And may all your Christmases be white
Posted Dec 21, 2016
Most old holiday movies warm your heart and eat your brain. But White Christmas makes you wonder what we really want. When Bing Crosby originally sang “White Christmas” in 1942, folks at war missed home and holidays with a touch of melancholy. When Bing croons it in the movie, the smash hit of 1954, the characters are dreaming of the “good” war, missing the feeling of heroic intensity.
Here’s the story. A decade after WW2, two old army buddies (Bing and Danny Kaye) are successful performers who help out a sister act (Rosemary Clooney—George’s aunt—and a former Rockettes dancer named Vera-Ellen). After some scrapes with hotel bills, the quartet land at a Vermont resort owned by the guys’ WW2 commander, General Waverly.
Here’s the hook: the resort lacks snow and guests, but the big-hearted general insists he’ll pay the sisters to perform though he’s going broke. Bing solves the problem by arranging a TV appearance in which he calls for all veterans of their old army outfit to show up at the resort for a “white Christmas” spectacular.
This plot is the old Bob Hope & Bing “road” movies driven around the block one last time. The jokes go flat. The romance doesn’t start since Rosemary Clooney was just 26 and Bing twice her age. The dancing is expert but predictable. Danny Kaye filled in when Fred Astaire turned down the part.
Why watch this wooden cuckoo come out of the clock again?
Don't get me wrong: it's a lovely song, deservedly popular. But a popular movie dramatizes cultural fantasies that audiences share. Here, the peculiar reverence toward General Waverly motivates the action. The General is a teddy bear. But when the veterans arrive for the big show, he’s back in uniform. The instant he barks commands, “his” men snap to attention. Their submissiveness is smartly choreographed in the film, just as it would be in a parade drill if they were still in the army. Supposedly it’s all kidding. After all, these guys have settled down. But there’s no mistaking the underlying fantasy of obedience to the leader and the dream of WW2, the “good” war. They want to bring back that feeling of American “greatness.”
In the real world, Americans hero-worshiped two retired generals: MacArthur and President Eisenhower. They didn’t own resorts, though Ike had the White House. But after the epic heroism of the “good” war, both generals were hemmed in by new realities. Truman fired the arrogant MacArthur for disobeying orders in Korea. Eisenhower helped bring the brutal Korean war to a halt, but without a peace treaty. McCarthy’s spy hysteria and segregationist defiance in the south were so strong that Ike was reluctant to face them down.
You can see why Americans were—and are—nostalgic for the “victory culture” of WW2. The Cold War of the 1950s is today’s endless “war against terrorism.” On TV in the 50s, I Led Three Lives was dramatizing the Hoover FBI’s thrilling paranoia. The Soviets too had the H-bomb. Mao’s China had gone Communist. Colonial Indochina was about to make headlines as Vietnam. Like today’s terrorists, the Commie menace was everywhere.
But as Bing and Danny put on a plucky show at the General’s resort, showbiz was under pressure too. In 1954, rock & roll was starting to crowd crooners. The swing era was shrinking down to Lawrence Welk. When the duo does a minstrel show number, nobody seems embarrassed or notices no black faces in the troupe. They also do an early number in drag that anticipates the gender-bending farce in Some Like It Hot (1959) and today’s gender-identity palpitations.
In White Christmas, America is a nation of showbiz and military veterans. Of course they hero-worshiped a general who could get tough and save them. The screenwriters must have thought movie patrons would buy tickets to share in this fantasy.
But here’s the kicker: the same fantasy is saluting today. The prez-elect comes on as a tough-guy general who owns resorts and hotels around the planet. Like General Waverly, his business career has been a failure, with shifty bank bailouts and finessed debt keeping him afloat. He campaigned as a teddy bear, promising to save jobs as Gen. Waverly saved the sisters’ act. Just as TV summons the General’s vets to save the resort, so celebrity reality-TV helped the pres-elect win over his audience.
But what about the whiteness in White Christmas? In the movie, the song’s whiteness means greeting card snow, sleigh bells and apple pie. The resort will make money. But in places like Little Rock in the 50s, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” was also a battle cry of Jim Crow forever. Change was afoot. Truman had integrated the military in 1947, and in 1954 racists were digging in to defend the snowy white dream. The screenplay’s looking for a good fight, to make America great again, and showbiz turns it into a TV special and a snow job.
In the real world the conflict never went away.
During the 1957 struggle over integration in Little Rock, Louis Armstrong told a reporter that his favorite musician was Bing Crosby. But when asked about the racial hostility in Little Rock, Satchmo lost his temper. He lambasted the segregationists and also the overcautious, do-nothing general in the White House.
Deck the halls with boughs of folly.
But soon Ike realized that Little Rock wasn’t just a war of words. To uphold the law and real lives, he sent 1,200 paratroopers to Little Rock, and soldiers escorted nine black students into the segregated high school. Louis Armstrong had a gut reaction, wiring the general-turned-president:
“If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy. God bless you.”
History marches on. People wise up.
Or do they? In 2016, you may recall, white supremacy is still warming hearts and eating brains. A candidate won the White House behaving as if his supporters were fighting for their lives against immigrants and (ahem) "them." In Mobile Alabama after the election, he egged them on, teasing: “You people were vicious, violent, screaming, ‘Where’s the wall?’ ‘We want the wall!’ Screaming, ‘Prison!’ ‘Prison!’ ‘Lock her up!’ I mean, you were going crazy. You were nasty and mean and vicious.” He called his followers “wild beasts.”
A news commentator now can say on the air what’s at stake in the teasing. Once again a white Christmas is a fight to the death, because “liberals believe ‘white men have set up a system of oppression and that system must be destroyed.” And “Therefore white working class voters must be marginalized.”
“His” people are at the new general’s resort. They know he doesn’t really mean the sinister things he says. He'll only destroy "real" enemies. He’s just dreaming of a white Christmas and giving folks the war they miss.
Maybe it’s just showbiz, kids. Let's hope.
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Resources used in this essay:
Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (2007)
David Margolick, “The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise,” New York Times (September 23, 2007): http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/opinion/23margolick.html
Robert Reich, “Why president Trump Will Continue to Hold Rallies,”’http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/40942-why-president-trump-will-continue-to-hold-rallies
Rebecca Shapiro, “Bill O’Reilly: ‘The Left Wants Power Taken Away From The White Establishment," http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bill-oreilly-the-left-wants-power-taken-away-from-the-white-establishment_us_585a1d05e4b0d9a594567f9d