MIRACLE ON 34th STREET
(1994, Theatrical, 114 min)
This is an example of the real meaning of Christmas being made implicit, without any mention of Jesus. Please note that I am writing about the 1994 version, which is a remake of the perennial classic by the same name from 1947.
MIRACLE on 34th (1994) is the story of Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) who is a sad, single mom and the all-business (nearly humbugish) director of special projects for Coles, a large Manhattan department store. Years ago Dorey's husband left her and precocious daughter Susan (scene stealing Mara Wilson) which has precipitated Dorey's skepticism about life in general, and resulted in teaching Susan that there is really no Santa Claus.
In preparation for Cole's large Thanksgiving Day parade, Dorey fires the regular Santa Claus for his drunkenness, and hires a by-stander who just happens to be the real Kris Kringle (Richard Attenborough). Kris does a marvelous job during the parade and during the next month in the department store leading up to Christmas Eve, when he plans to be plenty busy. So marvelous does he do, in fact, that the president of Shoppers Express, Coles' competition, dispatches his minions to trip Kris up and put the kibosh on Coles' turn around success. In short, Kris ends up getting arrested and then put in a stark, cell-like room at Bellevue the local asylum for nuts. Dorey's boyfriend Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott) defends Kris in court in an attempt to save Cole's from embarrassment and save the decency of every child in the city who believes in Santa Claus.
At first blush of the above synopsis it appears that this movie (much like the original) has very little to do with the real meaning of Christmas -- and a whole lot to do with the Santa Claus myth. To many parents of Christian faith, this may be disappointing. But, although I've told you what the movie is about (it's physical plot), I've not told you what the movie is really about (it's psychological plot) -- and in that implicit story is the real meaning of Christmas.
The story sets up opposing characters. There are the skeptics (Dorey, Susan, and prosecuting attorney, Ed Colins (J.T. Walsh). And there are the believers (Bryan, Kris, and seemingly every mother and child in Manhattan.) From the beginning it is very clear that the skeptics are sad, grumpy people, and the believers are generally joyful.
The movie also establishes a metaphor that is consistently developed visually and aurally. Believing in Santa Claus in a metaphor for believing in God. Remember from my book, metaphors are the physical representation of the psychological truth; and in this story it is clear that what this story is really about what is "invisible" (i.e. God) -- so we need something visible (i.e. Santa Claus) as the metaphor. In case we miss it, the screenwriter has made this relationship clear as you'll soon read. You should also note that those in the story who have faith in God are generally happy, and those that reject faith (the skeptics) are sad. There is also a recurring emphasis that those that have faith are with respect to money and things of value are overly generous, and the skeptics are overly concerned with the almighty dollar. So, we have the classic religious elements of faith vs. skepticism, the invisible vs. the visible, generosity vs. greed, and for good measure protection of self vs. love of others.
I won't bore you with the details, although they may end up in the second edition of The Moral Premise, if there ever is one. For now, let me end with the film's final soliloquy. (Spoiler follows.)
At the movie's climax, it seems that Judge Harper (Robert Prosky) is going to have Kris committed to the asylum. At that moment, courageous Susan leaves the gallery and walks to the judge's bench and gives him a Christmas card. Looking for a miracle that would excuse his inevitable decision, the judge opens the card. Inside is a dollar bill, and on the back of the bill we notice that a color marker has circled the words "In God We Trust". (If we've been paying close attention the visual inserts earlier in the film, we've seen this particular close up before.) Judge Harper stares at this for several beats. Suddenly he smiles, deliberately takes Kris' commitment papers, scrunches them up, and tosses them to the side, saying: "We won't be needing this." Then the judge delivers this eloquent soliloquy that explains the movie's metaphor of what belief and faith in Santa Claus should be reminding us all about. He says:
The young lady that just approached the bench presented me with this Christmas card, and this. It's a one dollar bill. It's gonna be returned to her shortly. But by presenting me with this bill she reminded me of the fact that it is issued by the Treasury of the United States of America. And it's backed by the government -- and the people of the United States of America. -- Upon inspection of the article you will see the words: "In God We Trust." Now, we're not here to prove that God exists, but we are here to prove that a being just as invisible and yet just as present exists. The Federal Government puts it's trust in God. It does so on faith and faith alone. It's the will of the people that guides the government, and it is and was their collective faith in a greater being that gave and gives cause to the inscription on this bill. Now if the government of the United States can issue its currency bearing a declaration of trust in God without demanding physical evidence of the existence or the non-existence of a greater being, then the state of New York by a similar demonstration of the collective faith of its people can accept and acknowledge that Santa Claus does exists and he exists in the person of Kris Kringle. (Cheering!) Case dismissed.Now the movie ends with Susan getting her Christmas wish. I won't tell you what it is, but I will tell you this -- it begins in a beautiful Catholic cathedral immediately following The Christ-Mass on Christmas Eve. But how that happens I'll leave up to your imagination, or for when you rent this beautifully directed, cast, and photographed movie on DVD and enjoy its charm with your family.
Oh, almost forgot. The moral premise for MIRACLE on 34th Street (1994) can be stated like this:
Skepticism leads to sadness; but
Faith leads to joy.
Faith leads to joy.
Merry Christmas -- see you at the Christ Mass.
P.S. I like this version of Miracle on 34th better than the 1947 version for a number of reasons. First, this is more consistent in portraying a true moral premise. The 1947 version wanders.