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!)
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.”
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.)
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!”
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…
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.
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.)
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.)
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).
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.