[‘Tis the season, Overthinkers! Enjoy this guest post from Ariel Herrlich! – Ed.]
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) is one of the most widely adored and critically praised Christmas movies of all time, and rightfully so. The film showcases solid acting, writing, directing and just enough Christmas cheer that barely avoids teetering over the top. The story arc of the film is whether or not attorney Fred Gailey can legally prove that the kindly old man who calls himself Kris Kringle is actually Santa Claus, and by doing so win over the hearts of the skeptical divorcée Mrs. Walker and her daughter. This arc is buttressed by a more essential cultural narrative that skepticism, or, more shrewdly, secularism, has become too ingrained in society. The magic of childhood, the spirit of Christmas and “faith” have been pushed to the fringe by science, consumerism, and divorce. When Gailey proves in a court of law that Kringle is not insane when he claims to be Santa Claus, he beats the skeptics at their own game by using logic and procedure to legitimize the irrational and the fantastical. The fact that these themes continue to hold relevance today is why this story remains so popular and beloved.
This plot works so nicely that it is easy to overlook one key fact: how Kringle found himself in court to begin with. In order to create those charming court room scenes (the prosecutor’s son testifying that his father told him Kringle was the real Santa Claus, dumping the hundreds of letters to Santa in front of the Judge), the writers needed a reason to put Kringle in court. This would require the work of an antagonist. Enter the psychologist, Mr. Sawyer. From his introduction, Sawyer shows himself to be opposed to Kringle and the lovely ideals that Kringle beholds. But it is not just the nature in which he is presented that clues us in to Sawyer’s role as the proverbial bad-guy; rather, the nature of psychology itself is vilified. In a story where the defiant existence of the preternatural admonishes the fallibility and scope of human reasoning, what would make a better antagonist than a profession that has the hubris to apply man-made methodology to the workings of the historically sacrosanct human mind?
Miracle on 34th Street was released five years prior to the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), when the authority and prestige of psychology was still nascent. Controversies over issues in psychology and psychiatry remain today, but the transformation of the DSM says quite a bit about the general acceptance of these fields. The DSM-I was 130 pages long and included 106 mental disorders; the most recent edition covers 297 mental disorders over 886 pages. While there is still stigma attached to mental illness, there is also widespread acceptance that people can and do suffer from legitimate mental problems that they can’t just “will” away, and that seeking therapeutic and medical aid is an appropriate recourse. While the adversarial characterization of psychology presented in Miracle may ring false with a modern audience, what is even more jarring is that Sawyer’s cynical assumptions about Kringle, if not his spiteful attitude, are spot on.
After hearing Kringle’s claim to be the real thing, Walker reluctantly agrees to keep him on as the resident Macy’s Santa Claus, on the condition that he submit to a mental examination. During the examination, Sawyer is markedly unpleasant, and he brusquely stonewalls Kringle’s warm, albeit intrusive, attempts to reach out. Kringle questions Sawyer on his nervous habits and prompts him on the state of his family life. Sawyer affirms he’s been “happily married for 26 years,” but as soon as Kringle leaves his office he takes a call to bark at his wife for supporting her unemployed brother. The point is made: Sawyer = psychologist = bad = antagonist.
The message is brought home even further when Sawyer defends to Walker his position to not only dismiss but institutionalize Kringle. Sawyer debates this with Dr. Peirce, a geriatric physician from Kringle’s former living facility. Consider the following (abridged) exchange:
SAWYER: Mrs. Walker, after giving this man a comprehensive examination, it is my considered opinion that he should be dismissed immediately.
WALKER: Really? He failed to pass the examination?
SAWYER: Eh, yes.
PIERCE: He didn’t answer the questions correctly?
SAWYER: Well yes he did, but there was complete lack of concentration. He kept changing the subject. He was even questioning me! I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. He should be placed in a mental institution.
PIERCE: Well I don’t agree Mr. Sawyer. People are only institutionalized to prevent them from harming themselves or other people. Mr. Kringle is incapable of either. His is a delusion for good. He only wants to be friendly and helpful . . .
SAWYER: Dr. Pierce, I’ve made a great study of abnormal psychology and I’ve found from experience that when a fixed delusion is challenged, the deluded is apt to become violent.
PIERCE: I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with you again Mr. Sawyer. If you tell Kris there is no Santa Claus I’ll grant you he’ll argue the point, but he’ll not become violent.
SAWYER: His whole manner suggests aggressiveness. Look at the way he carries that cane. And he’s never without it.
PIERCE: Well I know Kris always carries a cane but surely you’re not implying that he would use the cane as a weapon.
SAWYER: Mrs. Walker, naturally I can’t discharge this man, that’s up to you, but you’ve asked for my opinion and I’ve given it to you. So when he exhibits his latent maniacal tendencies, which I assure you he will, please realize the responsibility is completely yours.
The dialogue re-affirms what we already know: Sawyer is a misanthropic Scrooge and plot-wise is an obstacle to be overcome. His conclusion that Kringle should be institutionalized comes across as hyperbolic and draconian. Furthermore, he holds this view despite Kringle answering the questions correctly, implying that his recommendation stems from the malice he feels towards Kringle for daring to question him, and by proxy, his authority. He then attempts to cover up this personal vendetta using a justification laced with professional jargon. Sawyer stands in stark contrast to Peirce, who plays the audience stand-in. Sure, we think a man claiming to be Santa Claus may not be sitting firmly on his rocker, but so what? Pierce uses old-fashioned common sense to defend Kringle, and does so from the venerable perch of physician. Lacking these credentials, Sawyer makes up for them by speaking like an academic elitist, thereby further alienating audiences of yesteryear and today.
But there’s just one problem with this negative framing. Sawyer predicts that Kringle’s delusion will prompt him to become violent, most likely with his cane. And that’s exactly what happens. Kringle does become violent when he’s challenged and he does use his cane as an assault weapon. The contemptuous prediction of our curmudgeonly antagonist comes to full fruition.
Kringle comes across Alfred, a 17-year-old employee of Macy’s, looking downtrodden in the cafeteria. Alfred is feeling low because Sawyer told him that his predilection for dressing up as Santa and distributing toys to children at the YMCA on Christmas is “very bad.” Alfred goes on to explain that, according to Sawyer, he only does this because of a “guilt complex” that stems from a deep place inside his mind that’s still unbeknownst to him but may emerge with further therapy. Alfred also mentions that he hates his father, which he didn’t know until Sawyer informed him. At this, Kringle is indignant and goes to confront Sawyer. Kringle fails to persuade Sawyer that Alfred is not in fact maladjusted, and after being asked to leave his office three times, Kringle resorts to violence and bops Sawyer on the head with his cane.
Kringle’s delusion is not threatened directly. In his stead is an impressionable, weak-willed youth who, Sawyer believes, has the same delusion as Kringle. And just as Sawyer had predicted, when the delusion is threatened violence ensues. In confronting Sawyer, Kringle uses the same arguments that are used against him throughout the film – that he is a phony. When talking with Alfred, Kringle says it’s “debatable” whether or not Sawyer actually is a psychologist. In Sawyer’s office, Kringle challenges him by asking whether or not he is actually a licensed psychiatrist (a profession for which Kringle purportedly has “a great deal of respect). He then goes on to berate him, saying that his job is merely to do intelligence tests and that any further venture into the realm of mental disorders is the meddling of an amateur. Kringle, the man who claims to be Santa Claus, accuses Sawyer of not listening to reason, and concludes that violence is the only remedy to handle such a man.
Does all this merit Sawyer’s role as the antagonist? At the very least it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black – both men seem to be dabbling in areas beyond their grasp. Furthermore, perhaps it is Sawyer who is demonstrating generosity of spirit. Albert tells Kringle that Sawyer is in no way insulting during their sessions, and that he’s offering to see him every day free of charge. In spite of his supposed respect, Kringle seems to take issue with basic components of psychology and psychoanalysis. Alfred learned from Sawyer that there are deep-seated issues that exist within our subconscious and can only be revealed through extensive therapy. Psychoanalysis often takes years to complete, even with multiple weekly sessions. The idea of that the id and the events of early childhood impact our mental development is basic Freudian theory. When Alfred regurgitates that he hates his father, he is probably only exposing his unsophisticated understanding of the oedipal complex. For Kringle to take issue with this is for him to take issue with psychology the subject rather than the individual psychologist.
We accept that Kringle loves children and acting like Santa Claus because we accept that, at least according to the film’s narrative structure, he actually is Santa Claus. A 17-year-old boy who definitely is not Santa Claus, but loves to dress like him for children is, on the other hand, kind of creepy. It may be a different matter if he was an avuncular elderly bearded man, who took advantage of his physique for the sake of the kids, but Albert is an adolescent. Maybe it’s not definitive proof that he is maladjusted but he’s definitely odd. Modern day society doesn’t hold men in high regard who just “love the children so much” and take to dressing up as fantasy characters to engage them (a certain eccentric late pop star comes to mind). For all we know, Alfred could be a really messed up kid, and Sawyer is going above and beyond by providing him with free daily therapy.
So who or what exactly is the main antagonist of this film? Is it Sawyer, the individual, or psychology, the field? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The antagonist role in Miracle only exists to get us to those whimsical court room scenes. Even if it is psychology, we don’t need to harbor ill will towards the antagonist to appreciate an old film. Being an environmentalist won’t stop you from enjoying Ghostbusters. And just because action-movie villains have gone from ambiguously Eastern European to ambiguously Middle Eastern, doesn’t diminish the awesomeness that is Die Hard.
Our attitudes towards psychology have evolved, and when that is taken into consideration, some of the plot twists of Miracle on 34th Street are less convincing. But this film is about the magic of believing in the unbelievable. By the end, the originally unconvinced Walker may not know whether or not Kris Kringle is actually Santa Claus, but she certainly believes him to be. So too do we, the modern day audience, know that having psychology in the antagonizing role doesn’t hold up logically, but we still believe that this is one spectacular Christmas movie.