Tag Archives: Gene Lockhart

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A Legal “Miracle” or How US Law Saved Kris Kringle

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20th Century Fox’s 1947 Academy Award-winning comedy Miracle on 34th Street (directed and written by George Seaton from an original story by Valentine Davies) is justifiably regarded by film connoisseurs as one of the two most beloved of Hollywood Christmas classics. (The other one is, of course, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, Miracle on 34th Street is often referred to as “the best Capra picture Capra never made.”)

As just about everybody knows thanks to the numerous obligatory television presentations this time of year, Miracle on 34th Street tells the story of Kris Kringle (character actor Edmund Gwenn in the performance that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), a kindly old man who’s hired to play Santa Claus at Macy’s Department Store for the holiday season. Kris turns out to not only be an outstandingly convincing Santa, he also insists that he’s the real article. As a result, he eventually winds up in court for a hearing to determine if he’s mentally unsound and should be committed to the mental ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Representing Kris is idealistic young lawyer, Fred Gailey, played by John Payne. (More about Fred and the other characters later.)

Over the years, Miracle on 34th Street has received much well-deserved praise for its colorful characters, iconic performances, witty script, and the heartwarming sentimentality that delicately avoids becoming maudlin or treacly. But there’s one unlikely aspect of Miracle on 34th Street that has yet to receive much attention: the accuracy of its depiction of the use and interpretation of law in legal proceedings. Fred, the romantic lead, is, after all, an attorney, but given Hollywood’s track record on courtroom movies, that in itself was hardly a guarantee of authenticity. Indeed, the laughable amount of inaccuracies in Hollywood’s depictions of lawyers and their work makes it seem as though screenwriters consider it a badge of honor to avoid any research on the subject whatsoever and just make up their own approaches to interpreting the law out of whole cloth. (And don’t even get me started on David Mamet’s courtroom scenes in The Verdict and The Untouchables!)

Miracle-On-34th-Street-1947-6John Payne, Edmund Gwenn

The climatic courtroom sequences of Miracle on 34th Street were undoubtedly inspired and patterned after the equivalent scenes in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935). In both films, a beloved saintly character winds up in a New York court proceeding in order to determine his mental competency. (Longfellow Deeds wants to give his vast fortune away to the poor, much to the dismay of his relatives, lawyers, financial advisors, and various other “moochers.”) But Capra and his screenwriter Robert Riskin eschewed the mechanics of the law in allowing their hero to avoid commitment and relied more on crowd-pleasing sentimentality. Deeds, who’s rejected legal advice and represents himself, simply makes a speech explaining his reasoning for wanting to give his riches away, which is convincing enough for the judge to declare him “the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom.”

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Seaton, on the other hand, opted for a legally valid way for Fred to get a judgment in favor of his client. Interestingly, Fred initially attempts to make an argument on sentimental grounds that reflect Capra’s approach. He calls Dr. Pierce (James Seay), who works at the nursing home Kris resides at, to the stand to testify that Kris is no threat to himself or others, and that his insistence of being Santa Claus is a harmless delusion not unlike the case of a well-known Hollywood restaurateur. (For the edification of those less than half a century old, this was an obvious reference to “Prince” Michael Romanoff, celebrated owner of Romanoff’s in Los Angeles, who had a running joke with his friends and customers in which he claimed to be a member of the Royal Family of Russia.)

genelockhartmiracleon34thstGene Lockhart

This line of questioning is quickly shot down by District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan as a caricature of real-life New York DA Thomas Dewey) who points out that there’s a difference between pretending to be someone you’re not and pretending to be someone who’s an imaginary figure. He then asks Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) for an immediate ruling as to the existence of Santa Claus. Of course, the judge (who also has gubernatorial ambitions) can’t possibly rule there’s a Santa Claus without becoming a national laughing stock, but before he can even address the issue, he’s called into conference by his political advisor, NY Democratic Party boss Charlie Halloran (William Frawley). Halloran tells Harper with clear, unsentimental logic why he can’t rule against the existence of Santa Claus in a speech beautifully delivered with withering sarcasm by Frawley in his greatest pre-I Love Lucy moment of glory:

“All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus. It’s all over the papers. The kids read it and they 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 CIO and the AF of L against you and they’re going to adore you for it and they’re going to say it with votes. Oh, and the department stores are going to love you, too, and the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. Henry, you’re going to be an awful popular fella’. And what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they’re taking 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 is no Santy Claus. Go on. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes, your own and that district attorney’s out there!”

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As a punch line, the judge responds by meekly pointing out that the DA’s a Republican. Returning to the courtroom, Harper sidesteps the issue by declaring that whether Santa Claus actually exists is irrelevant; the defense’s obligation to affirm his client’s sanity is to prove that Kris is “the one and only Santa Claus.” This seemingly raises the bar to an impossible level for Fred, but Seaton has cleverly set the stage for a solution to Fred’s winning Kris’ case that adheres to legal procedure.

A slight digression now as we turn our attention to the two major characters I have yet to mention: the Macy’s employee who first hired Kris, single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), and her daughter Susan (wonderfully played by an eight-year-old Natalie Wood). Disillusioned by the failure of her marriage, Doris has forbidden Susan from believing in “fairy-tale” characters, including Santa Claus. Which is why, despite her considerable affection for Kris, Susan tells him that, to her, he’s “just a kind old man with whiskers.” After Judge Harper’s ruling, Susan comes to a crucial decision to cheer up Kris by writing him a letter stating that she’s changed her mind and now is willing to believe he’s Santa Claus, after all. (Unbeknownst to Susan, Doris adds a post-script telling Kris that she believes in him, too.) Then, Susan addresses the envelope to “Kris Kringle, New York County Courthouse.” Which brings us to…

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The “miracle” of the title. That night (past midnight, so it’s now officially Christmas Eve), a post office mail sorter on the graveyard shift (an unbilled Jack Albertson) notices the letter’s address and has an inspiration. If “Santa Claus” can be found at the courthouse, why not get rid of all those thousands of “Dear Santa” missives taking up space in the dead letter department by sending them to the courthouse as well? Management agrees and this unnamed postal worker’s practical joke unwittingly turns out to be the miracle that makes it possible for Fred to have Kris recognized as Santa Claus in a way that holds water legally.

jackalbertsonmiracleon34thstreetJack Albertson

Upon receiving notice that there are several bags of mail awaiting delivery to his client, Fred does some quick research on postal law. As Fred recites to the court when he returns, “United States postal laws and regulations make it a criminal offense to willfully misdirect mail or intentionally deliver it to the wrong party.” (Not surprisingly, the actual wording of the law around that time was much drier and more technical: “For a person employed under the Post Office. To steal, or for any purpose whatever embezzle, secrete, or destroy a post letter, is a felony, punishable by penal servitude not exceeding seven years, or imprisonment not exceeding two years.” However, I think some artistic license can be granted to Seaton for wording the law in terms that would be more accessible to general audiences. And you have to give him props for making the language sound like authentic legalese.)

johnpayneJohn Payne, Edmund Gwenn

After he finishes reciting the law, Fred produces three letters addressed only “to Santa Claus” that were directly delivered to Kris and asks that they be entered as evidence. When the DA objects that “three letters are hardly proof positive,” Fred responds, “I have further exhibits, but I hesitate to produce them.” At this point, the judge insists that all of the exhibits be produced and placed upon his desk, which is the set-up for the movie’s single most memorable sight gag as a seemingly unending line of court officers parade into the courtroom and dump the contents of several mail bags onto the bench, the enormous pile eventually hiding the judge completely from view. (This bit of visual comedy is perhaps the film’s most Capraesque touch of all.)

case-dismissed-miracle-on-34-st-2John Payne, Gene Lockhart

Having introduced his evidence, Fred delivers his legal coup de grâce: “Your Honor, every one of these letters is addressed to Santa Claus. The Post Office has delivered them. Therefore, the Post Office, a branch of the federal government, recognizes this man, Kris Kringle, to be the one and only Santa Claus!” The judge parts the sea of envelopes before him and, rather than sentimentally declaring Kris to be “the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom,” simply dismisses the case with, “Since the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it.” Thus, the judge has been given a legally acceptable way of getting out of a case he never wanted to preside over in the first place without alienating the voters or his grandchildren (who have been snubbing him for being mean to Santa Claus).

1964_4-cropEdmund Gwenn

With the case dismissed and Kris granted his freedom, there are still some important (and poignant) plot threads to be tied up, but this finishes things as far as the subject of this article is concerned. The point here is not that Miracle on 34th Street is a precisely detailed examination of US law, but rather that the attention to legal detail is pleasantly unexpected for a comedy. (And the fact that it still remains an extraordinarily amusing and entertaining movie that ranks with the best films of Capra and Preston Sturges doesn’t hurt it, either.) Another comedy that shows unusual legal acumen on the part of the filmmaker is Billy Wilder’s 1966 satire on tort law The Fortune Cookie, but that’s gist for another article…

Doug Krentzlin used to be a legal assistant in another existence.

 

 

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DVD Review: “The Strange Woman” (1946)

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One of the main reasons that truly dedicated cinema aficionados have particular respect and admiration for ‘B’ filmmakers is that not only could they achieve a level of visual style on low budgets that put the work of more respectable (and overrated) directors working with infinitely larger budgets to shame, but also do so with greater speed and efficiency. (This explains why many ‘B’ directors like John Brahm, Robert Florey, Ida Lupino, William Witney, Norman Foster, and William “One-Shot” Beaudine thrived in the television medium; the budgets and schedules required for TV were downright luxurious compared with the conditions they’d made theatrical films under.) One director who epitomized this concept of doing more with less was Edgar G. Ulmer. As part of their series of remastered DVD releases of public domain movies previously available only in cheap, multi-generational knock-offs, Film Chest has just issued a high-definition restored version of Ulmer’s 1946 costume melodrama The Strange Woman.

Coincidentally, as with Hollow Triumph, another 40s ‘B’ film recently remastered and released on DVD by Film Chest, The Strange Woman was a project that was initiated by its star, in this case, Hedy Lamarr. (For years, Lamarr was written off as yet another attractive starlet with a limited acting range, but it’s now well known that she had a genius I.Q. and, with composer George Antheil, invented a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum device that was patented in their names in 1942. The device not only prevented the jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes, but laid the groundwork for today’s Internet as well.)

Lamarr was dissatisfied with her time under contract to MGM, where she was wasted in glamorous but unsubstantial roles. It also didn’t help that MGM refused to loan Lamarr to Warner Bros. when she was the first choice for what would’ve been the most notable role of her career, Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. (Lamarr’s loss, however, was film history’s gain when David O. Selznick gladly loaned out Warners’ second choice, Ingrid Bergman, since Bergman was, frankly, a far more talented and nuanced actress. MGM did loan Lamarr to Warners two years later for The Conspirators, however.)

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After leaving MGM in 1945, Lamarr tried freelancing, an option becoming increasingly popular at the time among film stars whose studio contracts had run out and wanted to exercise more control over their careers. Lamarr purchased the film rights to Ben Ames Williams’ novel The Strange Woman, a steamy tale in which Jenny Hager, a young temptress from the wrong side of town (said town being Bangor, Maine, circa the early 1800s), sleeps her way to riches and respectability. Lamarr then teamed with fellow MGM alumni Jack Chertock and Hunt Stromberg to produce. She also selected Ulmer, a childhood friend in her native Vienna, to direct.

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Ulmer directing Lamarr and Sanders

Being an independent production, The Strange Woman was made on a limited budget, but it must have seemed have seemed lavish compared to the miniscule budgets Ulmer was used to working with when he was under contract to Producers Releasing Company (or PRC, as it was commonly known), the cheapest of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios. The Strange Woman is what was known as a “bodice ripper” (i.e., “lusty” costume romantic-melodramas populated by male scoundrels and promiscuous female protagonists), a subgenre that proved to be especially popular with movie audiences in the post-war years in such films as Gainsborough Pictures’ The Wicked Lady (UK, 1945), 20th Century Fox’s Forever Amber (1947), and MGM’s That Forsythe Woman (1949). Although The Strange Woman’s budget was a fraction of the ones these movies were made on, Ulmer’s visual creativity belied its modest resources.

Still, the movie’s sense of visual style was not enough for it to transcend its soap opera story and script. (The screenplay is credited to radio writer Herb Meadow, but supposedly Ulmer and Stromberg also did uncredited work on it.) I’d say that The Strange Woman’s story is like a bad Harlequin romance, except that “bad Harlequin romance” is a redundancy. With exceptional directing, writing, and acting, it’s possible to make a quality film out of this type of material as proven by William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) with its Academy Award-winning star performance by Bette Davis. But, at any rate, Lamarr was no Davis, not by a long shot, and even admitted in her autobiography that she didn’t have the range to pull the role off: “I just wasn’t a tigress. All the talent at my disposal couldn’t make me one.”

A cliché that was overused in that period was showing the main characters as children and how their psychological makeup was already apparent in their personalities. In the opening scene of The Strange Woman (supposedly directed by an uncredited Douglas Sirk), we are introduced to the main characters as adolescents as they play by a river stream. Even at an early age, young Jenny (played by Jo Ann Marlowe), daughter of town drunk Tim Hager (Dennis Hoey), is obviously a bad seed, as evidenced by her bouncing a rock off the head of one boy in a swimming race with another boy (she was rooting for the other boy) and then taunting Ephraim (Christopher Severn), the son of wealthy merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), who owns the local general store in addition to a lumber camp outside the town. Just to show what a hellcat Jenny is, when Ephraim reveals that he can’t swim, she promptly pushes him into the water. And just to add insult to injury, after another lad pulls Ephraim out of the stream before he drowns, Jenny takes credit for the rescue.

Fast-forward to about a decade later. Jenny (Lamarr) has grown to be an attractive young woman who’s got definite ideas of what she wants and how to get it. While Jenny shows off her new dress to gal pal Lena Tempest (June Storey), a barmaid at the local dive down by the docks, her friend offers her some encouragement.

Lena: “Listen, honey, with your looks, you don’t have to worry. Why, you can get the youngest and best-looking man on the river.”
Jenny: “I don’t want the youngest; I want the richest!”
Lena: “Jenny, that’s a recipe for trouble!”
Jenny: (coquettishly) “Don’t worry about me. I can handle trouble.”
Lena: “I know you can.”

The richest man in the area being the aforementioned Isaiah Poster (conveniently, a widower), Jenny’s already got him in her sights. She gets her chance to reel him in when her father drops dead of a fatal heart attack due to his exertions while taking a whip to her for her wantonness. (Sounds kinky, huh? Well, we’ll get to that later.) Jenny shows up on Isaiah’s doorstep, acting as distraught as her thespian talents will allow. Sure enough, Isaiah offers Jenny protection and a roof over her head in the form of a marriage proposal, which she “gratefully” accepts.

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The next step to achieving her goals is provided by Isaiah’s son Ephraim, due back from boarding school. The adult Ephraim is played by Louis Hayward with the usual combination of callowness and moral ambiguity he usually brought to his roles whether he was playing a hero or a heavy. Ephraim turns out to be a spineless weakling, which makes him ideal for the manipulations Jenny has in mind. (Indeed, Ephraim’s such an obvious patsy that he calls to mind the great line that Preston Sturges gave Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve when she’s sizing up Henry Fonda as her mark: “I need him like the ax needs the turkey.”)

Jenny puts the moves on Ephraim and, as they go into a clinch, Isaiah shows up right on cue to witness them in the act and suffers a stroke there on the spot. (Jenny would seem to be the Typhoid Mary of heart disease.) Unexpectedly, and much to Jenny’s disappointment, Isaiah recovers. Time for Plan B. Borrowing a page from the film noir femme fatales’ book, Jenny convinces Ephraim to bump his old man off.

The opportunity presents itself when there’s trouble at the lumber camp and both Posters will be required to make the journey to the camp via canoe in the rapid waters of the river. (Guess who else can’t swim?) As it turns out, before he can commit cold-blooded fratricide, Ephraim has a panic attack as they travel downstream, resulting in the canoe capsizing. It may be an accident, but it achieves the effect desired by Jenny: Isaiah’s demise. Now that Ephraim’s fulfilled his usefulness, Jenny takes chutzpah to a whole new level, denouncing him for killing her husband and barring him from the family home. She needs to get Ephraim out of the picture because she’s already got her next boytoy lined up: John Evered (George Sanders), the fiancé of her childhood friend Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke).
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On the plus side, in addition to Sanders, Hoey, Lockhart, and Hayward, The Strange Woman’s supporting cast also includes such first-rate character actors as Alan Napier, Rhys Williams, and Moroni Olsen. On the debit side of the ledger is the fact that the weak material the cast has to work with doesn’t make much use of their talents. Sanders is particularly wasted in a standard leading man role, rather than playing one of his patented cads who might’ve given Jenny a suitable antagonist to provide her with a well-deserved comeuppance, much like his Addison DeWitt did so satisfyingly with Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington in All About Eve.

There are some fleeting moments when The Strange Woman threatens to become a perverse kitsch classic, such as Jenny’s wicked smile as her father starts whipping her or her seduction of John Evered during a raging thunderstorm where, at the height of their passion, a bolt of lightning causes a tree to burst into flames. But such moments are few and far between, buried under tons of tedious dialogue as the characters talk endlessly about their desires and aspirations. The one interesting aspect of the story is how Jenny uses her newfound wealth to help those townspeople in need, but even this isn’t enough to make up for the screenplay’s defects.

As with Film Chest’s other recent remastered DVD releases, despite some obvious scratching in the first reel, The Strange Woman is consistently good to look at. Whether the film itself is actually worth watching is another matter altogether.