Doris and Susan home, taking a special short cut recommended by Kris, they pass exactly the house Susan wanted, and it’s for sale. Doris and Fred decide to buy it and make a family, and Susan finally believes, not only in Santa Claus, but in THIS Santa Claus. And when Fred finds what looks like Kris’s cane in the house, he starts to wonder himself.
Yes, Kris Kringle is one hell of a realtor.
It’s just moral luck that there happened to be a house nearby that met Susan’s expectations, and Kris got lucky. It doesn’t prove he’s Santa Claus any more than the letters did, but a lot of reputations are created by moral luck. I won’t begrudge Kris Kringle his.
A final note on the objections to my criticism of the ethics on display in Christmas films.
“I suspect we could poke holes in any film with respect to morality and ethics if we wanted to,” a commenter wrote last year. Well…
- I want to, because it’s my job
- Movies are excellent for tuning up ethics alarms
- Christmas movies, which are seen by children, have a special obligation to teach the right lessons, both prominently and subliminally, and
- No, in fact you can’t poke holes in any film, at least not fairly.
I accept it this film as a classic, but the story was constructed to reach the climactic trial gimmick, and scant attention was given to consistency or playing fair. I am a legal ethics expert, after all. You can’t expect me not to analyze a trial like that.
You will never see me try to “poke holes” in the greatest of all Christmas stories, and arguably the best ethics story period, “A Christmas Carol.” That is because it is pretty close to perfect. There are other holiday films and ethics films that are written superbly, and have few if any ethics holes to find. Among these are “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” (most of the Pixar movies, in fact), “Mary Poppins,” “The Sound of Music,” “Babe,” and even “Groundhog Day.”
I’m not the Grinch, but if you set out to make an ethics movie, you had better pay attention to ethics.