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.
This movie was made with great care. It tells in the writing -- which won it's director an Academy Award. It tells in the casting -- there is not one performance that seems at odds with the whole. There is not one extra who doesn't fit perfectly into the overall work. The photography is beautiful. The direction is confident and invisible.
Kris Kringle is alive and well and roaming the streets of Manhattan. The beginning of the film follows a man in a fedora and overcoat in a montage of shots that have a documentary feel to them. When he finally stops at a shop the window-dresser does a double-take. One simple close-up later and we can understand why -- it is Santa Claus, there can be no doubt. Or rather it is Edmund Gwenn as Santa in his Oscar nominated role. He's enjoying the winter day and taking in the Macy's Christmas Parade. The streets are lined with children. All's right with the world until he has a run in with a float Santa who's been imbibing. He insists on seeing the parade manager, Doris Walker (O'Hara). She's a clear-eyed technocrat but she knows talent when she sees it. She convinces Kringle to replace the drunk Santa. He's such a hit with the kids the store decides to keep him on as their resident Claus.
Back on the home front Doris is a single Mom. Her daughter Susan (a young Natalie Wood) is watching the parade from the apartment window of a neighbour, Fred Gailey (John Payne). The
Meanwhile a nasty personnel manager, Sawyer (Porter Hall) is trying to have Santa sacked: if the man claims he's Claus then he must be a nut and possibly violent. Kris in turn is oblivious to store policy -- when a customer chides him for promising an out-of-stock toy to a child he tells the woman exactly where in town to find it. Macy higher-ups bristle until the gesture spirals into a good will bonanza. Suddenly Macy's is the store that puts customers above commercialism. Kringle's winning streak ends, however, when he learns Sawyer has been feeding a young protege with negative psycho-babble. He cracks Sawyer on the noggin with his cane and Sawyer has him committed. R.H. Macy sees a public relations nightmare and orders Sawyer to spring Kris. But the State is involved now and a hearing is set. Fred quits his job at the firm and represents Kringle. This flies in the face of all reason and Doris breaks up with him. Fred retorts that it is the intangibles: the things you can't see -- love, hope and faith -- that make life worthwhile.
Kringle's magic is beginning to work on Susan. She's starting to believe in him (and so is her Mother). Before the hearing she writes him a letter of support. Her Christmas wish has been a home on Long Island -- she's given Kris a picture and it's a tall order but he's promised to try.
She addresses her letter to the court house. The Post Office, in a humerous mood, sends all the letters addressed to Santa to the court house -- mountains of them. This is the proof Gailey needs and the judge and prosecutor are happy to drop the case. Everyone is either relieved or elated, and Fred and Doris reunite.
After a Christmas party the following day Susan sees the house she's dreamed of -- she has them stop the car and she rushes inside. The house is for sale. It seems a childish dream until they see a familiar cane leaning in a corner. Was it Santa? Or just a nice old man? The script walks a thoughtful line; but jaded Academy members weren't taking any chances -- they gave Gwenn the Oscar.