Saturday, December 09, 2006

White Christmas

Go to Starbucks to obtain a copy of their DVD issuance of the movie “White Christmas”, complete with the usual interview and trailer frills, and, a CD of the soundtrack!

Be forewarned. This soundtrack is not literally the soundtrack, but the original studio recording of what was delivered in this 1954 polonium 210-laced ginger house in which I am doomed to dwell for life. The four walls of “White Christmas” are my orphanage, my prison, my asylum, my boyhood home, my aerie, my palace and my sarcophagus.

Rosemary Clooney, under contract to Columbia at the time, was not allowed to do the soundtrack, and was replaced by Peggy Lee. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are there, as is Trudy Stevens who was the voice double for Vera-Ellen in the film. PL delivers an imitation of RC so accurate as to make me fish out the liner at several points just to make sure they had not snuck in a bit of RC’s own voice here and there. (Less slavish and highly delectable is PL’s rendition of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me”.)

The other three are glorious in the delivery of one jazzy number after another. In song, they pretend joyfully to climb the post-war American temple steps leading to the civic duty of marriage to a member of the opposite sex. This culminates with a reverential offering of America’s own Forever Song, “White Christmas”.

They are accompanied (sometimes assaulted) by Joseph J. Lilley and his orchestra and vocalists, the sound of whom, as a teenager, could make me literally nauseous. Now, as I hear them merrily chugging alongside the stars, their arrangement makes me simply happy, and nostalgic for a childhood I never really had, and for a country in which none of us ever really lived.

I have always felt uneasy about the fierce fascination I have for this movie. I have tried to hide it over the years, but friends, including one who gave me this original movie poster, could easily read the fact that I become immobile when it is shown on TV.

white xmas poster

In the early and giddy days of videocassette, when classics were at last released from the imprisonment of annually scheduled network showings, several gift-wrapped copies of this movie came my way. I soon discovered that my addiction to it could not (unlike chocolate) be happily indulged at home, privately and whenever the mood struck. The tapes gathered dust on top of the VCR.

I needed to come home after dark, flip on the TV, and find that it had inconveniently already started. I needed to turn the TV so that I could prepare dinner while watching. I needed to run to the bathroom or to the washing machine during the commercials. I needed to annoy C by singing along loudly enough to force his attention. I needed to stop whatever I was doing to give my full attention to certain curious scenes that still make me squirm:

a) Crosby, Kay, Clooney and –Ellen make a snow scene out of a napkin and condiments in the club car of a train en route to Vermont.
b) Rosemary Clooney slams the sheet music down on the top of an upright piano saying that she does not like the song, that she won’t sing the song, before briskly walking out of the rehearsal hall.
c) The general gets bad news in the mail and takes up a horseshoe.
d) The housekeeper at the inn, honking into a giant handkerchief, admits that she is a busybody and has listened in on a telephone call.
e) The shot lingering on the face of the General’s granddaughter when she sees him in his uniform.
f) The anorectic Vera-Ellen in a gigantic round rug of a dress placing a hand on Danny Kaye’s thigh while asking him to affirm that she is not exactly unattractive.
g) The long gloves and lightening bolt neckline of the black gown worn by Rosemary Clooney in her post-flight-to-New York solo night club act.

These scenes are deeply etched into my soul’s hard drive whence they color and guide my every utterance and reaction to the world around me, come what may.

Of course, the elephant in any room in which this movie is viewed is its homosexual over and under tones. Danny Kaye is oh so gay in his worshipful “buddy” relationship with Bing Crosby, in his obvious enjoyment of their drag version of “Sisters” and in his recoiling from the advances of Vera-Ellen. One never questions the fact that the General is a sexy unmarried widower who wants to re-enlist. It just seems natural that a man like him should live with other soldiers now that he’s done his civic marital duty. The housekeeper at the inn is a frighteningly mannish thing. Rosemary Clooney’s performance as a man-hater is entirely convincing. There is Vera-Ellen, a weird species unto herself (famous for having the smallest waist in Hollywood) whose mimicry of female sexuality in “Mandy, There’s Minister Handy” still makes my skin crawl a safe distance from the TV screen. Finally, those songs by Irving Berlin. “Gee, how I wish I was back in the army” includes the line “The army was the place to find romance” quickly reeling itself in to mention women in slacks. The “Choreography” number mentions “Queens with routines”. “Sisters” speaks for itself.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as Christmas outside this movie. In its final scenes, in which ballerinas flit in front of a decorated tree on stage at the inn where the two couples have sufficiently but unconvincingly overcome their instincts to Velcro themselves into hetero-coupling, the back walls magically open to reveal a new snowfall traversed by a sleigh. Cue the big song.

At this moment, the viewer should feel warmth of heart. Instead, as a child watching this on TV, I hear my parents in another room, tearing apart their marriage. We feel the grim realities of the 1960’s ripping apart the entrails of 1950’s romance and duty. We imagine Danny Kaye on his knees servicing the General and the two of them talking about it decades later on Oprah. We see in the frightened face of Rosemary Clooney her spiral into emotional undoing followed by years of therapy, obesity and a broken voice hawking Coronet bathroom tissue. Are those Vera-Ellen’s little arms embracing porcelain while practicing the bulimic arts? Have you read what his kids say about Bing?

White Christmas is a strong eggnog of unintentional cinema verity and the grandmother of reality TV set to the gorgeous music of Irving Berlin. What’s not to love? Perfection. Home.


Anonymous said...

I suppose I should rent it... =\

tornwordo said...

You make me smile.

A Bear in the Woods said...

I always noticed that the couples action was strictly boy/boy in this film, as the boys all looked really nervous when girlflesh drew nigh.
Incidentally, my nomination for the "Gayest Moment in Movie History", is found in the Danny Kaye movie, "Hans Christian Andersen", a horrifying bit of schlock only redeemed by the inclusion of a song in which D.K. sings a hymn of praise to "Copenhagen, you salty old queen of the sea", to his obviously gay teenaged sidekick, off of whom he cannot keep his hands.

It's pure movie magic.

R J Keefe said...

And what do you think of "Holiday Inn"?

Anonymous said...

This is beyond belief...somebody out there shares my bordering-on-unhealthy relationship with this movie. I owned the video, then the DVD, but I finally had to ask Baby Jesus to help me avoid the temptation to watch it every day. I wanted badly to be a part of it. I mean, who wouldnt want be a hyper-tapping Vera-Ellen dropped into the middle of a flock of Martha Grahamsters? Or be one of the four pomaded, mock-urtlenecked guys who slither around Rosemary Cloony at that New York nightclub?
True story: one winter afternoon I found myself in the position of either joining my father outside for a game of catch, or continuing to watch "White Christmas". I was 10 or so and loved baseball...but..
That movie sealed the deal. And, as I found out later, playing catch wasn't confined to baseball anyway.

Anonymous said...

I'v never seen this movie but after reading this, I can't wait to rent it. I am a huge reality show addict and your description of it as "the grandmother of reality TV" really intrigues me!

Also, I love Irving Berlin. I read his biography recently. Did you know that his only son, Irving Berlin Jr. died when he was a child on Christmas day? Apparently I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas was partially written as a memorial to him, and often moved Berlin Sr. to tears.

Kerry said...

Jeff has taken the words out my mouth.... My facination with this movie is just not natural. I'm not like this with other movies. I know every scence that you speak of in your post, and I even laughed out loud at a few of your explanations. Surely there must be a support group out there for this. FYI, in case if you have not seen it, there is an at length interview with Rosemary in the bonus footage. See... there I go...

dpaste said...

Never seen it.

Anonymous said...

the only logical next step is to merge the Ocean's franchise with a remake of this movie. George does his Aunt Cloony's role, and he HAS to do the nightclub scene, black lighting-bolt neckline dress and all.
Pitt can suck it up and do V-E.