Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I Believe: Miracle On 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street is a serious film addressing serious needs.
There are many issues hiding in this sophisticated writing. 1947 was an explosive year for film, producing another Christmas favorite, The Bishop's Wife. But the question is, why has this become a classic and why, in 1947, would a film proving the (legal) existence of Santa Claus be timely and embraced?
Ultimately, the film is about love and all the guises which love includes.
I'm not talking about the romance of Mr. Gailey and Mrs. Walker, rather, the initial kind of love which we have when someone does us a good turn, a love based on gratitude and happiness, and then the deeper love which is based on faith: faith in God, faith in your fellow man. World War II had ended, but that doesn't mean that those who had lost loved ones were healed or that life was suddenly back to normal. I hate to mention it, but in 1947, Elizabeth Short, better known as "the Black Dahlia" was found butchered, a terribly violent crime then (and still). This is the year that the Cold War officially began with Russia. 1947 needed a message of faith and it needed a message of love
The opening image is always the most important, and what is it we see? The back of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), walking down the street, no one paying any particular attention to him. What is (one of ) the last images we see? His walking stick, his cane, leaning up against the fireplace of the house which little Susan (Natalie Wood) wanted to have as her home and has now finally found it. "Walking" is an excellent philosophy. What do the feet symbolize? The will, our will, what motivates us and directs our steps throughout life. In the film, we get a chance to see where "common sense" gets you: miserable and unhappy and, ultimately, eating your words.  And this is why Doris' (Maureen O'Hara) and Susan's last name is "Walker," because they are learning to walk as Kris Kringle walks, in love and in faith, not in common sense or reality. America was coming out of a war, it didn't need anymore reality.
Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle in his Oscar winning performance.
When we get our first good look at the man we have been following, he's looking in a shop window at a display of reindeer a man is putting up on Thanksgiving Day. Kringle tells him he has the reindeer in the wrong order; the shop attendant thinks Kringle is crazy, but Kringle is absolutely correct and spends the rest of the film proving that we have things out of order, and if we paid more attention to things, we wouldn't let them get out of order. Part of what's out of order is the shopping policy of trying to "make a buck, make a buck, even in Brooklyn," instead of being kind and helpful.
Alfred enjoys dressing as Santa at the YMCA for Christmas, but the store psychiatrist told him that he hates his father and only enjoys giving gifts because of a "guilt complex" he has. This is the real war that has to be won on the home front: not giving into those saying the United States has "latent maniacal tendencies" or guilt complexes because we want to embrace our Christian roots and our Christian beliefs and values. It was a battle in 1947 and it's a battle today.
Yet, as always, there is a deeper meaning: the reindeer symbolize the Holy Spirit and the sleigh is our soul, being pulled and guided by God. We can't get God's plan for us out of order: in terms of the Sacraments, for example, we can't go to the Mass first and then Confession, we confess our sins first and then receive the Eucharist, that's the order in which we reap the greatest possible benefit and it's God's love for us that plans how we will reap the greatest benefit, that's why order is important.
John Payne as Fred Gailey, Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle and Maureen O'Hara as Doris Walker.
After Kris Kringle corrects the shopkeeper, he then goes to watch the parade, noticing that the Santa is drunk. He then chastises the bad Santa and goes to find Doris Walker who is in charge of the parade and--this is important--she mistakes Kris Kringle for Santa Claus, even out of costume. The truth is, she doesn't make a mistake, she instantly recognizes the truth, even when it doesn't appear the way we are used to it appearing.
What's important is the reason why the parade Santa is drinking: it's cold. With the beginning of the Cold War, everyone was soon to find themselves very cold indeed, and with all the men and women who had died in Europe and the Pacific fighting the war, there didn't seem like there was much of the warmth of life left in the country, so of course he was cold; but he didn't go about warming himself in the right way. There is another character that's cold: Doris Walker.
Doris and Susan Walker live across the hall from Fred Gailey; he cleverly invited Susan to watch the parade from his apartment so he could meet Doris and get invited to dinner. His optimistic attitude is expressed in his name: Gay(ley) as in happy and exuberant. He's the only lawyer who could possibly prove the legal existence of Santa.
There's an issue which needs discussing: Mrs. Walker.
Susan's mother, Doris, divorced her father when Susan was little; what does that mean? The United States needed a new "father" for the future generation of Americans, and were teaching the future--not the "faith" of our Founding Fathers--but the tough lessons learned in World War II, and we can  clearly see how it's effecting Susan: it's ruining her childhood, making it difficult for her to develop her creativity which forms the intellect and problems with her social skills.
Susan had gone to play with other kids in the building and they were pretending to be zoo animals; Susan had no idea how to play along so she left and got left out. In this scene, Kris teaches her to use her imagination and be a monkey.
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time should be pointing to an important scene: why does Kris teach Susan how to act like a monkey? Isn't that a "indoctrination" of Darwinism? Does this point to the film makers insisting on us believing in Santa but also believing in Darwin? I'm not going to lie to you: it's is possible, I don't think that's accurate, but it is possible. This is the reason I don't think it's likely: notice how ridiculous they look? If someone were seriously advancing Darwinism, would they act the way Kris and Susan are in the scene pictured above? Scratching the armpit, making silly noises and faces doesn't seem to be a serious advancing of a theory held by academic scholars and scientists.
Watching Kris blow bubble gum before he gets it all over himself.
What I do think the scene means is that there is a healthy, natural balance of our appetites and our passions; we must control them, they can't control us, but our passions is part of how God created us and what He uses to guide us along that path which is our life's journey. Susan, however, doesn't have any, and this is as unhealthy as being controlled by them or having too many. I think the scene verifying this is when Kris watches Susan blowing bubbles with bubble gum and he asks her for a piece. Chewing on the gum (the appetites) and blowing the bubble (not acting his age) the bubble explodes and he gets it all over his beard (the sign of his wisdom), clearly indicating that what is good for the children isn't necessarily good for the wise and aged.
Why does she need a fire engine? Because the country is burning up and needs an act of love to cool it back down. The people of the United States have become so jaded--even in 1947--that something as simple as doing a kind deed" becomes a huge market strategy," and is immediately taken to be that and nothing more.
There is a wonderful part in the courtroom drama when Fred calls to the witness stand the son of the prosecuting attorney and asks the child if he believes in Santa Claus and of course the child says that he does and that his father was the one who told him. This is important because, as Doris herself learns, what is good for the children to know and believe, is also good for us to know and believe, there is no difference between the adult soul and the child's soul, between the child's prayer and the parent's prayer.
Of all the ways that the existence of Santa Claus could have been proven, it's interesting that it s through letters to Santa that the case is won. Philosophically, when we write something, it means there is absence, because there is a greater value placed on speaking than writing; for example, I have a letter written by my great-great-great-great grandmother, and while I am so grateful to have this letter, I have the letter in absence of her speaking; because she is deceased, I cannot hear her voice. Applied to Santa, it now makes sense why children want to tell Santa what they want for Christmas although they have all ready sent him a letter. There is a two-fold absence implied by the letter: the absence of the person writing and the absence of the recipient of the letter.
We have the absence of the children, on the one hand, and the absence of Santa Claus, on the other, so what brings them together? Faith. As Susan and Doris both come to understand, to believe is to win the battle, and the letters, each and every one of those 50,000 letters, is an act of faith and a testimony to belief in Santa Claus and what he means. This is why the case is won.
Susan didn't find her present under the tree.
Why does Susan ask for a new home?
Remember, the house symbolizes the soul, so Susan wants a new soul, a whole generation of Americans wanted and needed a new soul that had been torn apart by World War II, a new meaning and a new being, not the one her mother has given her, because this is a generational issue: Susan symbolizes the future generations of America that will live in a free world because of all the sacrifices that have been made.
"I believe. I believe. I believe. I believe. I believe..."
It's not just about proving that Kris Kringle or Santa Clause exists, it's proving that those qualities which we associate with Santa Clause also still exist, that the war didn't destroy everything. The "miracle" in the film is not just finding that which had been lost, but realizing how necessary it is to believe, despite everything, and make it a part of our daily lives and help others to believe, too.