Thursday, December 25, 2008
White Christmas -- working the angles
Director: Michael Curtiz, 1954
What's a Christmas movie without Christ? Answer: MAS -- Mostly About Santa. And there are a lot of Christmas movies focused on the big guy in the red suit, such as The Polar Express or The Santa Clause. But when Santa is not the focus either, what is left for a Christmas movie? Not much, unless it's a warm-hearted musical like White Christmas.
White Christmas was famous for two things: being filmed in VistaVision, a wide-angle filming process and the Irving Berlin title song. But "White Christmas" was first used in the 1942 Holiday Inn, for which it garnered the Oscar for original song. That film starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but Astaire turned down the co-starring role here due to the script.
The film opens on Christmas Eve 1944, where an impromptu musical entertainment show is in process among the US troops in occupied Europe. Set against the backdrop of bombs and artillery, Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) sings the famous "White Christmas" while performing with Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). This is the last night under the command of popular General Tom Waverley (Dean Jagger). After they close their act, they come under shelling and Davis saves Wallace's life at the cost of an injured arm. And he will use this injury as "his angle" on a career. When Wallace comes to visit him in the medical and offers him any help, Davis asks him to let them sing his original composition when the war is over. Using his "angle" to guilt-trip Wallace, he gets his wish. And the two never look back. From cabaret to Broadway, they become popular performers. From singing to composing to producing, they become the Rogers and Hammerstein of their day, famous everywhere they go.
It's now 1954 and a week before Christmas. Their show is winding up for a Christmas break in Florida. They are like an old married couple, arguing and fighting but still loving each other. Wallace is a workaholic, wheeling and dealing and working the angles. Davis is a commitmentless womanizer who wants a little more spare-time. At a request from an old army buddy, they agree to listen to a sister act, Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) and Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney), before taking the train to New York. As they sing their song, "Sisters," these sisters win over the men.
When Phil and Judy go into a musical song and dance, and this usually happens in old musicals, Bob discusses business with Betty. It is in this conversation that one of the themes of the movie emerges. She wants to know what his angle is, and he admits everyone has an angle. In today's lingo, we would say "there's no such thing as a free lunch."
With the police looking for the sisters to arrest them, they need an angle and a friend. Through some contrivances, the sisters get the men's tickets to Vermont, and the men agree to go there with them to enjoy the snow. Coincidence abounds when the owner of the sun-soaked and snow-challenged resort turns out to be Gen. Waverley, retired and almost bankrupt. So, Davis and Wallace decide to bring their production to his hotel as away to attract an audience. A further idea is to reunite all the men from the division for their 10th anniversary on Christmas Eve. The narrative plot is defined. Can the two soldier-performers help save their popular general? Can Bob and Betty hit it off? And will there be snow on Christmas Eve? These three plot-lines weave together to arrive at a well-known and predictable climax.
As preachers and parents know, repetition is powerful. And this is used here in the same way. The two best songs, "White Christmas" and "Sisters" are repeated. Indeed, "White Christmas" bookends the movie. Along the way, there are some other strong songs, including "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," which was nominated for an Oscar, and "Choreography," which showcased the dancing skills of Danny Kaye. Clooney performs her songs well, but the anorexically-thin Vera-Ellen does no actual singing, just energetic dancing.
White Christmas has a corny script, that's true. Astaire recognized this, but it still was the highest grossing film of 1954. It had cheesy dialog. There is even a cheese scene where Bob is discussing the different types of dairy-inspired dreams. Despite these deficiencies, White Christmas is like a grilled cheese sandwich: not a gastronomic delicacy, but easy to watch, easy to digest, easy to enjoy.
There are three ethical issues that White Christmas raises: motivation, gossip and generosity. The issue of motivation appears early when Bob tells Betty everyone has an angle. Everyone has an angle, a motivation. Motivation is the hidden reason why we do things. It can be positive or negative. It makes the difference between whether something good is done for the benefit of others or the benefit of self. In this regard, we cannot really judge another's motives. We can only look at our own motives, knowing that though we may deceive the world we cannot deceive God. He knows our inner motives; he knows why we do what we do (Heb. 4:13).
Gossip is a second issue. In the middle of the movie, the housekeeper deliberately listens in on a conversation between Bob and Ed Harrison, the TV Show host. But she only hears a part of the conversation. She misconstrues what she hears. This would have been bad enough on its own, since it changes her approach to Bob. But the busybody becomes a gossip and tells Betty, thereby passing on her error, a falsehood. This is a plot device to cause the film narrative to add tension allowing for a captivating climax. But in real life this can cause catastrophe. Biblically, we are commanded not to gossip (Prov. 11:13, 2 Cor. 12:20), to keep to our own affairs (1 Tim. 5:13). Being a busybody, nosing into the affairs of others, usually does not lead to positive outcomes. Indeed, the only person who profits is the busybody, who becomes the knowledge broker and center of attention. It is a form of self-centeredness.
Finally, White Christmas leaves us with the spotlight on generosity. Although misunderstood, Bob and Phil were doing their production for free, out of a love for their general. They showed the true spirit of Christmas, giving generously to help a friend in need. This was a gift that was priceless. But it reminds us that Christmas is about giving generously to those we love without expecting anything in return. And it reminds us that Christmas does include the Christ. Without the birth of Jesus, Christmas would really have no meaning. Jesus the Christ was born as a gift from God to all of humanity (Luke 2:10-12). This Christmas day, it is worth reflecting on this gift that lay in the manger and now lays beneath your Christmas tree. Have you received the gift of Jesus yet? If so, your sins are washed clean, and it surely will be a pure white Christmas!
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
at 11:00 AM