We push behind an old man as he walks down a New York street. He’s dressed normally, in a black overcoat, a black bowler hat on his head, a cane in hand to aid his step. He notices a man arranging a display in a store window, tiny models of Santa’s sleigh and his eight reindeer. The old man raps on the window and informs the man in the store that he’s making a mistake – the reindeer are in the wrong order, and Cupid’s antlers have four points, not three. The old man seems like a well-meaning sort, with his long white beard and twinkling eyes, so the guy in the store politely promises to fix the display, and the old man goes on his way. It’s Thanksgiving Day, and the Macy’s Parade is about to start. The old man discovers Macy’s Santa Claus tangled up in his reindeer whip on the edge of a drunken stupor. The old man informs Doris Walker, the parade’s coordinator, and volunteers to stand in as Santa. “Have you had any experience?” Doris asks the old man. “Oh, well, a little.”
He says his name is Kris Kringle. When he’s hired by Macy’s to continue on as their department store Santa, his employment card lists “North Pole” as his birthplace, and the Brooks Home for the Aged in New Jersey as his current address. Doris and the other people at the store think he’s a little nuts, but he’s the best Santa they’ve ever seen, so they’re more than happy to indulge the old man’s delusion. Doris has a daughter, Susie, and Susie visits this new Santa at the suggestion of her neighbor, Mr. Gailey, who dotes on Susie and has an eye for her mother. Susie has been raised by Doris to be skeptical, so she isn’t convinced by Kris’s authentic looking red suit or his real whiskers. It’s a little harder to shrug off when he speaks and sings in Dutch to a little immigrant girl in line behind Susie, but Doris explains that millions of people around the world speak Dutch, so it’s not that big of a deal.
Mr. Gailey is a lawyer, but like all lawyers in 1940s cinema, he is an idealist. He wants to encourage in Susie the faith and wonder that Doris has discouraged. Kris insists he really is Santa Claus, and Gailey wants Susie to believe in him. At times, Gailey seems to believe it himself. This becomes important as the story progresses, and Kris’s sanity is challenged, leading to a court hearing to decide whether or not he should be committed to a mental hospital. Kris optimistically chooses Mr. Gailey to represent him against the city district attorney. Of course Kris wins, and on Christmas Eve no less. But it’s not a teary-eyed speech by Gailey that movies the judge – it’s a mountain of letters addressed to Santa Claus, delivered by the U.S. Post Office to Kris at the courthouse. “Since the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it,” the Judge declares and dismisses the case with a bang of his gavel.
I watched this film with Ashley on DVD a few days ago, the first time in a long time I had seen it straight through from start to finish without commercial interruption. The scenes I loved as a child were still there – the drunk Macy’s Santa singing “Jingle Bells” as he passes out, Kris singing with the Dutch girl, Kris cracking the obnoxious store psychiatrist in the skull with an umbrella, the mountain of letters on the Judge’s desk, and Susie running into the house Kris promised her at the end, finding a swing in the back yard and shouting joyously “There is one, there is one!” – along with so much more I had never noticed before. Miracle on 34th Street won three Oscars in 1948 – Best Original Story, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Edmund Gwenn (Kris) – there’s a lot more going on here than a cute Santa movie.
For the years before Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, the film is extremely progressive. Doris is a working single mother. She and her husband are divorced. The divorce obviously had an effect on her character and on how she has raised her daughter. No big deal to you and me since modern films must by law contain at least four divorced single mothers, but in 1947 divorce was still a taboo subject. Into the 1970s divorce was barely mentioned on television, and only slightly more occasionally in film. Miracle on 34th Street gives us a smart, strong, divorced woman front and center, and although she believes in Kris by the end the same as everyone else, and she and Gailey appear on their way to the altar, she is far from an apron-clad Stepford Wife.
What I enjoyed the most watching it this last time was seeing how the happy ending was brought about by individual characters working in their own interests. The district attorney concedes the existence of Santa Claus after his own young son is called to the stand by Gailey; the Judge makes allowances for Gailey to prove his preposterous case after his campaign manager convinces him that ruling against Santa Claus will cost him re-election; Mr. Macy testifies that he believes Kris is the true Santa Claus after seeing visions of unflattering headlines – “Macy Admits Santa a Fraud!” – the heap of mail that eventually wins the day for Kris is delivered to the courthouse by postal employees who are simply tired of having the thousands of Santa letters sitting in the dead letter office. Things work out in the end, Kris gets to go on being Santa, Gailey and Doris fall in love and little Susie gets a new Daddy, not because people are really good at heart, but in large part because they aren’t.
Is Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? The movie is noncommittal. The State of New York thinks he is, and so does Susie, who gets her dream house in which to live with her mother and Mr. Gailey, but we never see a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer, we never see elves toiling away at the North Pole. We see New York City, we see Macy’s department store, we see reality. Is Kris Santa Claus or just a sweetly-deluded (and very resourceful) old man? The film doesn’t answer that question. All it tells us is that there ought to be room in the world for men like Kris, whoever they are.