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Christmas Movies and the Law

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James (Jim) Martin, Andrew Weber and I were talking about Christmas movies several weeks ago.  Jim describes himself as a cynic, who “developed a taste for what I call ‘alternative Christmas,’ films such as The Lion in Winter and Desk Set.”  Jim defines alternative Christmas films as “films that take place during the holiday period, but which do not directly concern Christmas.”  For this post, Jim and I, with contributions from Robert Brammer and suggestions by the Blog Team, have identified some Christmas films that involve legal issues.  Some of these fit into Jim’s alternative Christmas category, and some do not.  Here are our picks.

Robert Brammer picked a little known film titled Ice Harvest.   This film, set in Wichita, Kansas on a frigid Christmas Eve, follows the machinations of  Charlie, an ethically challenged attorney, and his associates after they embezzle a large sum of money from a local mob boss. The attorney’s goal is to skip town as quickly as possible, but in classic noir fashion, a series of close calls and double-crosses ensure it will not be so easy. Conspiracy, embezzlement, and murder are just a few of Charlie’s undertakings that do not quite track the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

The Works Progress Administration in Ohio presents the Federal Theatre for youth in "A Christmas Carol"
The Works Progress Administration in Ohio presents the Federal Theatre for youth in “A Christmas Carol” (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Jim Martin  identified two movies about Christmas and the law.   As he has noted, he is a cynic, and most of his favorite Christmas movies deal with the human drama of the holiday, but he admits to liking the original version of Miracle on 34th Street.  The film concerns a man named Kris Kringle, who works as a Santa Claus for Macy’s and who, by his shining example, inspires even Mr. Macy and his chief competitor to embrace the spirit of giving during the season.  Kris, due to an unfortunate event, ends up being the subject of a competency hearing because he believes he is the real St. Nick!

New York State at the time of the movie (immediately after World War II) had several methods for committing individuals who were thought to be a danger to themselves or others.  One such procedure was upon the finding of “…a judge of a court of record of the city or county, or a justice of the supreme court of the judicial district in which the alleged mentally ill person resides or may be…”.  Kris is tried in New York City by a Supreme Court judge (in New York the Supreme Court is not a court of appeals).  The local prosecutor represents the State and Kris is represented by his friend, Fred Gayley.  The procedures followed in court are not very accurate.  Fred is able to convince the court, in part through the sage advice of the judge’s political advisor, to accept the existence of Santa Claus.  The issue in dispute then shifts to the validity of Kris’ assertion.  We see a child witness, the son of the prosecutor, giving testimony as a witness for the defense after being asked by the judge if he understands the need to tell the truth.   Fred’s big legal coup is when the clerks at the post office, “an agency of the United States government,” as Fred tells the court, arrange to have sacks of undelivered letters addressed to Santa delivered to the courtroom where they are given to a delighted Kris.  This results in an immediate finding by the court that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus.  The case is then dismissed.

The second movie Jim found is an instance when a movie foresees legal issues years before they becomes well known to society.  Such is the case in the holiday movie, Bachelor Mother, which stars Ginger Rogers (in her first major non-dancing role) and David Niven.  This 1939 movie addresses the issues of child abandonment and custody.  On Christmas Eve, Rogers sees a woman abandoning an infant on the steps of a home for abandoned children.  When she goes to check on the child, she is confronted by a nurse who believes that she is the child’s mother.  Any amount of denials by Rogers is unsuccessful in dissuading the employees of the institution.  When they find out that she had recently lost her job at a department store, they contact David Niven, the son of the owner, to ask that she be reinstated so that she can keep her baby.  Niven agrees and pressures Rogers to keep the baby.  Ultimately Rogers and Niven will fall in love; but, before our happy ending Niven’s father, Charles Colburn, comes to believe that Niven is the baby’s father.  An attempt to convince him otherwise results in a threat by him to sue for custody of the child: “I don’t care who the father is, I’m the GRANDFATHER!”  In 2000, the Supreme Court of the United States in its decision in Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, ruled that there is no constitutional basis for a statute supporting grandparents to have visitation rights.  So, short of showing a compelling interest to be served by his meddling, Charles Colburn, however well-meaning he might have been,  likely overstated his rights.

Like Jim, one of my favorite holiday movies is the Lion in Winter.  This movie takes place during the reign of Henry II at his 1183 Christmas court.  It is, among other things, a portrait of family disfunction since Henry has to let his wife Eleanor out of prison before she can join the family Christmas celebration.  The action that drives the film is concerned with deciding which of Henry’s three sons (Richard, Geoffrey and John) will inherit the Angevin empire.   According to the law of primogeniture, the eldest son Richard should inherit but Henry prefers his youngest son, John.   I would also argue that this movie is also about women’s rights, or the lack thereof in the 12th century.  Even though Queen Eleanor was a great heiress in her own right, as Duchess of Aquitaine, her husband Henry still had the legal right to keep her imprisoned!

The Blog Team suggested Home Alone and Love Actually as other possible candidates.  For Home Alone the legal issue would be at what age, if any, does Illinois state law allow children to be home alone.  I checked the Illinois code on this point and found that Illinois defined a neglected minor as any child under the age of 14 who is left at home alone unsupervised by a parent or guardian for an unreasonable period of time.    However this specific section of the Illinois code, 705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(d) was not passed until 2009 - almost 20 years after the movie originally occurred.  For Love Actually, we came up with several possible legal issues: the custody arrangement between Liam Neeson’s character and his stepson; the immigrant status of the Portuguese housekeeper with whom Colin Firth falls in love; and when Bill Nighy’s character strips on television what role do obscenity and censorship laws play?

Robert Brammer and Nathan Dorn collaborated on our final pick, Gremlins. It is set in Christmas, but how is it tied to the law? A debate followed, questioning whether Gizmo was a wild animal, and whether his owner, a minor,  could be strictly liable for the mayhem that resulted after Gizmo got wet after midnight. If strict liability is not available as a theory of recovery, could the city and/or the owners of the property that the gremlins destroyed successfully sue on a theory of negligence? Could a reasonable person ever foresee that getting Gizmo wet would lead to mass destruction? Let us know what you think in the comments. The resolution of this question will undoubtedly require a reading of everyone’s holiday favorite, the Restatement of Torts.

Comments (9)

  1. Very enjoyable blog! Thanks … so many legal issues to ponder – this makes for quite an enjoyable debate aand/or trivia game. ;D

  2. Thank you for sharing your Yuletide legal insights on these holiday classics! Nothing like a chuckle to make the holidays seem brighter….Happy Holidays!

  3. Great column! Happy Holidays!

  4. RE: censorship in Love Actually, I believe Bill Nighy’s character may not have had a problem, as the watershed in the UK allows for adult content to be broadcast after 10pm, if I am not mistaken. Granted, this all depends on what would have actually had been aired and the time it would have been aired – as if I remember correctly, he pledged to perform nude after the poll results were in, and in relation to the rest of the plot, the childrens’ Christmas performance (however late that may have run, not including the trip to LHR) did take place beforehand. Great post!

  5. I vote for the inclusion of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – trespass, conversion, etc.

  6. A nitpick regarding the Lion in Winter paragraph: it is family “DYSfunction,” not family “DISfunction.”

    Dys is a greek prefix that means abnormal or bad. Dis is a latin prefix that literally means “apart” and in practice it is generally used to convey the opposite meaning of whatever word “dis” preceeds. Dis is rarely used and Websters lists it as a variant of dys. Moreover, I don’t think Henry’s family failed to function, I think it just functioned abnormally or poorly.

  7. “Remember The Night”

    This film is explicitly about (among other things) the intersection of the law and Christmas.

    Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman arrested for shoplifting an expensive bracelet from a Park Avenue jewelry store in the days just prior to Christmas. Fred MacMurray (as ADA?) is summoned back from packing to leave to join his family for Christmas in Indiana and made to prosecute the case.

    He quickly concludes that a jury will be less favorably disposed to convict a young woman knowing that she will be locked up for Christmas. MacMurray gets a continuance, but even he catches something of the Yuletide spirit he suspects the jury of harboring, and posts bail for Stanwyck so she won’t have to spend the holiday behind bars.

    But where, asks Stanwyck, is a penniless woman to spend Christmas? Luckily (ha!) it turns out that she is a fellow Hoosier, with family of her own a few towns over from the one to which MacMurray is preparing to drive. Sentiment, hilarity, and some version of justice ensue.

    Written by Preston Sturges. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. It strikes something of the light/dark tone created by “It’s A Wonderful Life.” A terrific picture even if you care for the law not a whit. You’re in for a treat.

  8. Re: “Remember The Night”

    As much as I like this picture, I should note that the movie has no use for people of color except as domestic help. This failure it shares similarly with “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

    The great, hard-working Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones has two minutes of a tough job as MacMurray’s valet, dadgummitt. Objectionable content.

  9. Nice column!!! Since the Christmas is near. Merry Christmas in advance!

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