Plot: Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), an executive at Macy’s, is responsible for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. When the Santa Claus she has hired for the parade shows up drunk, she quickly subsitutes Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), who is an enormous success. She hires him to serve as the store’s in-house Santa. There he is an even bigger success. He tells customers to shop elsewhere when Macy’s doesn’t have what they want. The employees are aghast, but it turns out to be a public relations triumph, and Macy’s is known as “the store with a heart.”
Doris has a little girl named Susan (Natalie Wood). She has decided to raise Susan without any fantasies or illusions, to help her handle “reality.” Susan does not believe in Santa Claus. But Kris tells her that he really is Santa Claus, and when she sees him singing a song in Dutch to comfort a little girl who doesn’t speak English, she begins to believe him. He teaches her how to use her imagination, so that the other children will enjoy playing with her. He has the enthusiastic support of lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne), who cares deeply for Doris and Susan.
But Kris’ insistence that he really is Santa Claus leads to a hearing on his mental competency. Kris is so unhappy that he does not even want to assist in his defense. Doris and Susan write to let them know they believe in him, and a postal clerk decides to send along with it all of the letters addressed to Santa Claus as well. Fred persuades the court that this is conclusive proof that the U.S. Government believes that Kris is Santa, and the judge rules in his favor. The next day is Christmas, and when Doris, Fred, and Susan all get what they asked for, it is clear that Kris made it possible.
Discussion: In a way, this is the opposite of “Inherit the Wind.” Both are courtroom dramas about how we decide what is true, based on faith or based on provable fact. They have opposite conclusions, however, and the great gift of the movies is that both seem right to us. (One similarity is that in both, the judges are warned that they must make a decision that will have favorable political consequences.)
Doris has been hurt, and thinks she can protect herself and Susan from further hurt by not letting herself believe in anything outside themselves any more. She finds out that both she and Susan have missed a lot, not just in imagination but in the ability to trust, and to allow themselves to get close to other people.
Questions for Kids:
· Why doesn’t Doris want Susan to use her imagination? Why do Kris and Fred think it is important?
· Why is it important that Kris told people to go to other stores to buy things they didn’t have at Macy’s?
· Why doesn’t Mr. Sawyer like Kris?
· Why did Fred have Mr. Mara’s son testify in the trial?
· Why doesn’t Kris try harder to win the case at first? What makes him change his mind?
Connections: Ignore the pallid 1973 (television) and 1994 (theatrical) remakes. The original is much, much better, and the 1994 version completely ruins the courtroom denouement. Gwenn won a well-deserved Oscar, as did the screenplay.