Kris Kringle: Delusions of Santahood in “Miracle on 34th Street”

Although there have been a couple remakes, the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which Edmund Gwenn plays a department store Santa by the name of Kris Kringle, appears to be the all-time favorite.

Gwenn, furthermore, not only won an Oscar for this film but also is the only actor ever to win one for a portrayal of Santa. And his Kris Kringle really is a joy to watch and know because of his ever present joy in helping others.

The film’s storyline, from website IMDB: “When a nice old man who claims to be Santa Claus is institutionalized as insane, a young lawyer decides to defend him by arguing in court that he is the real thing.” Although insanity in today’s world is generally legalese for the inability to tell right from wrong, for the movie’s purposes, “insane” is the equivalent of “crazy.”

One Macy’s employee, the head of the toy department, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), remarks, kind of in Kringle’s defense: “Maybe he’s only a little crazy like painters or artists or those men in Washington.”

Even if Kris Kringle is delusional, though, most people with delusions aren’t harmful to themselves or others. This is something that the cruelly incompetent “psychologist” Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) doesn’t appear to know or care about.

Sawyer, unhappy with Kringle’s behavior, retaliates by finagling the involuntary commitment of Kringle to a mental hospital. The only way to get out of there? Kringle’s day in court.

Emanuel Levy, film critic, on the film as a whole: “Sharply written, the tale makes smart, even edgy observations about corrupt politics and cheap psychology…”

As the staff of Variety state, summarizing the film’s effects aptly: So you don’t believe in Santa Claus? If you want to stay a non-believer don’t see Miracle.”

And the New York Daily News had this to say back then:

…(o)ne of the sweetest pictures ever turned out by Hollywood. I don’t mean to say that the film is sweetly sticky, for it isn’t. It is light, it is charming, it is delightfully funny and completely captivating. It is all that, and something more. It has an undefinable spiritual quality that raises the spirits of the beholder into a happy, hopeful mood.

I went into the Roxy Theatre a skeptic about Santa Claus. I’d been one for years, but I came out of the theatre a convinced convert. Of course, there’s a Santa Claus and I have been too stupid not to have had a sustained faith in that jolly old fellow who makes an annual appearance at Christmas time accompanied by his eight tiny reindeer.

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