Sunday, December 6, 2009

White Christmas, Indeed!

The Christmas season brings its whole raft of unique entertainment and there's something for everybody. Whether it's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (completely irresistible) or "Santa Claus vs. The Martians" (polar opposite) there's something to check out nearly every day. One of my favorite diversions is the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." It was on television last night and I was so there.

"White Christmas" came out in 1954 and it really is a window on to another world and another time. World War II was still very much on everyone's mind even in the brave new world of postwar United States, where prosperity was everywhere, the babies were booming and the future could not look brighter. Americans were still processing the war experience and there were wounds remaining to be healed and lost soldiers to be remembered. It's clear in the film that the American military were still held in the highest regard, and being a soldier could not be a more noble or honorable profession. When you were part of a military unit you were part of a family, and your loyalty to your fellow soldiers and commanding officers were absolute and unwavering, even long after the war ended. The movie opens in Christmas 1944 in a war zone where inexplicably a holiday stage show is going on - complete with musicians and snowy backdrop - while strobe lights, I mean bombs, are going off in the distance. In only one of a myriad of dizzyingly surreal touches, Danny Kaye is playing some kind of crank-powered music box which floats delicate, tinkling notes amid the bombed-out landscape and allows Der Bingle to stop the show early on with his version of the immortal song, "White Christmas."

Fast-forward to after the end of the war, and Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are a successful Broadway songwriting/performing team. They find out that their former commanding officer, General Waverly, is running a failing resort hotel in the wilds of Vermont and immediately they drop everything and go to the rescue of the venerable war hero, who is worshiped like a god. There is also a pair of singing-and-dancing sisters, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, thrown in to add a little romantic tension and innocent tomfoolery. One of the showpieces of the movie is a song called "Sisters," where the ladies dance with huge blue ostrich-feather fans and celebrate the wonderful sisterly relationship they have, swearing eternal love and loyalty to each other, unless of course some man comes around and gets in the way. The song has this great kicker line at the end:

Lord help the mister
Who comes between me and my sister
And Lord help the sister
Who comes between me and my man!

Wow, that is awesome. Talk about wanting it both ways. You can be my sister and I'll love you to death, but mess around with my man and you are one dead beeyatch. Immediately I envisioned a Jerry Springer-type catfight where these two women tear into each other with the ferocity of wild animals while some scrawny guy in a dirty t-shirt looks on. A song like that with such a nihilistic, bisexual message would be the basis of an entire HBO series these days, but back then it was considered innocuous and normal. In another of the unexpected, bizarre twists that fill this movie, Crosby and Kaye assume the roles of the women - blue feather fans and all - and pantomime the song to a surprised Manhattan night club audience, lip-synching and mincing their way through it and getting big laughs from the sophisticated urbanites. Nothing enhances a holiday movie like a mildly inept drag performance, I always say.

Now there are a lot of other things going on in this movie, and the silliness is pretty much non-stop. The movie does jump the tracks a couple of times as the romantic back-story and wacky entanglements of the four lead characters get a bit more time than is needed, but it always returns to its main and best story, saving the Vermont lodge for the "Old Man." After a lot of maneuvering, Crosby and Kaye end up dragging an entire Broadway show - cast, crew and everything - up to Vermont via train, and putting on a staggering, astonishingly intricate benefit show for the General and his lodge. It looked like half of Broadway headed north, including singers, dancers, musicians, choreographers, set builders, painters, costumers, electricians, stagehands and just about everyone else they could cram on the train, not to mention a media tie-in with the show being broadcast on that new-fangled thing called "television." Are we going to try to figure out how they got a national-feed television signal out of rural Vermont in 1954 without a satellite? Of course not, not when there is singing and dancing aplenty going on. A dress rehearsal for a minstrel show scared me to death because I was sure it was going to veer off into some explosion of racial stereotyping, but it only ended up being a harmless exhumation of the spirit of Vaudeville.

The gender roles of postwar America are glaringly on display everywhere. In nearly every scene, women were shown in subservient, secondary roles, usually relegated to whipping up trays full of sandwiches and glasses of buttermilk (EWWW!) for the eternally-hungry crew. In at least one instance the General refers to them as "the womenfolk." The hotel assistant Emma, played by a tall, lanky, wisecracking Mary Wickes, is really the deus ex machina of the movie, and it's only through her incessant eavesdropping on telephone conversations, behind-the-scene manipulation of everything and everybody and constant kvetching that the movie gleefully steamrolls its way to its final, mind-blowing scene. There is also a naughty little undercurrent of sexuality, especially during the reheasals where lots of very leggy chorus girls are shown lounging around in chairs or stretching and warming up in teeny-tiny shorts in December in Vermont.

But this movie makes no apologies to anyone, and needs none. Part musical entertainment, part anthropological treatise, it really is a frozen moment in the American psyche when the idealism of the fifties was in full bloom, America was in its supremacy, and a good life was guaranteed to all. That was before the Russians started shooting satellites up into the sky and African-Americans started marching in small Alabama towns for their civil rights. And then the sixties came along and everything really got messed up. But if you're looking for a way to experience the squeaky-clean Fifties and hear some great music and singing and groan over corny jokes for a couple of hours, you just can't beat "White Christmas."

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