Saturday, December 12, 2009

May Your Days Be Merry and Bright

Since the blog has been resurrected one of my most fervent and enthusiastic supporters of the blog has been Football Chick. As a special holiday gift I asked if there was a particular film she'd like me to look at and after pursuing the list she gave me I thought it would be appropriate to look at the much beloved X-mas favorite White Christmas.

The film is directed by Michael Curtiz, a reliable Austrian-born studio hand who could ably tackle a variety of genres and is responsible for some genuine classics including Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, Mildred Pierce, Captain Blood, Yankee Doodle Dandy and some film about some lovers whose problems didn't amount to a hill of beans in this world. White Christmas comes towards the end of a nearly four decade career which included a couple of musicals. One of which, Yankee Doodle Dandy, the story of Broadway producer and star George M. Cohan is practically choked with patriotism. I raise this point as White Christmas is a film that also has decidedly militaristic in its origins.

The story begins unsurprisingly, with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye singing Irving Berlin's classic "White Christmas" behind a backdrop of a Rockwellian Americana winter. But the camera pulls out further and further to reveal that this is no scenic idyll but instead a backdrop and that the two singers are really entertaining a troop battalion in the middle of a war zone. Its a startling at first, eliciting a laugh but then Curtiz cuts to the faces of the men in the crowd and suddenly it becomes a deeply resonant moment to remind the men of happier times. Its interesting because the film as it progresses vacillates back and forth between how nice it is to be back at home while at the same time extolling the virtues of unit camaraderie and the honor that goes with the service. As the scene continues Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) have plans to celebrate their soon to retire General Waverly (Dean Jagger). Waverly's celebration, filled with much reverence is interrupted by cannon-fire and Phil saves Bob from a wall that is about to collapse on him though is injured in the process.

While in recovery Phil convinces Bob that the two should be performing partners. Its an odd dynamic at this point because unlike most musical comedy teams in films these two don't start as friends. There is a class difference at work here. Bob is the clear superior her and Phil is the more diminutive one. It's an unusual dynamic as it allows for the two to often be at uncomfortable odds with each other. Which in turn allows for all sorts of complications to arise once the plot kicks in. But first MUSIC:

This film is loaded stuffed to bursting with excellent Irving Berlin songs including "Heat Wave", "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy", "Blue Skies", "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing" and a twice reprised "Sisters." The song is originally sung by a sister-act duo played by Rosemarry Clooney (the sensible one) and Vea-Ellen (the looser, better dancer). It's a nice example of how a song, even a classical book number, if staged properly can inform both plot and character. The first time the song is sung its almost a dare, to get the two stars interested. Each subsequent time alters the meaning a bit. The more goofy Kaye is immediately struck by Ellen and wants Crosby to pair with Clooney so the two aren't constantly bogged down with work. To this end Kaye convinces Crosby to head to follow the girls to a snow lodge in Vermont. Unfortunately the weather is unseasonably warm for Vermont and no snow means no business. Everyone is set to go until who should they discover running the hotel? The retired General Waverly of course. From this point on the story follows the standard boiler-plate lets put on a show/backstage romance with the typical farce complications and misunderstandings. Does it all end happily with a last minute snow fall and the lovers united? What do you think?

What's intriguing is that the final scene cleverly inverts the first. General Carver is now again being honored only this time the artifice is of the war and the reality is the picturesque Americana. The film's through-line often seems more concerned with the idea of the bonds of military men. The obligation that one owes their unit is a point repeated again and again in the
film and the idea that our military leaders are figures of the utmost respect takes its place over the typical family bond one finds in holiday films. I was surprised by the film's military streak but it hardly upset my sensibilities. Curtiz as one of the group of key filmmakers that escaped Germany in advance of Hitler could certainly appreciate the value of the American military. As such, the film treats these subjects with the utmost respect and narrowly skirts sentimentality for genuine sentiment. The conclusion of the film is at once moving and tender and the film as a whole was a pretty enjoyable watch. Even when things get a touch maudlin toward the end of act three Kaye is always able to come in for a bit of deft comedic business (even the potentially un-P.C. number "I'd Rather See a Minstrel Show" comes off way better then it could turn out).
For this member of the tribe the barometer of a great Christmas film is one I'm happy to return to year after year (and is more about good feelings and cheer as opposed to, y'know, Jesus and Santa). I am happy to report that White Christmas should seamlessly slide into the rotation of A Christmas Story, Scrooged, A Charlie Brown Christmas, It's A Wonderful Life and Gremlins.


Football Chick said...

This is so great! I do ADORE this movie. I think it's because it captures one of the things I love most about the holiday season, which is our collective willingness to ignore ambiguity and embrace simplicity. This movie has not one but TWO simple love stories, a simple patriotism, a simple show (and what movie is not improved by the cast putting on a play?) and a warm, simple holiday glow. I don't know what more you could ask for in a Christmas movie. Thanks for the post!!

El Gigante said...

My pleasure. Simple and straight forward, it's a rare quality in films.

Thank you for the challenge. I will be on the lookout for a movie where a play with the main characters DOESN'T make it better.