Post written by guest blogger: Judge Bob McGahey.
“The One and Only Santa Claus!”
Miracle on 34th Street (the one from 1947) is the second greatest Christmas movie ever. The climax is when a white-bearded jolly gentleman named Kris Kringle goes on trial for lunacy, after insisting that he really is Santa Claus. The legal machinations surrounding that trial are some of the best things about the movie – and the main reason I chose Miracle on 34th Street for December’s review. (Well, that and the fact that it’s a Christmas movie!)
One thing that makes Miracle on 34th Street so good is its terrific cast. The story focuses on Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) and Susan Walker, a six year old girl played by the heartbreakingly young Natalie Wood. Also prominent are Fred Gailey (John Payne), a young lawyer who represents Kris and Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), and Susan’s mother, a no-nonsense divorcee who works for Macy’s as special events coordinator. Also making an appearance are Judge Henry X. Harper, played by veteran character actor Gene Lockhart, and his political advisor, Charlie Halloran, played by William Frawley, whom you may remember as the beloved Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. There are other wonderful characters, all well played by excellent actors. (Watch for Jack Albertson in a literal throwaway part.) In addition to Edmund Gwenn, George Seaton (who also directed the film) won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and Valentine Davies won one for Best Original Story. Miracle on 34th Street was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Gentlemen’s Agreement.
(As an aside, Doris was way ahead of her time: she was an independent, self-confident, successful divorced woman, raising a child without a husband. Showing a “divorced woman” in a positive light got this movie a “B” rating from the National Legion of Decency for being “morally objectionable in part”.)
The movie opens with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Gwenn actually played Santa in the 1946 parade, which was filmed for use in the movie. Oddly enough, this movie was released in May of 1947, because Daryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, believed that more people went to the movies in the summer than in the winter. The original publicity for the film suggests that it’s a love story between the two adult leads, with hardly any mention of the centrality of the holiday theme.
The legal elements of this movie are great. Kringle’s trial for lunacy – and his potential commitment to an asylum if he loses – is portrayed convincingly, yet with humor. The evidence is wonderful: Kris cheerfully agrees that he’s Santa, the DA immediately rests, Fred subpoenas the DA’s son as a witness, the Post Office gets involved, etc. But there are other, deeper things that the movie says about lawyers, judges, and justice that are important.
First of all there’s Fred Gailey. He’s a junior lawyer with a prominent firm, and appears to be on an upward path in that realm. But after he takes on Kris as a client and becomes more and more convinced of the righteousness of the case, he eventually loses his job and (for a while at least) his budding romance with Doris. Fred demonstrates that a lawyer’s duty to his client and to justice can have difficult and painful personal consequences. He shows, as the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct states, that “[a] lawyer is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having a special responsibility for the quality of justice.”
And then there’s Judge Harper. Coming from Colorado, I’m a die-hard supporter of merit selection for judges. Miracle on 34th Street shows, in humorous form, the pitfalls and dangers of electing judges. The scenes between Judge Harper and his political adviser Halloran, are hilarious when you watch them, but on another level, they emphasize how a judge could be influenced by having to appeal to various constituencies to stay on the bench. There’s also a wonderful scene between the judge and his grandchildren that demonstrates the potential consequences for a judge who has to make tough decisions. It’s so good that Mark Caldwell and I used it as part of an ethics presentation at the Colorado Judicial Conference in 2011.
There are three caveats about watching this movie. First of all, try to watch it without commercials. The pacing and flow are important – and since it’s a relatively short film (96 minutes), those matter. Secondly, try to watch it in black and white, as it was originally filmed. I don’t want to get on a rant here, but colorization? Ugh! Finally (and I will rant here), DO NOT, under any circumstances, think that the 1994 remake is a viable substitute. It most emphatically isn’t!
I could go on. Instead, I think I’ll go home tonight, break out my black and white DVD copy, and watch Miracle on 34th Street. And I’ll watch it again with my grandchildren after they all get here for the holiday.
And finally, as Susan says near the end of the movie: “I believe… I believe… It’s silly, but I believe.” After watching Miracle on 34th Street, see if you don’t believe, too.
A happy and healthy holiday season to everyone in the NITA family!