Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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St. Nick

Where are the parents? Is it a game? Detached style draws you in. —Marty Mapes (review...)

Sears kids watched by St. Nick

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Just in time for Christmas, it’s White Christmas. The Starz Filmcenter is showing a restored 35mm print for one week only.

How come you’ve never seen White Christmas when you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life four times? Well, White Christmas isn’t the holiday classic you might think. It’s a slightly racy studio musical from 1954.

A Backstage Musical

Not the movie you might expect, if you only know the title
Not the movie you might expect, if you only know the title

Bing Crosby stars as Bob Wallace, a Broadway singer who is joined by his old army buddy Phil (Danny Kaye). They travel to Florida one December to catch a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) they might use for their show. Phil spends a lot of time trying to hook up Bob with one of the sisters. (This year’s Sideways shares the same excuse for a plot — a guy goes off looking for two girls — one for him, one for his reluctant buddy who, one can say in 2004 but not 1954, needs to get laid.)

The boys had intended to return to New York, but the girls are going to Vermont for a Christmas gig, and Phil convinces Bob to join the girls in Vermont, which is experiencing unseasonable weather this year.

They find their old army general running the ski lodge in Vermont where the girls are to perform. Because of the weather, tourists are staying away in droves. If our heroes can’t think of a way to draw people to the lodge, their favorite general might lose his livelihood. Luckily, Bob and Phil just happen to be big Broadway performers. Et voila, we have a backstage musical.

Eyes, Legs, and Skin Color

Even though the movie isn’t as memorable or moving as other holiday classics, there are plenty of reasons to see it (not the least of which are Vera-Ellen’s legs).

The color is gorgeous. It was filmed in Technicolor and “VistaVision” — Paramount’s widescreen filming process that results in a negative twice as big as CinemaScope, giving the image finer detail and richer colors. Bing Crosby’s Technicolor blue eyes pop off the screen, looking beautifully unnatural.

Many of the dance numbers are surprisingly good for a movie not known as a great or important musical. Fred Astaire was invited to play Kaye’s role — he and Vera-Ellen danced together in 1950’s Three Little Words — but he turned it down. Instead, Vera-Ellen dances with (and around) Kaye, giving the movie its most kinetic moments.

The movie even offers a fascinating bit of cultural baggage. One of the musical numbers in White Christmas is a “minstrel show” number — a show by white people performing in blackface. In 1954, apparently there was just enough race sensitivity to keep them from doing the number in blackface (thank goodness), but not enough to keep them from doing the number. There is a big backdrop of two red-gloved hands playing a banjo — it looks as though the Sambo face had just recently been taken down. The cast dons green jackets and red gloves and the same goofy, broad gestures you’d see if they were in blackface. It’s a weak defense of a racially insensitive form of entertainment — as though they’re saying “we don’t just parody blacks, we also parody people who are green and red.”

Amber Time Capsule

If not for the lasting popularity of Bing Crosby’s voice singing White Christmas, this movie would have been forgotten to all but the most loyal fans of Turner Classic Movies. Instead Fate chose this average piece of eye candy for posterity. (That it was Paramount’s first film in VistaVision gives it another claim to fame.) It’s like the fly preserved in amber. There was nothing special about the fly that it deserves to be remembered today. It’s just happened to be in the right time at the right place at the right time. There were dozens of other films from the early 1950s no better and no worse than White Christmas. But if you can only see one of them on a big screen, it may as well be this one.

  • MW: Marty Mapes, you wouldn't know a good movie if it bit you on the behind. This movie is a wonderful Christmas Classic. Being that I am only 28, as I view the film, I have NEVER even thought about racial controversy. Maybe it is because I am not old enough to remember segregation and the racial divide. I dont' know what age bracket you fit into, but I think that unless something is actually put out there, creating concern and insult, then you should not be looking for implications that don't exist and causing race to be an issue in an old Christmas Classic. I think you are digging WAY to deep and you should be ashamed of yourself. December 1, 2007 reply
  • Amy Hurd: While flipping through the channels tonight, I came across this "Christmas Classic", White Christmas. I found myself listening to the "minstrel show" number and shaking my head.

    Those senior to me, those who grew up without gems like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, hang on to White Christmas fondly. It's a memory and a feeling and as much a part of Christmas as snow and apple cider. I understand the cultural phenomenon that is the genre of Christmas movie classics, and I understand that movies like White Christmas are passed down and shared with younger generations with ritual and good intentions.

    But, as a 29 year old, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of a "minstrel show", because it was/is racially insenstive. Movies show us the signs of the times, and, therefore, the movies themselves are not necessarily bad. But, MW, it is nothing short of absurd to suggest that stating the obvious, as Marty Mapes has done, is "digging WAY to [sic] deep."

    My question to you, MW, is this: In what world are you living in where no racial divides and segregation exist? Being 28 is no excuse for being ignorant.

    December 21, 2007 reply
  • Enrique: I could never understand what is insensitive about minstrel shows. I've seen many of them from Al Jolson on. I never saw it as demeaning to black people. I saw it as quite the opposite as white people endeavored to immitate their talents and style. The whole reason that it was entertainng is that it shed a light on those talents that nver got to be shared. It renewed an interest in the culture of black music and, as I was taught, esteemed that culture. I guess beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. I find great beauty in the cultural contribiutions of our black society. It was the minstrel show that called my attention to it. And, because it preceeded the great carreers of early black artists, I would suspect that the minstrel show is exactly what oepned the doors to the aceptance of black entertainers to the stage for us all to enjoy in a very resistant world. December 24, 2007 reply
  • Buddy Zappa: Enrique, if what you said were true, that Minstrel Shows are actually an homage to African Americans, then why have they died out? If they were really that good and noble then don't you think somebody would be doing them? And before you say, "political correctness" maybe you should do a little research about why they are nearly universally scorned. Read what African American writers have to say about the subject, try to put yourself in their shoes, and then make up your mind. December 2, 2008 reply
  • Al Jolson: Enrique, if the music of the African culture that -got- imported to this country was so good (and it was, being seminal in virtually all popular and classical American musical genres, more than *any* other folk tradition such as Appalachian, French-Canadian, Celtic, Mexican, Yiddish/Klesmer, et al.), why was it that minstrel shows didn't employ actual black musicians? And if the minstrel shows were such a tribute to this musical heritage, why was it that the caricatures -- the makeup, the strutting, the gestures -- of them by the black-face performers were just that, caricatures, while co-opting the music? With all due respect, I don't know how old you are, but I suspect it's either "not very", or else "quite". December 25, 2008 reply
    • Josh: The concept of a minstrel show is demeaning towards colored people, but, nevertheless still hilarious. All races should be able to make fun of the other stereotypes that embody other races. I believe people just felt sorry for coloreds because they didn't rule the world and didn't make a lot of innovations comparatively in the realms of science, philosophy, etc. I am a musician and composer and appreciate the art colored people have made, and minstrel shows don't make me appreciate it any less. Maybe you should just admit that making fun of any race can be funny and SHOULD be acceptable. And I will say "colored" if I please-I am no slave to the speech police. December 13, 2010 reply