Merry Christmas, Everyone! And Here Is the Final Chapter of “Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, As Kris Kringle Gets His Day In Court [Updated]

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:

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“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion,Chapter 5: Boy, This Guy Sure Doesn’t ACT Like He’s Santa!

Bellevue ride

(The Introduction is here.; Chapter I is here.;Chapter 2 is here; Chapter 3 is here; Chapter 4 is here.)

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…

Sawyer’s Perfidy

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’s Failure

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.

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Comment Of The Day: “’Miracle On 34th Street,’An Ethics Companion,Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family!” And An Explanatory Note On The Holiday Movie Ethics Guides

Grinch

As promised, I am finally completing the “’Miracle On 34th Street’ Ethics Companion,” which I began a year ago and took so long to complete that I ran out of 2019 holidays. As a refresher, I am also, in this post, presenting a Comment of the Day on Chapter Three from all the way back to January 1 of 2020, an excellent analysis of a feature of the story that I missed, by A.M. Golden.

Yesterday’s latest installment attracted some flack from commenters. “Wow, what a Christmas downer, Jack. Channeling Scrooge or the Grinch?” wrote one. “I suspect we could poke holes in any film with respect to morality and ethics if we wanted to.” On the last observation,

  • 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 suspect this will be the last of the traditional holiday film fare to get the ethics work-over, along with “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas,” which will have the annual Christmas season re-posting with updated text up today. The three classics were chosen for different reasons. IAWL was designed as an ethics movie with very important and profound ethics messages, and the more one examines it, the more there is to think about. Nonetheless, its cheats on the way to its most important messages are pretty flagrant—justified, but flagrant—and deserve to be flagged. “White Christmas” is different: it’s a musical, for one thing, and musicals never make sense (why are these people singing?), but it also is story about ethics, so it is fair to examine it on that basis. Moreover, one doesn’t need to poke holes in it, the story is full of ethics holes. None of them bothered me before I became a full time ethicist: Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are two of my favorite entertainers of all time, and the ending still moistens my eye. But the movie is almost impossible to watch now, with my ethics alarms on, and even with my brain on. I had an obligation to dissect it. As for “Miracle,” I accept it as a classic, but the story was constructed to reach the climactic trial gimmick, and scant attention was given to consistency or playing fair. Moreover, I am a legal ethics expert, after all. You can’t honestly 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,” because it is pretty close to perfect. (AND I now see that the link to the text on the home page has gone bad; I’ll be fixing it ASAP!). “A Christmas Story” is off my list because it is seen through a child’s eyes, and ethics has nothing to do with it. Critiquing “Holiday Inn” would be like shooting ethics eels in a barrel, but it’s just not worth the trouble.

There are also 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.

Now here almost a year late, is A.M. Golden’s Comment of the Day on the post, “’Miracle On 34th Street,’An Ethics Companion, Continued…Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family!”

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“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, Continued…Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family! [REVISED and CORRECTED!]

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

 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. Continue reading

“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. Continue reading

“Miracle On 34th Street”…An Ethics Companion, Chapter One: “Meet Kris Kringle!”

The Introduction is here.

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!”

Let’s see:

  • 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.

I suppose. Continue reading

“Miracle On 34th Street”…An Ethics Companion: Introduction

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. The movie, at least the 1947 original, is a classic; 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. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Ken, Popehat Blogger

"You'll find what you're looking for over at Popehat!"

In the spirit of “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which a Macy’s Santa famously sends a shopper to its rival department store Gimbels (R.I.P.), I’d like to direct readers to run, not walk, over to Popehat, the witty and cantankerous blog that often covers similar territory as Ethics Alarms. There Ken, a practicing lawyer, has penned as strong an essay on ethical issues as you are likely to encounter. Writing about an unethical marketer’s outrageous tactics that included posing as a lawyer to intimidate bloggers, Ken powerfully expounds on the use of bogus lawsuit threats to stifle free speech and opinion on the web, and how to fight it.

This has been a continuing theme of his for a long time, to the point of qualifying as a crusade. It is a worthy crusade, and Ken, along with Popehat, is performing a public service with posts such as this one, colorfully entitled, in the Popehat fashion, “Junk Science And Marketeers and Legal Threats, Oh My!”

Good work, Ken.

Sending the Shoppers to Gimbel’s

In  the spirit of the fast approaching holiday season, to emulate one of the most famous ethical gestures in movie history—in “Miracle on 34th Street,” when Kris Kringle, working as a Macy’s Santa, sends a shopper to Macy’s arch rival because it has a gift in stock—but mostly because I’m traveling on business this morning and won’t be able to post any thing until late today, allow me to recommend “The Ethicist” Randy Cohen’s current blog posts, and his readers’ responses, about the obligation to vote. I’m 100% with Randy on this one, and I owe him this to help balance my criticism of his column in the past…and undoubtedly, the future.

And we’ll see how long it takes him to send his readers to Ethics Alarms.