26 December 2009

White Christmas Revisited

Filed under: Fiction, Movies — ktismatics @ 11:21 am

On Christmas Eve Anne and I watched White Christmas for the first time in who knows how long. I wrote about this movie toward the end of my second novel. For me it’s the novel and not the movie that induces nostalgia:

…He wondered if there was anything Portalic in those old Bing Crosby holiday musicals. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, both self-consciously ridiculous as frilly drag sisters, lisping their way through that corny Irving Berlin number. Bing and Danny marching in full uniform with the rest of the boys across that Vermont ski mountain, reassuring Dean Jagger that even a retired Army hero occupied a very special place in the post-War nostalgia. Bing seated at the piano in the chalet, singing White Christmas to an enraptured Rosemary Clooney. Yes, of course that was it: that was the Portal.

Prop remembered reading somewhere that in real life Bing had been rather a cold-hearted bastard. This spiteful allegation had endeared the Crooner to Prop in a way that the smooth, schmaltzy screen persona never had. Bing wasn’t simply being himself up there: he was an artist who had created an alternate version of himself so consistent and compelling that the public bought it. Prop wondered whether the on-screen Bing wasn’t more real than the brooding and insular workaholic chain-smoking in his trailer between takes. A mean SOB singing a Jew’s Christmas song to a lush: this combination, this synergy, had opened a Portal so pure and powerful that it still worked more than half a century later…

It turns out that Prop remembered it wrong. Bing sings the song at the very beginning of the movie, in the WWII trenches. Then the whole troupe sings it at the very end. Bing sings a different song to Rosemary in the chalet.



  1. This is very good, I think I follow how one’s own work about another work could induce nostalgia; and I only watched the film a few years ago myself, wouldn’t have remembered the order of the songs either, although I remember images of the girls with that golden hairstyle. Rosemary Clooney never made another major movie, but she always talked about this one, was nostalgic about this movie, clearly something she cherished. I saw her here at the Blue Note about 1986, she had one of the slickest, most professional club acts that could ever be seen, and is a very important singer to me. Nobody else sounds like that voice, and there are two quotes of songs in the new book that ‘the Genet quarteron’ will come out with next year. The first one ‘Together’ I still have on a 45 disc which I got when I was 6 years old. An album of Ellington songs ‘Blue Rose’ I bought off eBay in 2004, and there’s a rose at my window in a still life Jack did that we call ‘Blue Rose’ (I didn’t see any blue in it, he did), and also ‘Hey Baby’, which I’m crazy about.

    This also reminds me of Jack’s and my disagreement on the two film versions of the soaper ‘Imitation of Life’. Claudette Colbert is a much better actress than Lana Turner, but she was not the very embodiment of ‘Imitation of Life’ that Turner had become (this was her big comeback film just after the Stompanato murder, and she seems to exult in triumph even before the box office proved her supercilious but shallow attitude to be quite as salable as she commanded it be). There are some reflections in ‘day of cine-musique’ in the review of ‘Love Has Many Faces’ on what she did in ‘Imitation of Life’ that is so uncanny that I would even call it portalic. We had a little too much wine with our Xmas, which we do a day late, so after i read your post, I had to sit here for the longest time and remember the moment I’d discovered as having (for me) proven the Turner/Sirk version far superior as a living object. It still works. And I was just at the Turner/Stompanato house at 730 N. Bedford for the second time this past Wednesday.

    So that there is something about the way you talk about ‘Portalic’ this time that makes the Portal seem immediate in a way I couldn’t pick up on when you talked about portals before, i.e., in the very reading all sense of ‘medium’ was cancelled out, and there was a sense of what you have long been talking about as ‘alternate realities’ happening in that moment, not delayed. This is not meant to be 100% neat, but the post has just in this half hour opened up several kinds of very pleasurable portalic sensations, and they’re even delimited to song, film and novel. Very nice. I think I need to go and add ‘Hey Baby’ to someone’s ‘Christmas Picks’, in fact, right now.


    Comment by butch cazza — 26 December 2009 @ 11:26 pm

  2. We have a Rosemary Clooney CD recorded after her tone got a bit flabby, but always a great voice, phrasing, expression. She sang both parts on the “Sisters” duet because the other girl in the movie could dance but not sing. I just listened to her sing Hey Baby with the Duke Ellington orchestra: thanks for the tip, Butch. White Christmas was already nostalgic when it was released in the 50s and apparently a big box-office hit, but it feels forced and manipulative and many of the songs are not up to Berlin’s standards. Still, it captures an era of big bands and elaborate nightclub shows that had already faded into the past. My parents used to tell me about going to places like the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago and dancing to Tommy Dorsey’s band.

    The novel moves from Prop’s ineffectual theory of portals in Part 1 into his being gradually pulled through a portal that becomes almost unavoidable for him. This bit with White Christmas happens when Prop is waiting for the big transition and his life is passing before his eyes so to speak — an inherently nostalgic episode.

    From your reporting at CPC it sounds as though your annual pilgrimage to LA went even better than usual.


    Comment by john doyle — 27 December 2009 @ 7:23 am

    • I just looked back at that review I wrote, it hadn’t been quite explicit enough the startling effect Lana got as Lora Meredith, who was looking out the window high above New York after her triumph in a play on Broadway. Someone says something (probably John Gavin) about ‘otherwise it becomes a mere imitation of life…’ but as the frame dissolves, an all-knowing look comes to Lana’s face: The ‘exulting’ I mentioned is very much like ‘I know something you don’t know, nevermind I’m not an intellectual or even a great actress’, or it could be said ‘being an Imitation of Life is a LOT more than it’s cracked up to be, especially if you friends in high places in the LAPD who rearranged the evidence as per my directions, and convince your daughter you’ll ruin her reputation if she doesn’t take the fall’ and, mostly ‘Fuck you all! I got away with it, imitated in real life my ‘Peyton Place’ courtroom scene about rape while wearing Johnny’s jewels, only to reappear within a year in a high-budget motion picture, and the scandal will surely bring in the bucks!’ And as I said, it did, and there is also a photo of her appearing with Cheryl at the big premiere. But the look on her face in the early a.m. after the B’way opening was a kind of Portal, I think, and one that no one else was privy to at the time. I told Jack yesterday that that was the moment that proved everything about that soapy ‘women’s movie’ as they used to call those. Because Claudette Colbert could never have been an ‘imitation of life’, she was an intelligent women as well as brilliant comedian, and fairly well-adjusted in her personal life, the bourgeois frenchwoman. So I thought it interesting that a bad actress could do a scene that opened a Portal into the darkest kinds of things, including murder and being an unfit mother (which Lana certainly was), and the ‘alternate reality’ that does open up when you do get away with crime. She got away with it to such a degree that she even had the luxury of several more husbands and gay secretaries to whom she’d confess having committed the murder after having a few vodka martinis. I imagine these subtexts are in many old Hollywood films, because the eccentricities go way back to the early silents, and yet the commodification of the films for mass consumption has always this great dissonance with the real personalities, as with Bing Crosby, in that crime never wins. This begins to change, of course, by the 60s, when in the U.S., as had long been the case in Europe, unhappy endings become more common, and at least in B-movies, crime sometimes goes unpunished (also at the end of ‘Body Heat’, you see Kathleen Turner having fully succeeded in her crime, which has not happened in ‘Double Indemnity’, nevertheless the much greater film.)

      My primary interest in your post, though, was the new sensation of Portals that one would enter immediately, not eventually. In the past, I had always gotten the impression of something continually postponed somehow, hence some of my impatience. The true Portal would be so irresistible (at least in some kinds of cases that have now come to mind) that you just enter it/them, you don’t think ‘how can I find a Portal? because without one I just don’t see how I can get by, etc’ Of course, I imagine that’s my own mal-interpretation. But also has to do with some of what we were recently talking about with the distance between fantasy and reality, and that I found that the minute I gave up my residual puritanical resistance to ‘fantasy’, there was often no division at all for me. so maybe some of these ‘Portals’ are fantasies (could be of any kind) that, in walking straight into them, they become real.

      Clooney became enormous and started singing very feebly due to shortness of breath, so it was all legend by her last years at Rainbow and Stars here, although she had so many fans from the past that it was always packed (I never saw here there, but her annual appearances were always big events, the Blue Note is a more intimate jazz club down the street, but expensive, I’ve only been once). I recall that we were discussing media and old and new things about 2 years ago, and ‘Suzie Snowflake’ came up. I believe that’s Vera-Ellen as her girlfriend in the movie, she was a superb dancer (I believe is also in ‘call me Madam’ with Ethel Merman, and this might be the best filmization of a B’way musical ever made), although her unusually strangely thin legs are hard not to notice as such. YOu should try to see that if you can, it’s on DVD, and the only time Merman got to star in one of her B’way hits. And speaking of Irving Berlin, Alice Faye does ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ (in her usually rather listless way) in the film, and though Merman is in a supporting role, simply waited a year and claimed the song for herself as if she had originated it.

      Yes, it was a wonderful Christmas, and I hope yours was too. I am very interested at how powerful Christmas is as a world phenomenon, I mean WAY beyond Easter, of course. Smart people are often bewildered by it, and I think it’s a certain measure of how well one accepts oneself as to how happy a Christmas you can go on and have, i.e., I see people trying to resist it and talking about ‘commercialism’, but then doing it anyway.

      I see you have several degrees of portals from your last comment, some of the irresistible type, and some which may possibly be seen from a distance.


      Comment by butch cazza — 27 December 2009 @ 1:21 pm

  3. But I thought Cheryl confessed again in her autobiography, even after much time had passed. Maybe she and Lana both wanted the credit for rubbing out Johnny.

    A nostalgic portal is of course something that may take years to take shape, but after the proper interval has passed is entered instantaneously and perhaps repeatedly or extendedly, as with the madeleine and old Hollywood. I believe I once mentioned having seen Ethel Merman perform Gypsy onstage, though of course I was too young to experience the nostalgia at the time. She was incredibly loud though, justifying her reputation. I’ve never seen either version of Imitation of Life, but it sounds like I should.


    Comment by john doyle — 27 December 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    • But I thought Cheryl confessed again in her autobiography, even after much time had passed.

      She did ‘confess’, but who’d believe anybody in that family? after all, she was the one who had been convicted of it, not Lana. Stompanato was known to have been fucking Cheryl, but Lana might not have known it until that night, which the insiders say she was even luckier about: Apparently she started stabbing madly at them both and if Cheryl had been killed, this amazing ‘perfect crime’ couldn’t have worked. Of course, it’s not technically a ‘perfect crime’, since it was a crime of passion, and Lana’s connections oiled up things smoothly.

      ‘Maybe she and Lana both wanted the credit for rubbing out Johnny.’

      I hadn’t thought of that, it’s good. It wouldn’t have been possible for Lana to talk about it till much later though, long after keen interest was gone. And she didn’t either. But it’s written up beyond a shadow of a doubt in Eric Root’s book, this was her hairdresser/secretary/escort, with whom I saw her at Bloomingdale’s in 1982. Blonde hair colour-coordinated by Root. Come to think of it, some other celeb hairdresser ought to use that as a gimmick: ‘Colour-coordinated Platinum Hair for Gay Men and Their Fag Hags’. I would imagine Cheryl, having inherited all the money (and there was a lot) and living in Hawaii, really doesn’t care to undo things, and…you may well be right that, since she did survive and make a life of her own, she even wants the distinction, especially if she had to take the punishment that was not justly hers at the time. There’s long been speculation that Lana did it, but the evidence so carefully rearranged, that it’s usually only the fact that insiders say she did do it that makes it convining; most of the world was content to ‘feel sorry for Cheryl’, and condemn Lana for being a scarlet wimmernz. Incredibly, she became even more scarlet as time went by. One of her ‘last famous acts’ was to watch the O.J. Simpson murder trial all day every day.

      ‘A nostalgic portal is of course something that may take years to take shape, but after the proper interval has passed is entered instantaneously and perhaps repeatedly or extendedly,’

      Yes, on the street just now I thought about this ‘taking years to shape’, but the actual ‘entry’ I had not been able to seize upon when you have written about it in other forms. I’m quite delighted it makes real sense now, instead of being some further version of Waiting for Godot, which is how I was reading it for a long time, icluding some of Dejan’s remarks about alternate realities and subversion. He recently pointed out that one of CPC’s foundation stones was ‘subversion’, and the only reason I didn’t think about such an obvious truth is that he kept going on for such a long time about David Lynch’s movies being subversive; and those, by comparison, don’t seem very subversive at all–unless in comparison with CPC. And then I decided I didn’t want any more subversion practised by my clever friend over there, once having just this past Wednesday left ‘Dianne Selwynism’ off forever in merely going to a Beverly Hills restaurant that was so Christmas festive it couldn’t be resisted–and it had an enormous therapeutic effect on me within seconds of entering. Just that morning, I felt that I was truly lost, that I had sunk, so why bother, this will just be temporary. But it worked exactly the way a psychiatry session ought to work–and once I’d made that movement without much faith in it, I was fairly astonished that I never lost the total movement away from David Lynch’s dark images in Mulholland Drive, but also that some of them had scared me more than I had ever faced, and they had scared me when I first saw it in 2001. First–and Dejan will understand this–I thought going to La Scala Restaurant would be like Dianne’s ‘date with Rita’, a kind of ‘consolation prize’ that would be just a trace of old and better days. That was probably the hardest one to get past, especially after I got there and found that I was the only one wearing a tie and they weren’t the least bit snooty, which that part of BH is famous for (this did not turn out to be the ‘poor part of BH’, even though below Sunset, because it was adjacent to all the Rodeo luxury shops, although residences along Rodeo are decidedly less grand and fabulous than those up high on the hills). So then my clever friend, who writes the most delightful imaginable things was going a little too far with changing the goodlooking young Hadrian into a ’60-year-old tramp in nothing but a jay cloth pouch’, as well as the expensvie glasses of wine into ‘glasgees in brown paper babs’, so as I said at CPC, I had to hold onto my reterritorialization of the rest of the Beverly Hills details, which are quite rich, including both days I spent several hours each there (this was unusual for me to see any reason to spend time in BH), because his inventiveness is so boundless and he is so incapable of not being wicked with the teasing, that I had to decide that some of these things I just wasn’t in the mood to have satirized. If something if very precious to you, it won’t necessarily or even usually be to someone else, unless they think they should respect it for you anyway, so you don’t take chances–because with his ingenuity he would have consumed these details which I’ve held onto (as I have ‘The Boy of Avon’) instantly and served them back to me as junk food (despite claiming he’s tired of pseudo-analysis of junk movies at CPC. so RETERRITORIALIZATION can be subversive too, it just has a more conventional look to it. When you’ve long associated with leftists and left-of-cetner types, you can feel very guilty about any luxuries you take, whether lightly (as some I did) or very heavily and concentratedly (which I also did, and that, of course, is worse.) So then you get over the guilt, and that’s one of the reasons Parody Center has actually worked and developed a life of its own. ‘lafayetc’s’ entry and collaboration with me was indispensible, but so is Dejan’s weird ‘comptrollership’ and ‘precipitous violence’ that occurs occasionally, as well as Northanger’s startling weird wisdom. But one reason, unlike saints, we get over the luxuries we do take, is that we don’t indulge in these all the time. On the way back, they were offering ‘upgrades’ for $150 to passengers on a sparsely populated flight. Two fashionable young people bought these, I thought oh no, now that is something I’d NEVER do, but once in my seats with the horrible service (very different from the flight out, both Delta), I certainly wished I could have. It was so BEASTLY HOT I had to tell the stewardess that I was taking off my clothes (and here was one place I didn’t want to do that), and I started doing it, my socks were off and my shirt totaly unbuttoned, it was unbearable. That, plus taking public transit, is then why I’ll go and do something indulgent, and after a certain point, you really don’t need to care what other people think of your occasional non-violent indulgences, I mean of that sort with paying too much (frankly, I’d never done that with expensive glasses of wine, and just decided to forgo the dessert, which is famous there as well.) Okay, I’ve really got going again.

      So envious you saw Merman in ‘Gypsy’, and there is nothing like the Bway cast album of her ‘Everything’s Comin’ up Roses’, a magnificent B’way song, and nobody has ever been able to equal it (that’s something even Streisand couldn’t touch). I do, unlike most, like the movie a great deal with Roz Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden, I think it very underrated, but it was sheer idiocy not to cast Ethel in it, and she certainly agrees with me and the B’way show-tune fairies about that one!


      Comment by butch cazza — 27 December 2009 @ 4:16 pm

      • about David Lynch’s movies being subversive; and those, by comparison, don’t seem very subversive at all–unless in comparison with CPC.

        should be ‘especially in comparison with CPC’. I do think Mulholland Drive is an extremely good and important film, surely Lynch’s best, and one of the best films about Hollywood. It derives something from ‘Sunset Boulevard’, which is perhaps greater still. After Swanson is eclipsed by talkies, both as Norma Desmond and Swanson, until she gets the big role Sunset Boulevard, she never has another important film role again although she does some TV fairly frequently. It only now occurred to me that ‘Mulholland Drive’ is used only because ‘Sunset Boulevard’ already has been–in geographical fact, Mulholland Drive does not have that much to do with the film industry area, although it does wind through the Santa Monica Mountains above Hollywood and Beverly Hills and perhaps further, whereas as Sunset Blvd. is always thought of us being perhaps the most quintessential of streets (Hollywood Blvd, is the garish area of Hollywood, but it doesn’t extend into Beverly Hills and to the ocean as does Sunset, which is very inclusive and, i believe, starts in Downtown.

        By the way, my own sense of ‘Dianne Selwynism’ did not include her sense of vengefulness, I was just really getting started with my projects mid-trip this time, so I only had a brief identification with her when my energy flagged. Obviously, she was in far worse shape than I ever was if she would put a hit out on somebody instead of going to a lavish BH Xmas lunch. I’m just not that interested in murder and such things.


        Comment by butch cazza — 27 December 2009 @ 4:26 pm

  4. A friend recently read the O’Gandhi book, loved it, and read it a second time. He had no patience whatever with my first novel, which he set aside after about 20 pages. I love them both, though I’ve come to appreciate that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.

    O’Gandhi is the sort of ineffectual, overly-intellectualized, passive loser with whom I suspect you have little patience, Butch. My mother-in-law didn’t like the main character in my first novel, who sits around at a cafe hoping nobody bothers him. She lasted about 10 pages.


    Comment by john doyle — 27 December 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  5. http://theater.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/theater/reviews/24irving.html

    Here’s a horrifying non-nostalgia-inducing ‘White Christmas’. It’s been this generic thing touring the West Coast seasonally for maybe 6-7 years, and unbelievbably, I went to see it in 2005 at Pantage’s Hollywood, a beautiful old movie theater from the teens or 20s which now shows mostly touring B’way shows. It was perfectly awful. I was in touch with Michael Musto of the Village voice, told him about it, and he said ‘Oh GOD I hope that thing doesn’t come to New york!’ Well, then it did last year. There’s not a thing I liked about it, not even the ‘I Love a Piano’ number. It was good for giving work to actors like Brian d’Arcy James, whom I saw in a good revival of The Apple Tree in 2007, but most of the B’way actors have much less charisma than even the Hollywood actors; he was okay, but if that’s a B’way leading man, they’ve got serious problems. And that’s one of the reasons the city is so moribund by now. Many of the most important cultural product systems are totally lacking in excitement. I just put this link for historical interest, and as coincidence. It’s far worse than even some of the other things I could complain about on b’way, but it has a dead quality that is not uncommon in the traditional popular arts now. Man, this makes the old movie seem a fucking masterpiece. Have you seen ‘Holiday Inn?’ I think that’s the better movie, I believe also has Bing Crosby. Interesting what Prop thinks though, my mother thought Bing was just the bees’ knees, I didn’t even know till I read your post, well, he sounds nicer than me, but still…maybe Sinatra’s wicked mob connections got everybody else off the hook.


    Comment by butch cazza — 28 December 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  6. Maybe Prop was conflating scenes from White Christmas and Holiday Inn. I think in Holiday Inn the White Christmas number is sung intimately around the piano by Bing and the girl interest, whereas in White Christmas the parallel scene revolves around the song Count Your Blessings. The review you link suggests that the jokes were probably lame even back in the 1950s, which is no doubt true. Some of the old musicals remain lively entertainments with brilliant performances standing the test of time. I remember loving Yankee Doodle Dandy when I saw it on daytime TV as a little kid, with James Cagney really putting his heart and soul into the song-and-dance act doing those grand old Cohan songs. I wonder if I’d still enjoy it today.


    Comment by john doyle — 29 December 2009 @ 7:40 am

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