The year is 1897 and eight year-old Virginia O’Hanlan (Katharine Isabelle — yes, that Katharine Isabelle) has a problem. All of her “little friends” say that there is no Santa Claus! When she asks her father (Richard Thomas) about whether or not there’s a Santa Claus, he suggests that she write a letter to the New York Sun. “If you see it in the Sun,” he says, “it must be true!” The letter ends up on the desk of a gruff editor (Edward Asner) who assigns Virginia’s question to Frank Church (Charles Bronson), an alcoholic who is still mourning the deaths of his wife and child. Conquering his own cynicism and depression, Church writes an editorial reply that goes on to become not just a holiday classic but also the most frequently reprinted editorial in history. Yes, Virginia, Church begins, there is a Santa Claus….
This 1991 film is a sweet-natured retelling of the famous story of Frank Church’s editorial. Of course, it takes considerable liberties with the actual story. Here’s just a few examples.
In real life, the editorial was published in September. In the movie, it’s published on Christmas Eve.
In real life, Virginia’s father was a doctor and she came from a middle class family. In the movie, Virginia’s father is an Irish immigrant and laborer who is so poor that the O’Hanlan’s might not be able to afford a Christmas! They live in a tenement and Virginia’s father is frequently harassed by not only the cops but also corrupt labor officials.
In real life, Frank Church was a notoriously cynical atheist who reportedly had little use for Christmas and specifically didn’t sign his name to his famous editorial because he didn’t think much of it. At the time that he wrote the editorial, he was also a bachelor. He did marry shortly after the editorial was published but he never had any children. In the film, Frank is a widower who rediscovers his zest for life and who smiles broadly while listening to Virginia’s father read it aloud.
And, of course, in real life, it’s very probable that the letter was written by Virginia’s parents because how many eight year olds would actually write something like, “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.” In the movie, however, Virginia writes the letter herself.
In other words, this is a nice movie that just happens to be terrible history. The film does end with a disclaimer that clarifies that “certain events have been fictionalized.” Actually, the entire story has been fictionalized, with the exception of the content of Church’s editorial. That said, this is a sweet-natured and generally likable movie. If nothing else, it’s a film that means well and, as tempting as it may be to roll your eyes at the film’s unabashed sentimentality, it’s sincerity feels right for the holiday season. It’s a made-for-TV movie from the early 90s so don’t expect any surprises but it’s nicely acted and even Charles Bronson seems to be in a good mood by the end of it.
As far as movies about journalists lying to children are concerned, this is a good one. Just don’t watch it for a history lesson.