It's a Christmas-themed edition of the FilmDrunk Law Review today, in which your
Godless Jew lawyer humble legal correspondent fits in a last film examination before turning back to matters litigatory. (Yes, it's a multi-pager, but you can view as a single if you so desire).
Gruff exterior notwithstanding, ol' B. Finch gets positively sentimental this time of year. So when the spirit takes hold, I brush the face off my lap, grab the nearest iPad that doesn't have a tumbler of The Macallan on it and fire up a holiday classic. The Holy Trinity of Christmas Movies is undisputed: It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and whichever version of A Christmas Carol (including Scrooged) you prefer. There are many other entries in the genre--Bad Santa, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon being among my personal favorites; Home Alone, Love Actually and The Santa Clause being ones that apparently exist. Miracle on 34th Street occupies a strange position, in that it's well-known and beloved, but I'm not sure anybody watches anymore. However, I am about to jam this bad boy in your eyeholes because not only is it pretty good, but it's the only story in which Christmas gets saved by A MOTHERF*CKIN LAWYER.
1. The movie takes place in 1947.
We're dealing with the original version, not one of the several remakes. I point out the year not only to give you background info, but also some important perspective: the central character (more or less) is Doris Walker, who runs the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is 45 years before A Few Good Men, but Doris still gets WAY more respect in the workplace than Demi Moore does. Sayin. [No, I am not done with Sorkin. I will never be done with Sorkin.]
2. It starts with Kris Kringle walking the streets of NYC.
Seriously, that's the character's name. If you're vaguely aware of Mo34S, or you think that maybe you saw it once, what you probably think you know is that it's the movie where Santa Claus is on trial. Pretty much true. The central question of the story is whether or not this guy who clearly believes that he is Santa Claus actually is. The legal proceedings happen about an hour in. Right now, I'm wondering what Double K does when he's in Manhattan. In the 1940's, you could probably get a tremendous corned beef sandwich and a Times Square handjob for about fifteen cents total, so you know where you'd find me. Kringle, a better man than I, micromanages reindeer placement in store windows.
3. Oscar pedigree.
Edmund Gwenn plays Kringle, and he won Best Supporting Actor. I am fine with this. It's a good performance and dude is definitely a Santa-looking motherf*cker. Everybody else who showed up for the audition must have been like daaaaamn.
It also won for Story and Screenplay, which were apparently two different things back then.
4. The true miracle here is the spectacularly innovative product placement, and it warms my heart.
The eponymous 34th Street refers to the location of Macy's, then and now a major New York department store. As subtly foreshadowed above, the hero of the story is a lawyer who saves all the little gentiles from finding out what Christmas morning is like for the rest of us. Him I'll get to. The hero behind the scenes, however, is whichever one of my predecessors in entertainment law that Macy's got to make the branding deal with the filmmakers.
Nutshell: the story starts with the Macy's Parade, which apparently ends with Santa on a float. The guy Doris hired to play Santa shows up hammered, so our man Kringle fills in for him. This gets him a gig as the in-store Santa, and thenceforth, jinks, both high and low, ensue. But the key is, Macy's is constantly front and center in the movie. Most of it either takes place in the store or has people talking about it. If you took an egg nog shot every time somebody mentions Macy's, you'd be fat by the end of this movie. Fat and dead. Which is not a good look (RIP Biggie).
This kind of corporate promotion has been tried since--fairly effectively (Federal Express in Cast Away) and extremely ineffectively (Google in The Internship). But making your brand central to something that's going to be shown every year, during your peak season, until the end of time? GENIUS. Whoever made this happen was the Oliver Wendell Holmes of selling sh*t, and I salute him.
5. The lead is played by Maureen O'Hara.
Not one of the largest luminaries of old Hollywood, but she was in How Green Was My Valley, which won Best Picture, and she's fine in this. I think it's important to mention that she was born Maureen FitzSimons, and at some point she apparently decided that she would never achieve stardom unless she changed her name to something equally Irish.
6. The lawyer lives down the hall.
Doris is the divorced (my stars!) mother of seven year-old Susan, played by a young Natalie Wood. When you watch a child performer in an old movie, the key is to forget that they grow up hot. See, e.g., Natalie Portman in The Professional or Ryan Gosling on Mickey Mouse Club (hey--I'm as straight as they make 'em but Baby Goose is a lovely, lovely man. I digress.). Fred the lawyer lives on their floor, and as a way to make an approach on Doris, he has been hanging around with the daughter. Single man, kicking it with a second grader.
Game recognize game and all, but you are skating on some wafer-thin ice.
7. The clothes.
His wooing tactics may be suspect, but Fred can rock the snot out of a suit. I find it trippy that men could still use wardrobe from 70 years ago with only minor alterations. Doris, by contrast, has to overcome blazers from the "Left Tackle" collection.
8. Doris is overworked.
I was wondering what the person who ran the Macy's parade did the rest of the year; Doris's other duties, apparently, include running H.R.
9. Her subordinates might want to start asking follow-up questions.
Every new hire provides some basic information, as you do. While employment law is not my area of expertise, I spotted some red flags here.
I think he got a little bit cute there, but then again, there probably weren't any protections against age discrimination at the time, so, well played. Apparently Rudolph wasn't a thing yet, or else he got cut out of the will. As did Mrs. Claus. I bet there's a story there. And: "Donder"? I always thought it was "Donner," although we didn't cover the topic extensively in Hebrew School. Speaking of which--you'd think living in Great Neck would have led him to chill on his "Goyim only" gift policy.
10. Macy's is overstaffed.
While Kringle (yes it feels weird typing that) is popular among the customers who bring their kids to see him, there are concerns that he might be out of his f*cking mind, which might involve some liability on the store's part. Doris thus sends him to the staff psychologist, which--was that a thing?
11. Another snifter of branding.
I remain awed by the licensing brilliance behind this movie. At one point, Kringle makes the requisite lament about the commercialization of Christmas, and, yeah, but I'm sure people have been complaining about that since the myrrh salesman ruined the sanctity of the manger. The problem is, K squared has already ended his ride on the parade float by exhorting the crowd to shop at Macy's, what with it having the greatest toy department in the known world and so forth. The scene has an unfortunate Mussolini-addresses-the-rabble vibe:
P.S. you're working in a store. Commercialism? J'accuse, Kringle.
12. Herein hangs our tale.
Right, so he is sent to talk to the store psychologist, who is presented as an altogether disagreeable individual. Unpleasant words are exchanged, and a provoked Kringle ends up hitting him on the head with his cane. This sets the crisis in motion as the psychologist calls the attack evidence of "latent maniacal tendencies" and uses it as a pretext for getting Kringle committed to Bellevue.
13. The defendant has been charged with the wrong thing.
Did you catch the part about Santa hitting the guy on the f*cking head? Mythical bringer of joy to children the world over or no, that is inappropriate workplace behavior. It should be noted, however, that having your sanity questioned is wildly preferable to catching an aggravated assault charge.
14. Kringle lawyers up.
The psychiatrists at Bellevue call Lawyer Fred after Kringle is committed. Let me step back a little: when he got hired by Macy's, K was still living in Great Neck, and that's a brutal commute. So Fred volunteered to let him crash during the holiday season. Fred, by the way, has twin beds and an ashtray on the night stand. The greatest generation was f*cking quirky.
15. Fred quits his job to represent Santa.
He works at a law firm that doesn't want the publicity of being associated with getting a guy who claims to be Santa Claus out of a mental institution, so Fred sticks it to the man and goes solo. He's basically a hippie with killer lapels. Doris does not approve and tells him that he's on an "idealistic binge." We're supposed to think she's wrong, but that's a great thing to say.
16. Macy's tries to get Kringle out of Bellevue.
When the higher ups at Macy's find out that their staff psychologist has tried to have their new star employee declared insane, they are displeased. They don't want customers thinking they've been putting their kids on the lap of a maniac, and the store desperately wants to avoid bad publicity.
Mr. Macy himself tries to intercede on Kringle's behalf, but once the DA's office gets involved, the state is required to go forward with the legal proceedings.
17. Mr. Macy fires the store psychologist.
No word on whether they hired a replacement or decided to just outsource.
The whole "Mr. Macy" thing is bullsh*t. The real R. H. Macy was a Quaker who founded the store and died in the 19th century. The company was bought in 1895 by two brothers named Straus who, shall we say, were more into "Happy Holidays" than "Merry Christmas."
I looked this up.
According to Macy's itself, the date for Thanksgiving was set as the 4th Thursday in November (as opposed to the *last* Thursday) by a federal law passed in 1941, because retailers had lobbied to extend the Christmas shopping season. I can't be the only one who didn't know this.
20. Back to the case.
In the New York Supreme Court, the judge points out, "this is a hearing, not a trial."
21. The State.
The prosecutor's case: a) Kringle believes that there is a Santa Claus; b) he believes that said Santa Claus is him; and c) therefore, he should remain involuntarily committed to a mental institution. To wit--""Anyone who thinks he's Santa Claus is not sane." Not the worst theory.
22. The Plan.
They put Kringle on the stand and ask him one question: "Do you believe you're Santa Claus?" Basically, the Demi strategy from A Few Good Men. And yes, it works.
23. The Defense. "I intend to prove that Mr. Kringle is Santa Claus." Easier said than done, guy.
24. The Overlooked Philosophical Debate.
The unasked question is, what does it mean to be Santa Claus? More to the point, what does Kringle think it means? Like, literally, that you fly around the world on Christmas Eve, pulling millions of B&E's? He clearly doesn't subscribe to the elf workshop part of the concept, insofar as he is on board with people buying presents made elsewhere for their kids. And he lives much closer to the Hamptons than the North Pole. I think Fred could have gone much deeper with this issue--for instance, "Do you think you're the only Santa Claus, or one among many? Are you St. Nicholas or is that a whole nother thing? Do you bypass China entirely?"
It would appear that I am considerably deeper than the screenwriters.
25. The only real villains in this story are the psychologist and reality.
Both the prosecutor and the judge are shown to be fairly decent people caught in the bind of publicly declaring a beloved figure mentally incompetent and possibly dangerous. Sure, the Judge is concerned about his reelection prospects, but we're only a few years removed from the depression here, and a job is a job. They have very legitimate concerns about leaving this person in close proximity to children. So, a big up to Mo34S for showing lawyers as good guys.
In order to force a concession from the state that Santa Claus exists, Fred calls the prosecutor's young son to the stand to testify that he believes, knowing that the prosecutor won't contradict him. That's some cold sh*t.
27. The Problem.
So now Santa that has been deemed extant, Fred has to prove that Kringle is him. For these purposes, he needs some "authority" to corroborate the claim.
28. Santa's sacks. Probably the signature moment from the film is this:
Because the post office, an agency of the U.S. Government, has delivered all mail addressed to "Santa Claus" to the courthouse, attn: Kringle, there is now authoritative proof that Kringle is believed to be who he claims to be. A victorious Fred drops the mic.
29. The judge looks like Herbert Hoover.
Know how much somebody has to look like Hoover for me to say, that guy looks like Hoover? A lot. [Note: I am not "Hoover administration" old. Shut up.]
30. Natalie Wood is unclear on the concept.
Susan has never asked Santa for anything before, because her mother is pragmatic and allergic to fun. This year, for the first time, Susan asks for something. Bike? 1947 antecedent to Barbie? Nah, son--a house. And not a doll house, a house house. Like, real estate.
What an a$$hole.
31. Last factoid.
Isidor Straus, one of the brothers who bought Macy's in 1895--know how he died? F*cking Titanic. BALLER.
32. Natalie gets her wish, sort of.
Last scene, Fred, Doris and Susan are driving after dropping Kringle off in Great Neck, and she makes them pull over because she sees her dream house. It's for sale! So, Fred and Doris are going to get married and leave the magic of the city for the Cheeverian ennui of the suburbs. Fortunately, they will actually have to buy the house--Natalie didn't find the deed under the tree, so she does not have the greediest overreach in Christmas history completely validated. Although, at the time, a house probably cost a nickel and a handful of trinkets.
33. Kringle proves himself, sort of.
Fred spots Kringle's cane in the corner of the living room, proving, I guess, that Kringle does indeed have magical powers, or at least a keen eye on the housing market.
34. Final concern.
Kringle is an all-around nice guy, apart from the spot of violence (he'll be needing a new cane, or pimp stick), and he is a fully functional member of society. He could really avoid a lot of trouble if he kept the whole "Santa" thing on the down low.
Happy Holidays, and if that offends you, I wish you a stocking filled with fetid perineum. Back at you in '14.