A number of years ago an artist began painting pictures that had hidden animals. If you were just casually viewing the art, it appeared to be a picture of the woods, a stream or some other scene. But if you kept looking, you would eventually spot an eye or a tail and the picture changed to horses or a stream with fish.
Well, last night, that happened to me. Maybe for the umpteenth time I sat watching “Miracle on 34th Street.” It has always been one of my Christmas favorites. You know, the little old guy (Edmund Gwenn/Kris Kringle) who teaches little Susie (Natalie Wood) about the miracle of Christmas while outsmarting Macy’s psychologist, who eventually gets fired. That parable has warmed my heart for years; last night was no different.
However, while watching the movie, my ears made that connection I described above and a whole new set of ideas took shape. I’m sure all of you know the movie by heart so I won’t waste time on the story line. But here is what I saw for the first time. Kris is the Macy’s Santa Claus. He begins telling mothers where to get the toys Macy’s doesn’t carry — even sending them to Macy’s competitor, Gimbels. These stores realize this is a great way to make shoppers happy and both the shoppers and the store-owners benefit.
Adam Smith and Frederich Von Hayek cited this principle as enlightened self-interest and it’s the basis of the free enterprise system. A second flash of insight occurred when the psychologist proclaimed Kris crazy. This up-tight employee knew he was correct and that if only everyone would listen to him all would be made right. Today we have a plethora of these busybodies telling us how to live, what to eat, what we should drive, and what we should think. Perhaps we should all figuratively give them a whack with an umbrella.
The final scenes were filled with symbolism: Kris giving Susie’s mom Doris and Kris’ lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) directions to avoid traffic on their way home; Susie seeing the home she was dreaming about; Doris and Fred deciding to marry; and then the piece de resistance — the cane sitting by the fireplace!
The cane belongs to Kris; Susie’s dream of a real house is fulfilled; Susie’s mom is marrying Fred, the lawyer who helped Kris prove he was Santa Claus in the flesh; and all were going to live happily ever after. But there was that damn cane by the fireplace! Fred had fought valiantly for Kris’ sanity. He had even invoked the U.S. Postal Service with bags of mail deliverable to — whom else but? — Santa Claus! Those letters almost buried the judge when presented as evidence. A brilliant and successful lawyerly move.
But there was that cane. How could it have gotten to the house? Kris had been invited to a Christmas Eve gathering and had declined, saying, with a jolly laugh, that he couldn’t because it was Christmas Eve. Those directions by Kris to keep them out of traffic — it sent them right past Susie’s dream house! They had to stop because Susie almost jumped out of the moving car and, by golly, the house happened to be “For Sale.”
So the story had this neatly resolved ending. Except for that cane!
Fred’s last line was “... maybe, just maybe, I’m not as good a lawyer as I thought.”
So what did I see last night that I had missed in all my previous viewings?
The movie was produced in 1947, after a war fought for freedom and before the moral meltdown of the 1960s. People still believed in America and American values — you know, God and country and, don’t forget, apple pie. This was the classic morality play, the recounting of the values we used to hold dear. Morality plays present and reinforce our ideas about life and ethics. The cane was a metaphor for the cross and Fred had to admit that although he was an actor in the triumph of St. Nicholas over the evils of the day, it was not his victory. And maybe, just maybe, God had a hand in the happy ending.
Larry Tradlener lives down McElmo Canyon.