By Michael Carroll
After decades of watching, I still cannot suppress a smile when I reach the climactic moment in the film Miracle on 34th Street:
Kris Kringle's lawyer dumps thousands of pieces of mail onto the desk of the hapless, befuddled judge. The letters and cards, simply addressed to "Santa Claus, North Pole," are admitted as evidence to demonstrate that the man accused of being delusional is, in fact, Santa Claus. In my more cynical-lawyer moments, I believe the more compelling reason for Kris' ultimate courtroom victory is the judge's reelection campaign. This time of year, however, I try to suspend my cynicism.
I have special feelings for Kris' lawyer, Frederick "Fred" Gailey (John Payne), a young man with a lucrative future in a big Wall Street law firm until he throws it all away to defend Santa Claus. His love interest, Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), is a practical, somewhat embittered single-parent divorcée who gets upset when he quits the firm, terming his action an "idealistic binge" for some "lovely intangibles." Fred, however, is starting to believe that those lovely intangibles are the only worthwhile things in life.
I am a somewhat worn legal-aid lawyer who, during my three decades of practice, has never been accused of throwing away a lucrative future at a big firm. I never wanted the firms, and the feeling was strongly reciprocated. I plead guilty to being drawn to those lovely intangibles in the practice of law for the little guy whenever I can find them.
I also never tire of the climax in another holiday movie, It's a Wonderful Life. I love the scene in which characters ranging from the accented-English-speaking immigrant to the dour bank examiner dig deep into their pockets and cookie jars for the money needed to keep the main character, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), out of jail, after the banker and businessman Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) steals money from the Bailey Building & Loan Association, for which George will be held legally accountable.
Wonderful Life is a heavier, more complex film than Miracle. Like Miracle, it sides with the marginalized, but it also explores the themes of exploitation of the weak by the strong, as well as the suicidal despair of its main character. It is all the more interesting to me that Jimmy Stewart had, just a few years earlier, been piloting and leading bombing runs over Europe.
It's a Wonderful Life features the fight between a powerful, big-money slumlord and a humble advocate of the little people. The film was so upsetting to the FBI that it issued a memo criticizing it for attacking bankers and the upper class, something that in the eyes of the bureau was a common communist ploy.
George Bailey always tried to put the needs of family and community ahead of his own dreams, something that we all might aspire to but do not always accomplish. He wants to leave the town of Bedford Falls far behind and travel the world. Several times, he sees an opening, only to have it slammed shut by the dire needs of his neighbors and family. At one point, a desperate George is tempted by Mr. Potter to go for the big money, the nice house, and the trips to Europe he has always craved. He wavers for a moment but then regains his balance and stands by his principles and his community.
I identify with George in small ways. I never had the big bucks offered to me on a platter. I would have had to chase them but did not. I have tried in my own small ways to blend the needs of family and community with my dreams.
Like George Bailey, I have had my moments of professional despair when bad things that I could not prevent happened to clients, and the personal moments of sorrow and loss that none of us escapes if we are on the planet for more than a brief stay.
I must own up to another connection to It's a Wonderful Life, one that is more emotional than rational. Twenty-five years ago, on Christmas Eve, we brought home our newborn daughter, Nora, from Pennsylvania Hospital. I was exhausted, which paled in comparison with the exhaustion of her mother, who had spent more than 24 hours in labor, followed by a C-section. I managed to get them both into their beds and turned on the TV when all was calm for a moment.
There was George Bailey, once more waging his soulful struggle. I suppose you can guess the name of Nora's favorite movie. I tried to resist ending this piece with these words but could not, and I hope you understand:
It's a wonderful life.