A Little Off the Beam

Valentine Davies (1905 – 1961) was a screenwriter, producer, and director. His best known work is a little story known as Miracle on 34th Street. According to IMDB, “[Davis] got the idea for the script whilst struggling through the Christmas shopping crowds, trying to find a present for his wife. The commercialism he saw made Davies wonder what the real Santa Claus would make of it all.”

George Seaton, another screenwriter and director, adapted Davies’ story and made it into a film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and eight-year old Natalie Wood.  It was released on May 2, 1947 and didn’t receive much notice. Today it is considered not only a classic holiday movie, but a classic film period. Davies received an Academy Award for Best Story.

Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street
Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street

Later in 1947 Davies took Seaton’s screenplay, based on his own original story, and rewrote it as a novella.  It was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.

[Kris] had begun to realize that Doris and little Susan were but unhappy products of their times. They presented a real challenge to him – a sort of test-case for Santa Claus. If he could win them over, if he could get them to believe in him – then there was still hope. If not, Santa Claus and all he stood for were through.

“You know, Mrs. Walker,” he said, “for the past fifty years or so I’ve been more and more worried about Christmas. It seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less, that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Doris. “Christmas is still Christmas.”

“No,” said Mr. Kringle, shaking his head. “Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind. That’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, because maybe I can do something about it.”

In spite of herself, Doris was impressed by Kris’ warmth and kindness. She couldn’t help liking the old man, even if he was a little off the beam.

Of course, anyone who thinks he is Santa Claus is delusional.  But as Dr. Pierce says in the story, Kris’ “delusion is for good. He only wants to be friendly and helpful.”  In Buddhism, we don’t like to promote the idea of indulging delusions, but this story reminds me of the one about Bodhisattva Fukyo.  One day, Fukyo went walking around,  bowing to every person he met. As he bowed, he would say, “I deeply respect you.”  He was a little off the beam, too. He thought everyone he saw was a buddha.

The writing in Davies’ novella is lean and simple, similar to a children’s book.  The story centers around the question of whether Kris is the real Santa Claus or just a nice old man with whiskers and a few bats in his belfry. However, there is a more thoughtful subtext. Doris, a single mother raising Susan while employed at Macy’s, is disappointed when Fred Gayley, an attorney with whom she is falling in love, appears to have thrown away his future by defending Kris at his sanity hearing. Fred realizes that Doris has no faith in him.

“It’s not a question of having faith in you. You’re bound to lose this case – that’s just common sense!”

Fred rose quickly.

“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to,” he replied. “And you’ve just got too much common sense.”

“It’s a good thing one of us has,” said Doris heatedly. “It’s rather an asset sometimes!”

“Can’t you get over being afraid?” Fred pleaded. “Can’t you let yourself believe in people like Kris – in fun and joy and love and all the other intangibles?”

Doris stiffened almost inperceptibly. She became the crisp, efficient Mrs. Walker again.

“You can’t pay the rent with intangibles,” she said.

“And you can’t live a life without them.”

In the film, instead of that last line, Fred says that “those intangibles are the only things worthwhile.” I think he also means they are the things most worth fighting for, and that’s why he works so hard to defend Kris.

You see, Fred knew that Kris was a Bodhisattva and that his mission was to awaken people – not to the reality of a symbolic holiday figure, or for that matter, some religious icon – Kris wanted to awaken them to the truth of intangible things, like the ones Fred listed above, and other intangibles such as kindness, hope, patience, and giving. Believing in Santa Claus, and even capturing the spirit of Christmas, is merely allegory for finding the only things worthwhile, those wonders that come from the heart.

And when Doris and her daughter Susan and everyone else began to believe in themselves and in others, they gave up their doubtful ways, stopped being afraid, and life opened up for them, and when we do the same, the doors to life’s storehouse of treasures opens for us, and we learn that everything we want, everything we need, is all around us all the time, and that is the real miracle to be found on 34th or any other street.

In a 2013 interview, Thich Nhat Hanh said,

It is in my heart when I use [the word “miracle”] because . . . you are a miracle and everything you touch could be a miracle — the orange in your hand, the blue sky, the face of a child. Everything become a wonder. And, in fact, they are wonders of life that are available in the here and the now . . . And that is a miracle because you understand the nature of the suffering, and you are not trying to run away from suffering anymore, and you know how to make use of suffering in order to build peace and happiness.”

Well, to sum up, I say that if it leads you to those intangibles which are life’s greatest treasures, then being a little off the beam is a good use of common sense.

Happy Holidays to you all and thanks so much for reading The Endless Further.

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