Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review: White Christmas

Directed by Michael Curtiz. 1954.

Today, the Eve of Christmas, is the anniversary of the birth of cinema's perhaps most overlooked great: director Michael Curtiz. It is a regrettable coincidence, then, that it is today so appropriate to discuss what is surely not his greatest movie, White Christmas.

The movie is not bad, per se, but then with a competent director helming a cast of Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, and Rosemary Clooney singing and dancing to the music of Irving Berlin, how bad could it be? Still, the film is a testament to two tenets of the performing arts. The first: when there is music, most people don't much care about the plot. Second, if you start well and end well, most people don't care or remember what happens in between. These truths are immutable, it seems, for even I came away from this slight picture with a favorable impression.

Those first and last shots, though, pack a wallop, both zooming out from a tableau. The first pulls back from a team of musical corporals (Crosby and Kaye) entertaining their division through Christmas Eve on the European Front during World War II. The slow zoom out is effective at slowly pulling us out from the faux-snow of their stage and revealing the flashing shells and burnt out landscape behind. We meet the permanently grinning Phil Davis (Kaye) and the restrained crooner Bob Wallace (Crosby) giving a moving send off to their beloved departing general. The direction here is spot on, a meticulous balance between gravity and cheer. Who would expect that ten minutes later Phil and Bob would be dancing in drag in a Florida nightclub?

You see, the two become after the war a singing duo which gets entangled with a sister act escaping a conniving landlord when Phil bails out the gals by giving his train tickets to them which leads to additional confusion until the foursome ends up in Vermont at the hotel run by their former general. Did you see that coming?

There's not much to say about the shenanigans and Phil's constant nudging of Bob and Betty (Rosemary Clooney) into an item. They certainly wouldn't hold the picture together without the musical numbers, which come varied and frequently as the team brings their show to General Waverly's hotel to drum up business. The numbers are flashy and the footwork and sets outshine the music, whose lyrics are especially ridiculous. More entertaining is the chemistry between Kaye and Crosby, the latter of whom plays a convincing straight-man, sober but not flat, to Kaye's boundlessly energetic finagler. They make a good pair, Bob indulging the buddy who saved him during the war and Phil trying to set his curmudgeonly, reluctant partner up with a gal to settle down. Rosemary Clooney was just right for the role, too. Always looking like she is about to say something you want to hear, we're convinced that her Betty could get the cool, but always gentlemanly, Crosby to pursue.

When the whole battalion shows up at the hotel to honor General Waverly and Betty returns, we're all set for the big Christmas musical revue which comes and doesn't disappoint. The final shot zooms out from a snowy tableau in which the foursome, clad in the scarlet outfits of Mr. and Mrs. Claus, sings White Christmas after the lucky pairs smooch behind the tree. That's not an unsatisfactory parallel, either. The opening shot pulls back from a set of false snow to reveal the horror of war around them and the final shot pulls back to reveal the peaceful Vermont snow. The opening shot honors the outgoing general in wartime and the final shows that he is remembered in peace. The opening shows the two bachelors, the final two incipient husbands with their brides-to-be. We begin and end with Crosby singing the gentle winter-tide White Christmas. I'll take it.

Things I Don't Get #5: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Toward the end of the holiday classic Meet Me in St. Louis, the Smith family is set to celebrate their last Christmas at home before moving out to New York. Young Tootie weeps from the fear that Santa Claus will never be able to find their house after they move, and to console her little sister, Esther (Judy Garland) sings the tike a comforting tune, the famous Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Garland and O'Brien are splendid here, the former showing a great versatility moving among the quite different songs of the musical-movie, and how truly sad Tootie looks! The song, however, flummoxes me.

We start off fine:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light
Next year, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.
Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.
Wistful, yes, but full of hope too. Put aside sadness, we are told, for we can choose to be happy. Now is no different from the happy days of the past because our loved ones are still here for us. Then bam! things go dark pretty quickly.
Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow, 
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
How did the Fates get involved in this? Did Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos (Κλωθώ, Λάχεσις, and Ἄτροπος), the Greek Μοῖραι, or goddesses of apportioning, who spun out, measured, and cut the thread of human life, really just show up in Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas? And this is the cheered up version?

Worse still is that this is how Esther tries to cheer up her sister? "Tootie, I know you're sad, but by the way there's no Santa Claus and ancient Greek goddesses control the world. They're coming to kill your family and they've also decided when you're going to die. Merry Christmas."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Movie Review: Meet Me in St. Louis

Directed by Vincente Minnelli. 1944.

If you want a classic proof of Roger Ebert's dictum that a movie isn't about what it's about, but rather how it's about it, you could find no better than Meet Me in St Louis, since Minnelli's tuneful Technicolor feature for Judy Garland could scarcely be less about what's happening on screen than the sense of life which animates the picture. That sense, cultivated by every detail of the movie, far outweighs the sum of its otherwise humble parts.

We don't particularly care, for example, with which cardboard neighbor each of the Smith girls ultimately pairs. Yes, Garland as the second oldest daughter in the family is charming and spunky, but there's no dramatic weight behind her adolescent pining. Likewise we don't particularly care whether the Smiths will need to relocate to New York City to accommodate their father's promotion because there is no substantial dramatic tension between alternatives. This is not the stuff of drama and we care less about them as characters than about their world, that is, home and way of life.

Meet Me in St. Louis makes this point not by plot but by sense, and the sense is that home is a good, beautiful place. This feeling is no afterthought or incident, either, but fostered by cinematography, music, sets, and setting.

Of visuals, the vibrant, vivifying Technicolor pops the colors of the scenes far beyond realism so that even the most bland details, even dirt roads and background lamps, seem to jump from their commonplace corners into the spotlight. This is not simply persuasion by beauty, though, but a play on the memory: how much of our recollection, especially of home, is of bright colors jumping forth. Who doesn't remember a green carpet, orange couch, or red lamp somewhere at home? This is the vividness of memory in the exaggerated tones, and it tells us that St. Louis is home.

The sets too amplify that intimate sense of homely charm: the window sill, the kitchen, the dining room table, the front porch, and so on. These are not grand locations, but beautiful ones nonetheless. The notable exception is the rollicking ride for the famous Trolley Song, in which the love-struck Esther swoons about her charming neighbor to the exquisitely-hatted ladies riding the trolley across town. Perked with bright colors and animated by the gentle cantor of the trolley around which the camera wings, it's a perfectly giddy scene.

The music is tuneful and pleasant, nostalgic even, and appropriate if not remarkable. Appropriate to what, you may ask. Well, the tunes are simple because they are the tunes of home. We don't have soaring virtuosity and overblown orchestration, but innocent simplicity. These are tunes for singing in the living room, not the concert hall, and as such there is an authenticity to the to the music and even modest lyrics like,
Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair.
Don't tell me the lights are shining, anyplace but there.
We will dance the hootchie-kootchie, I will be your tootsie-wootsie,
If you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair.
Not poetry perhaps, but there is good in the simplicity of music for singing not with great skill about tragic ends and philosophical designs, but about home and family and uncomplicated love. It's music and sentiment they would have called gay, that is, full of light merriment and unmixed joy. The sight of Esther (Judy Garland) and her little sister Tootie singing Under the Bamboo Tree for the family in the living room isn't fraught with portent, but it means a lot as an affirmation of life, love, home, and family. My favorite detail in the movie comes when Esther mouths one of the lines to Tootie. I'm not sure if Garland actually was mouthing the line to Margaret O'Brien to help her, but I like to think that it's a song the girls sing for the family all the time and Tootie just can't get the words straight. It's a cozy intimate scene which contributes more to the purpose of the film than any of the plot.

That plot, though, is just an excuse to threaten the end of all this domestic glee by whisking the family off to New York City. The decision to stay in St. Louis could have been better prepared and dramatized by creating some necessity or desire for everyone to move so that they had a difficult choice between staying and leaving. We care that they remain not because of what they think but only insofar as staying preserves their way of life, of which we approve, and validates our affection for their home. I'm also not sure what to make of the fact that no one in the family seems consoled by the fact that they will indeed all still be together in New York. That dramatic and logical gap notwithstanding, life is not just big events, but thousands of little details. It means something to love those too and the movie's affection for them is vivid enough to persuade apart from the thin characters and plot.

The weight of the finale comes satisfactorily nonetheless, though, through the brilliant touch of setting the story at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair: what is a more joyful approval of life just the way it is than a festival? Too, the starry conclusion at the fair seems to make true the impossible fact that everyone's home is the center of the world. Meet Me in St. Louis is too sweet and honest to chastise for that fancy, just as we can only indulge and be warmed by little Tootie who in earnest innocence asks, "Wasn't I lucky to be born in my favorite city?"

"Yes, indeed." we ought to say. It is no small thing to love one's home, and it's not a love that ought be broken or educated out of us, but cherished.