What’s Up, Doc?: Psychology, Propaganda, and MIRACLE ON 34th STREET

25 November 2012

As a whole, 1940s American film is black and white propaganda projected.  Considering the historical climate, and from a political standpoint, using film as a tool to build morale during World War II was a successful tactic.  But, before and after WWII heavy propaganda always has and does exist in film.  Be it romance, drama, comedy, or horror, messages are inlaid in film suggesting a certain point of view that some person or people want the public to get behind and support.  George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street, released in 1947, is an example of a post-WWII film containing strong biased messages designed to sway viewers’ perspectives on controversial topics, namely mental health.

Miracle on 34th Street, adapted from Valentine Davies’ novel of the same title, presents the story of Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), a girl conditioned not to believe in fairytales or myths.  Her mother, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), a single parent and an highly ranked employee of Macy’s, believes children should be realists so they will not suffer disillusionment when they reach adulthood.  However, when the performer Doris hires to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gets too intoxicated to take on the role, Doris hires Kris (Edmund Gwenn), a man who looks like Santa Claus and happened to be in the right place at the right time.  After the parade, Kris stays on staff at Macy’s, playing Santa in the store during the holiday season.  The curious thing about Kris, though, is he believes he actually is Santa Claus.   In fact, Kris goes by the full name Kris Kringle.  Doris does not buy Kris’ tall-tale for a minute and has him psychologically evaluated.  Originally, Susan also rejects Kris’ story, but after hearing Kris speak Dutch to a girl recently immigrated to America she begins to believe.  Fred (John Payne), Doris’ love interest, is much more open-minded to Kris’ stories, and he makes sure Susan spends some time with Kris, hoping to open the young girl’s mind.  However, the physiologist who originally tested Kris, Dr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), wants to put Kris away in hospital.  When Kris confronts Dr. Sawyer about his unethical practice of medicine, Dr. Sawyer exaggerates an altercation between himself and Kris, forcing Kris into hospital just like the Sawyer intended.  A highly publicized trial ensues, putting Kris on the defense for claiming he is Santa Claus.  On Christmas Eve, Kris is found innocent, just in time to deliver presents to the children of the world, specifically Susan Walker, the stern non-believer who eventually learned to believe.

One of the more interesting messages clearly communicated in Miracle of 34th Street is distrust of psychology, or, more pointedly, distrust of psychologists. In fact, even though Kris mentions he has a great “respect” for psychology as a field of study, Doctor Sawyer, the psychologist testing Kris, is the film’s antagonist. Kris and Dr. Sawyer are constantly in opposition, making Dr. Sawyer is the film’s villain.  Sawyer is lewd, dishonest, and brash throughout the film, which, viewing him as a representation for psychologists as a whole, suggests Miracle on 34th Street claims undesirable imposters threaten psychology and pose a threat to those they claim to heal.

First, when Dr. Sawyer “tests” Kris, during the “psychological evaluation” (which is made up of ridiculous questions that are an insulting measurement of a person’s mental stability), he is short-tempered and disgruntled.  This is quite noticeable as Sawyer sits across from the even-tempered, upbeat Kris.  Also, Dr. Sawyer is suffering from some nervous tendencies during this scene, such as compulsively pulling the hair from his eyebrows.  Sawyer’s anxiety grows as Kris passes the evaluation because Sawyer is convinced Kris’ delusions about being Santa Claus mean he is insane, and therefore should be failing the test.  In short, this scene communicates that psychologists are more mentally unstable than the patients they treat.

Moreover, during this scene, the setting helps stress Sawyer’s anxious and unprofessional behavior.  Sawyer’s office is toward the top of the Macy’s building, but the noise of the traffic below easily drifts up.  The sound of motorcars and horns are heard over Sawyer and Kris’ conversation, which add angst to the scene. In addition, the cords from Sawyer’s two telephones are tangled in the edge of his desk.  While this visual is only a minor distraction, the cords are chaotic and unorganized, symbolic of Sawyer himself. Evident from this clip, one of the film’s claims is the potentially dangerous irony of a psychologist being more mentally unstable than his or her patients.

Later, in Sawyer’s office, Kris confronts Sawyer about his dishonorable practice.  (Kris’ motivation to confront Dr. Sawyer came after learning Dr. Sawyer regularly meets with Alfred (Alvin Greenman), a young, impressionable Macy’s worker who now believe he hates his father after what Dr. Sawyer tells him during their sessions.)  Offended that Kris would storm in his office and make accusations, Sawyer fires back and the exchange quickly becomes heated.  Eventually, an enraged Kris, takes the handle of his cane and whacks Sawyer on the forehead with it.  Sawyer falls into his chair behind him and Kris leaves the office.  Sawyer is about to get up when he hears a noise and notices Doris and Fred are entering his office through another door.  Sawyer quickly throws himself back down in the chair and pretends he is knocked out.  Doris and Fred are horrified by what Kris has done, and when Sawyer “comes to” he claims Kris became violent when his delusion about being Santa Claus came up.  This, of course, is not at all what happened, and Sawyer’s lie causes Kris’ involuntary hospitalization for more psychological evaluations.  This scene shows the psychologist as a manipulative liar; a person one should never trust.  So, in addition to psychologists being represented as mentally unstable themselves, Miracle on 34th Street also points out psychologists can be fraudulent and entirely unethical.

Moreover, twice in the film Sawyer’s credentials for practicing medicine are called into question: fist by Kris and later by Mr. Macy.  These respective accusations against Sawyer draw attention to malpractice.  Therefore, in tracing many of Sawyer’s scenes in the film, it is clear Miracle on 34th Street uses a certain degree of propaganda to deliver messages about psychologists—more broadly, those who treat mental health disorders—and dangers the 1947 population saw as problematic with their treatment of mental instability.

Not all propaganda in film is overtly politically motivated.  Yes, Ginger Rogers famous monologue at the end of Tender Comrade (1942, during WWII) is quintessential American cinematic propaganda at its best and most recognizable, but any message expressed in a film that is planted with the intent for that message to spread to the masses is propaganda.  Miracle on 34th Street may not be as political, yet it has plenty of propaganda, and it seems that the film’s treatment (no pun intended) of psychologists communicates a feeling of fear or distrust that must have been present, at least unconsciously, in America’s 1947 historical climate.

What’s interesting is Miracle on 34th Street has been remade several times, most recently in 1994.  The character of Dr. Sawyer underwent radical changes after Porter Hall’s performance in 1947, and in 1994 the character was eliminated all together.  Apparently, in the early 1990s, the newest remake did not need to communicate any messages of hesitation or fear toward psychologists, or any persons in the profession of mental health.


~ by Kate Bellmore on 25/11/2012.

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