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White Christmas (1954)

download (1)This Christmas I did not watch as many Christmas movies as I usually do, though I had a huge list of films I intended to see (someday, I really am going to watch It Happened on 5th Avenue and the 1951 A Christmas Carol). Partly, this was because I went out of town for the holidays. But the day before I departed, I was able to watch one last Christmas film with my friend, Andrea Lundgren. We watched White Christmas.

In general, I tell people that I prefer Holiday Inn to White Christmas (partly because of Fred Astaire), but I do enjoy White Christmas and my cousin – who is just discovering classic movies – recently told me that he loved White Christmas, particularly the dialogue, and since I watched it with my friend who also loves this movie, I was in a highly receptive frame of mind.

I think what I appreciated most this time around is the interaction between Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They play Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye), who meet in the army during WWII. When Davis saves Wallace’s life, he uses it as guilt leverage to wheedle his way into a musical partnership with the already popular and famous Wallace. Fortunately, it turns out well, because Wallace and Davis become an even bigger hit as a duo act, then go into musicals and become producers. In fact, their success is so far beyond what Davis had ever hoped for that he now wants Wallace to ease up a bit and stop working so hard and give Davis a little free time.

How Davis intends to accomplish this is to get Wallace married with tons of kids and he keeps pushing girls at him without success, until they hear the Haynes Sisters perform: Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen). That finally does it, with Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes attracted to each other…which is fortunate, since Phil Davis and Judy like each other. As Andrea wondered, what would have happened if they both liked the same girl? Awkward.

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen – singing about snow while on a train…which I love, because any time spent on trains automatically makes me like the movie better

Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes are pretty slow movers when it comes to relationships, but between the mutual machinations of Phil and Judy, they manage it so all four of them spend Christmas in Vermont at a lodge that turns out to be owned by their former general, General Waverly (Dean Jaggers). General Waverly’s having a tough time, though. There’s no snow in Vermont and his ski lodge is empty of custumers. He’s also feeling a bit cast off and useless, put out to pasture while the world moves on. But Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy set out to help by putting on a Christmas show (“let’s put on a show” is another venerable classic movie tradition).

White Christmas is kind of a conglomeration of bits and pieces of story ideas, songs, and performers, cobbled together to make one story, but that is part of its charm. Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney provide the vocals; Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye dance. Crosby and Kaye bounce off each other in bromance fashion and Clooney and Vera-Ellen play close-knit sisters. We start out in war-torn Italy in 1944, move to the Florida of nightclubs and musicals and end up in cozy Vermont. There is the war, the ambition of entertainers, the desire for family and a home, and the pain of being passed over in retirement.

Even the music is cobbled together by composer Irving Berlin from his vast oeuvre. The title song, “White Christmas,” was originally introduced in Holiday Inn by Bing Crosby in 1942 (a song that resonated across the country and among the servicemen abroad) and most of the other songs were introduced in previous films and musicals. “Count Your Blessings,” however, was specifically written for this film.

white_christmas_01One of the things I particularly noticed this time was Bing Crosby’s delivery of dialogue. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a romantic lead, but it seems like he is at his absolute best in a buddy picture scenario. His best partners are guys: Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye. He brings an apparently spontaneous, easy-going, free-flowing and entirely natural sounding dialogue and dynamic to his interaction with these men that is unique to him. As my cousin told me, what he liked most about the film was the dialogue. He felt it was still relevant today; how people actually talk to each other.

While Andrea and I were watching, she wondered how old Rosemary Clooney was. Neither of us knew, but it turns out that she was the youngest of the four lead actors. She was only twenty-six and playing the older sister to Vera-Ellen, who was around 33. At the same time, Bing Crosby was around 51 and Danny Kaye 43. I recently watched Susan Slept Here, starring Dick Powell at 51 and Debbie Reynolds at 23 (they were supposed to be 35 and 17 respectively) and one of the first things anyone mentions about that film is the age gap, but I’ve never heard one comment about White Christmas. But as Andrea observed, Rosemary Clooney has a natural “gravity,” which makes her seem more mature. It also goes to show that in movies, age is often relative. It’s how it appears more than it how it actually is.

Side note: I did not realize that Michael Curtiz directed this film. What an incredibly versatile and seriously underestimated man. He’s probably directed more classic favorites than any other director: CasablancaThe Adventures of Robin HoodMildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Captain BloodAngels With Dirty Faces…he directed the kind of classic films even non-classic film lovers know.

No review of White Christmas is complete without a few musical clips. This scene always cracks me up; watch how Bing Crosby can hardly keep a straight face while Danny Kaye hams it up with zest. Rosemary Clooney recorded both parts in this song, singing for both herself and Vera-Ellen.

Trudy Stevens dubbed all the singing for Vera-Ellen, except the “Sisters,” number, which was done by Rosemary Clooney. “Snow” was originally written for “Call Me Madam” and was titled “Free.” It wasn’t used, however, and Berlin later scrapped the lyrics and added different ones for White Christmas.

I think this performance pretty accurately captures why the song struck such a chord during the war, particularly among servicemen away from home.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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Five Favorite Christmas Films…with a few extras

I was recently asked about my five favorite Christmas films by Robert Horvat of If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History and The History of the Byzantine Empire. So without further ado, here are my top go-to Christmas favorites.

Actually, there is some further ado. I realized as I was making the list that I came to my favorite Christmas films somewhat late. Apparently I didn’t watch Christmas movies as a kid? Anyway, they all are from 1939 to 1945. The war years seem to be a sweet spot for me and Christmas films.

Remember the Night (1940) – John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is the upright Assistant DA whose specialty is prosecuting woman because he can appear gentle and therefore not alienate a sympathetic jury. But when Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) steals a diamond bracelet and is caught just before Christmas, he manages to get the trial postponed. Feeling guilty because she now has to spend Christmas in prison, he pays her bail and offers to drive her to her home in Indiana. But she ends up staying at his family home and for the first time experiences what a loving family can be like

That description sounds syrupy, but it’s actually a funny script that is both touching and ironic. Written by Preston Sturges, he said it had a little bit “of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz.” Sturges’ idea was that love made Lee honest and John crooked. Lee is a street-smart, petty thief and con artist who appears confident, but is really longing for stability and love. We discover that her mother always thought she would come to no good and Lee is living out her expectations. Meanwhile John’s mother (played by Beulah Bondi) always expected him to succeed, which he does, though falling in love with Lee makes him want to break the law to help her.

The ending is not your typical happy ending; there is room for several interpretations, but it is still completely satisfying. Also in the film is Sterling Holloway.

Bachelor Mother (1939) – I love nearly everything Ginger Rogers appeared in in the 1930s. Bachelor Mother was made near the end of her collaboration with Fred Astaire at RKO and was a hit for her. Polly Parrish is out of work in New York when she sees a woman leave a baby on the steps of an orphanage. She picks the baby up, but is then mistaken for the baby’s mother. When she denies this, they go to her former employers at the John B. Merlin and Son department store. Thinking that her abandonment of the baby is related to losing her job, John B. Merlin’s son, David (David Niven), insists that she keep her baby and only then will he give her job back.

She agrees out of desperation and soon David falls in love. Adding to the fun is David’s father (Charles Coburn), who assumes the baby is his grandchild and wants to raise the child himself since David and Polly don’t seem willing to do the right thing, as he imagines it. Ginger Rogers always excelled at these kinds of roles: a working girl, tough and yet sweet, not above a little conniving, but essentially honest. Pure delight.

Holiday Inn (1942) – Holiday Inn is one of two films that Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire made together and they are a fantastic duo of contrasting styles and camaraderie. They even get a song about their contrasting styles. Crosby sings of how he’ll woo the girl through singing, while Astaire says that he’ll sweep her off her feet with dancing. In a fun bit of joshing, Crosby tries to dance and Astaire tries a little singing; neither with any success. They remain throughout the film, semi-friendly rivals for the affections of not one, but two girls.

Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) have a joint act, but when Hardy loses his girl to Ted, he decides to relax and enjoy life and buy a farm. The farm isn’t as relaxing as he’d hoped, so he turns his farm into an Inn. The idea is that he’ll put on a show every holiday: Christmas, Washington’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Easter, The 4th of July, etc. But inevitably, he and Ted end up fighting over another woman, sabotaging each other at every turn, in between some fantastic songs and dances, all written by Irving Berlin. Fred Astaire dances with firecrackers, the song “White Christmas” is introduced for the first time by Crosby, Astaire dances while drunk, Crosby sings “Easter Parade.”

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Another great Christmas film starring Barbara Stanwyck! Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) writes a column about her farm in Connecticut, her husband and baby and all the wonderful food she cooks, which is followed faithfully by female readers around the country. The only hitch is that none of it’s true. She can’t even cook and gets her recipes from a friend, Felix (S.Z. Sakall) who owns a restaurant.

But when a sailor (Dennis Morgan) miraculously survives having his ship torpedoed, the magazine’s owner, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) has the idea for a publicity stunt where they’ll invite the sailor to her farm and give him a taste of the ideal American domesticity. Of course, she has to then scramble to find a farm, a husband and even a baby so she doesn’t lose her job. She also brings Felix along to cook for her. But when the sailor arrives, she finds herself attracted and mayhem ensues.

The incredible cast also includes Una O’Connor and Reginald Gardiner.

Shop Around the Corner (1940) – One of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films, this is the film that also first made me really like Jimmy Stewart. Two co-workers at a leathergoods shop in Budapest, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan), do not get along with each other, but what they don’t realize is that they are secret pen palls. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was remade several times as the musical In The Good Old Summertime and Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail.

It’s a completely charming story with a bit of a dark side involving a side plot with a suicide attempt, infidelity and loneliness. Alfred Kralik and co-worker Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) discuss how much money you need to support a family. Alfred and Klara, in their letter writing, are reaching out for something beyond the mundane of work, as they discuss everything from philosophy, poetry and culture. Ironically, they bond intellectually and it is only when they meet in person that it becomes difficult to navigate through their attraction to each other, which manifests itself as dislike and arguments. The film also stars Frank Morgan of Wizard of Oz fame.

Other favorites:

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1966) – Here’s one Christmas film I always watched faithfully as a child. Dr. Suess’ book is faithfully adapted as an animated TV film narrated by Boris Karloff and to me, Boris Karloff will always be the Grinch, no matter how many of his iconic horror films I see. The remake with Jim Carrey has nothing on the original, which still makes me smile endlessly.

Larceny Inc. (1942) – Edward G. Robinson became famous playing brutal gangsters, but he also made many comedic gangster films. One of these is Larceny Inc., where he is just out of prison and wants to turn over a new leaf. But he needs money to buy the dog racing track that will enable to be both honest and rich and the bank won’t give him a loan, so he decides that he must commit one more crime. He buys a luggage shop that is right next door to the bank and begins tunneling in the shop’s basement. But despite all his attempts, his luggage shop is a financial success and he begins to make friends with his shop owner neighbors. Most of the story takes place during Christmas time and we even get to see him dressed as Santa!

An Affair to Remember (1957) – And I have to mention this one, which Nora Ephron used for inspiration in her film Sleepless in Seattle. It’s been called sappy, syrupy and hopelessly coincidental, but I love it and always cry at the end (just like Rosie O’Donnell and Meg Ryan – the ending takes place on Christmas day). It is tremendously helped by the sparkling chemistry and dialogue between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. The film is actually a remake of Love Affair, which Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, another superior film.

Ahhh! After completing this post I realized that I forgot about The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), directed and written by Preston Sturges. A hilarious screwball comedy about a young woman in a small town in America who parties, gets drunk, marries and can’t remember who she married. But she’s pregnant and the film is about her family’s reaction, the town’s reaction and the attempts of her suitor to help her. Starring Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken and William Demarest.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2015 in Movies

 

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Forgetting and Rediscovering Popular Artists

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Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in one of their Road To movies

Yesterday I read a very intriguing article from the Wall Street Journal called “Famous Today, Forgotten Tomorrow,” by Jim Fusilli. With the recent PBS documentary, Bing Crosby Rediscovered, and a new biography of Bob Hope called Hope: Entertainer of the Century, Mr. Fusilli was struck by the ephemeral nature of fame. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were as famous and important in their day as the Beatles were in Mr. Fusilli’s and he wonders “how future generations will think of the musicians of the ’60s who advanced popular music in their time.”

He goes on to remark that “As difficult as it may be for some to consider, it is likely that a day will come when people won’t value highly today’s long-standing rock-and-pop giants.” He mentions the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder. “Enamored with their own heroes, it is unlikely that these generations to come will intuit the breadth and importance of the great ’60s songwriting musicians unless prompted by biographies that revive context and do so with an emphasis on the brilliance of their art.”

It is a sad reflection; the entertainers who are so important in our lives, often mean very little to our children and grandchildren. But then, the ’60s generation had very little use for their parent’s music, so it cannot be surprising when their children feel the same way. As Alexander Pope once said in his An Essay on Criticism: “We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow; our wiser sons no doubt will think us so.” We could substitute ‘fools’ with ‘fuddy-duddy’ or ‘out-of-touch,’ except it would mess up the metre.

And sadly, I think Mr. Fusilli’s fears are coming true already. I am in my mid-twenties – though I realize that I am not the most culturally aware person in the world – and Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder are only names to me. I don’t know what they’ve sung or what they look like or what their importance in popular music is. My father knew. I asked him about them after reading the article and he was able to tell me about Dylan, at least, and sing me several of his songs.

Now I have to be honest, here; I’m a little prejudiced. I don’t like ’60s music or ’60s movies or books written after the 1960s (except nonfiction; I truly believe that nonfiction keeps getting better and better written and more engaging). As far as I’m concerned, the ’60s ruined everything, artistically speaking (as my Dad said to me, “tell us how you really feel about it”). I think it’s a form of rebellion. My parents’ generation were so revolutionary that there’s nothing left for my generation to do but become reactionary.

But since I don’t really like contemporary music (too close to the ’60s), there was nothing for me to do but go backwards: Classical Music, Opera, Gregorian Chant, Jazz, Big Band, the Great American Songbook.

The trouble with the 1960s-70s is that it is both too old and too new – too old for me to remember and too new for it too feel like a cool new discovery because I am still living in the world they created. But when I discovered the 1920s-40s, it was like a whole new world opening up before me, and I fell in love.

The Beatles

The Beatles

But this made me realize something else. Often times, people who are huge in their own era are forgotten, discounted in the next generation, and rediscovered in the following one. This happened to Bach. In the Baroque era, Johann Sebastian Bach enjoyed an excellent reputation as one of the premier composers (and organists) of the era. After he died, during the Classical Era when Mozart and Haydn reigned, his work was considered fusty. But many composers still knew and admired him and his works and reputation were revived, especially by Felix Mendelssohn, who was a Romantic Era composer. And now, most everyone has at least heard of Bach; he is so identified with his era that the Baroque Period is considered to have ended with his death. He seems about as established as Shakespeare, Mozart, Homer, and Michelangelo. People may not always understand his significance, but he has become an integral part of our cultural language.

Of course, Bach is really the only Baroque composer we remember today, unless you are a student of Baroque music. But in Bach, his era and the musical and cultural innovations of his era live and he serves as a portal for anyone who is intrigued by him and wishes to learn more.

Perhaps at some point Bing Crosby will become the Bach of his era. Perhaps we will only remember the Beatles from their era, but at least today we still have the recordings and books are being written, which means that anyone who wishes to discover more will have a very easy time of it.

Because as much as I complain about how much I feel like a woman out of time, I live in precisely the right time. There has never been a better time to be a Great American Songbook or Classic movie fan or lover of classic literature. Ebooks and sites like The Gutenberg Project mean I can find almost any book I want in the public domain and download it (any book before 1923) and even books not in the public domain have proved extremely easy to find, whether through buying them (used or new) or getting them through an inter-library loan (the best way ever!). And no longer are we limited to watching those few classical movies that are shown on TV. Now, a whole new set of films are being discovered, partially thanks to TCM. New classic movies are being restored and released every year on DVD and Blue-ray and I have seen many more on YouTube that aren’t out on DVD yet. It’s the same with music. YouTube has truly revolutionized our ability to discover and share culture. There are songs, TV clips, movie clips, full movies, interviews, tributes, documentaries. And I have been very pleased at the number of biographies written about the composers and singers I love.

I was reading a book by Michael Feinstein, a singer who has dedicated his life to preserving and sharing The Great American Songbook, and when he was a boy, not only was it not cool to like that kind of music, but it was also much more difficult to find that kind of music. He had to haunt dusty shops looking for old records. Now, it has been so remarkably easy for me to expose myself to my favorite era and fortunately, even if my generation or the next generation should discount the ’60s, it should be just as easy for subsequent ones to discover them again.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2014 in Miscellaneous Music Thoughts

 

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