Miracle on 34th Street: A thought-provoking legal movie
by Becky Bye
One of the most acclaimed holiday movies is the 1947 classic, Miracle on 34th Street. Despite being a movie that many associate with the holiday season, Macy’s, Santa Claus, and the power of optimism, it is also a great movie to watch from a legal standpoint. After all, the pivotal, climactic scene of the movie takes place in a New York courtroom with an ethically conflicted judge presiding.
The movie begins with the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. A Santa Claus hired to be on the vital Santa and the Reindeer float is visibly drunk, and an outraged old man complains to the parade director that no Santa Claus should act that way in front of children. The old man, who goes by the name of Kris Kringle, agrees to replace the drunken Santa. He is a hit, and subsequently, Macy’s hires Kris to be their store Santa Claus. His unorthodox method of referring children’s parents to competitors for gifts and his insistence that he really is Santa at first troubles the store; but after a large increase in sales, Macy’s overlooks any red flags.
Still, a seemingly cold-hearted in-house psychologist at Macy’s irks Mr. Kringle, and one day, Kris uses his cane to lightly hit him on the head — probably to knock some sense into him. Unamused, the psychologist pretends that it was a violent blow and that Mr. Kringle is dangerous to society and delusional, because he is not the real Santa Claus. After being admitted to the psychiatric hospital, Mr. Kringle still claims he really is Santa Claus, and the question of his sanity goes to trial.
The main question throughout the movie is whether the man known as Kris Kringle is really Santa Claus. It takes the legal system to answer this question and to flesh out the proof that Mr. Kringle is who he claims to be. At trial, Mr. Kringle’s attorney zealously tries to prove his client’s identity as Santa Claus, which would indicate Kris’s sound mind and judgment. He puts the owner of Macy’s on the stand to ask him. Mr. Macy is terrified of newsstands with unsavory headlines about Macy’s hiring a fake Santa Claus and thus, does not hesitate to affirm that Mr. Kringle is Santa Claus.
While the judge sought to avoid a ruling that Mr. Kringle is not Santa Clause — because he did not want to be one of the most hated men in New York for ruining Christmas for many children — the judge also felt that little evidence existed to affirm Santa Claus’s identity. Toward the end of the trial, the judge tells Mr. Kringle’s lawyer that the court needs something that positively shows Mr. Kringle is Santa Claus, not just subjective opinion.
Miraculously, Mr. Kringle’s lawyer receives word from enthusiastic postal employees about thousands of letters they have for Santa Claus. They decide to identify Mr. Kringle as the recipient of these letters, as "Santa Claus," and deliver the letters to the judge’s desk. The judge, declaring that he cannot argue with the federal government’s identification of Mr. Kringle as Santa Claus, determines that Mr. Kringle should not be committed to a mental institution.
The movie demonstrates various legal topics throughout that are crucial to the plot. For example, the judge presiding over the trial was internally conflicted over the matter due to his personal interests in hoping that he could say that Mr. Kringle is Santa Claus. Additionally, Mr. Macy had a bias during his testimony that was motivated by his own profit.
The trial itself brings forth other legal issues, such as the burden of proof required for committing someone to a mental institution and representing a client that is potentially mentally incapable. The legal resolution to the case, however, hinged on federal pre-emption in the sense that the U.S. Postal Service—a branch of the federal government—affirmatively recognized the defendant as Santa Claus; accordingly, the New York court did not want to supersede the federal government’s determination by making the determination that he was not Santa Claus.
I had not seen Miracle on 34th Street in many years. I never appreciated the interesting legal issues that were present throughout the movie. I also never appreciated the movie’s quirky and subtle humor.
Until my most recent viewing of this movie, I always believed that Kris Kringle was indeed Santa Claus. When I watched it from my now adult perspective, I realized that the movie leaves the question of whether Kris Kringle is Santa Claus up to the viewer, even after the heartfelt ending. Just like many legal issues, even the ending of this movie is open to interpretation.
With a variety of complex and interesting overtones, as well as its reliance on legal themes, I suggest watching (or re-watching) Miracle on 34th Street this holiday season. D
Becky Bye and James Rufus Garts, III will present a CLE about this movie, with a more in-depth view on some legal issues within the movie’s plot. The CLE is hosted by the DBA-YLD and will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 3. You can contact Becky Bye at firstname.lastname@example.org.