Tuesday, November 30, 2004

White Christmas -1954

This is the fiftieth anniversary of a film I can't stop watching- Irving Berliln's White Christmas starring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and the remarkable, yet often unnamable- Vera Ellen (who I'm convinced is the only woman to actually realize Barbie's body proportions in real life). And while she isn't the star, fabulous Mary Wickes makes me believe that she is loving every minute of being typecast as the meddling housekeeper.

This movie sneaks up on you. When my older sister used to make our family watch it back when I was in high school I acted like I didn't enjoy it much (a requirement when you are working over time not to appear gay while watching show tunes), but after seeing it once I was hooked.

Despite its predictability and its relentlessly catchy, sometimes campy score, which it has in spades, I like it for the complex issues surrounding it that it isn't even aware of:

1. The near death of the movie musical. "Choreography", the number where Danny Kaye makes fun of Martha Graham by showcasing Vera Ellen's nervous tapping, is actually a cultural bellweather. Modern dance had reached the consciousness of mainstream America. Irving Berlin may have been betting on the movie musical crowd to reject Graham's abstracted dance forms. They probably did, but the future didn't. By the end of the 50s, modern dance had a long-term hold on the arts and the movie musical had all but died out.

2. Transient idea of home. Call them "circus people" or just post-modern, but the idea of two club performers randomly tripping off to Vermont with two other club performers they just met only to form lasting bonds in a place that instantly feels like home but where they have no intention of staying is a very today idea. I'm sure it was a narrative convenience then, but I love how it seems so natural now. I tell myself that Betty, Bob, Judy and Phil will always visit Pine Tree, VT.

3. Minstrel shows?! One sequence waxes nostalic for this long-lived phenomenon of using African-American cultural forms (at the expense of African-Americans) to entertain. My mom grew up with minstrel shows (they were performed in high school like a talent show!). To my knowledge there is not an actual black person to be seen in White Christmas except one. He is the nameless club car waiter on the train from Florida to Vermont.

What I think is interesting, if not quite redeeming, about the way the Minstrel scene is played is that it is perhaps the most stylized part of the movie--there is no black face, the song is sung in a stiff way that is nothing like the stereotypes they recall. The set is this crazy hot pink and lapis blue color and has no reference to any culture of which I know. It is almost like they wanted to, but they didn't want to include this number.

The bad news: The fact that something so stylized could still be recognized by people as "minstrel" means that it was pretty embedded in cultural memory. The good news: I watched it for years before realizing that the number referred to minstrel shows, which means a lot has happened in the last 50 years to remove this hurtful mode of representation from popularity.

I would love to watch Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a film about a modern day minstrel show back to back with WC. And all of this makes me wonder what a gay minstrel show might be like. In some ways WC already is one. Watch it and you'll see what I mean.

4. Men in drag. Okay, Bob and Phil dressing up as women to sing Sisters wasn't exactly cultural news but drag is drag.

5. "Gee I Wish I was Back in the Army." War nostaligia always surprises me. Did those WWII vets really miss the war? Or did our country just miss the feeling of being unified with a bunch of guys against an obvious common enemy. Did we used to think of wars as extended college football games? I guess I kind of see that today, though the enemies are harder to spot. Funny how all movies about war become about the war closest to us.

6. Someone is always pouring someone else a cup of coffee.

So why do I like this movie? Aside from the addictive songs, I think it may be because I'm nostalgic for nostalgia. Good nostalgia is quickly dated as well as fun and interesting. With a few clinkers, WC fills the bill. But nothing in contemporary times comes close to meeting that need. Maybe Elf (which probably will end up being the defining holiday movie of this decade). The movie A Christmas Story is a dead ringer, but it was made in 1980s, the earlier part of which was kind of like the 1950s.

When there is no time or energy for nostalgia, we can (as we should anyway) lean on the more powerful side of Christmas, which is Christ as hope for the future. This is a little harder to get a hold of since you can't pop Jesus into the DVD player, but it probably does me some good to have to seek him more deliberately in some years than in others.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not about missing the war. It's about missing the Army. They're seperate things. In the song, they talk about missing the "three hots and a cot"- meals, a place to live, clothing. The support network, something you can always fall back on, something that is utterly missing in civilian life. Get injured, or have a breakdown? Go back to the barracks, chill out, get the medical help you need and you're back on your feet eventually. Get injured or lose a job in the civilian world? You're lucky to get space in a shelter, and good luck finding a job to put food on your plate or buy clothes with.

5:25 PM  

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