Why Miracle on 34th Street delights my cold cynical heart
Miracle on 34th Street is the perfect Christmas movie for those who hate fake sentimentality. It is not that the classic 1947 film lacks schmaltz, but that a sly script hides a sharp edge under every schmear.
Most of the plot advances come when characters, good and bad act out of self-interest. Two exceptions are “Kris Kringle” who is soon revealed to suffer from a delusion of being Santa Claus, and Sawyer, the evil psychologist who acts out of ego-driven malice and hurts other for no gain other than personal satisfaction. With those exceptions everyone has motives an economics 101 student would recognize.
Doris Walker hires Kris Kringle for the Macy’s parade when her original choice turns up drunk. She keeps him as the store Santa because he seems well qualified to play the role, and she is overwhelmingly busy and glad not spend the time finding someone else. When Kringle starts directing shoppers to other stores if Macy’s does not have what they want (or is not their best choice), H.R. Macey keeps him on because it turns out to be great public relations and advertising combined. When, thanks to Sawyer’s villainy, Kringle ends up in a sanity hearing, a combination of political survival and not wishing to disappoint their children result in the judge and prosecutor alike taking it much easier on Kringle than they otherwise would. Kringle is saved when postal workers decide to get rid of the truckload of mail addressed to Santa by delivering it to the courthouse. This delivery gives the judge an excuse to rule that Kringle has been recognized as Santa by an established authority.
Isn’t Fred Gailey another altruist? After all, he leaves a big law firm to take on the apparently hopeless case of defending Kringle. But, he does have a huge personal motive. He wants to win Doris’s love. Even though she says she is disappointed in him for letting idealism trump common sense, it is made pretty obvious in the movie that this fight is Gailey’s only chance with her. In fact this is a dig by the writers at 1947 conventional wisdom about the relations between men and women. In the end, Doris can only become open to romance by giving up her “silly common sense” to the point of actually believing in Santa Claus
Don’t the writers give up the sharp edges at this point? All this self-interested behavior does lead to a happy ending for everyone except the wicked Sawyer, in what could be taken as an analogy to the invisible hand of the free market. Only, I think the ending is as clever as the rest of the film. In the same happy ending that seems to arise from something very like what today we call the Efficient Market Hypothesis(EMH), it also turns out that loveable old Kringle really is Santa Claus.