White Christmas

The Artistic, Economic, & Culture Attributes To White Christmas & The Evolution of Critics of The Film

Tess N. Hyre

Shepherd University

 

 

Abstract

This paper discusses the realistic quality White Christmas (1954) possesses through the understanding of World War II, but also the unrealistic attributes the film displays for viewers. Through the evident gender roles the film portrays between men and women, to the fantasy qualities, both Michael Curtiz and Irving Berlin use Hollywood glamorization of set designs to set unrealistic settings. This paper also includes how critics have evolved and changed in the perspective of the film since the day it opened in 1954, to the present day. Through the wave of psychology, critics have since taken a psychological approach in defining not just the title of the film, but also using Sigmund Freud’s psychological approach to the subconscious and conscious mind, including race as well.

Literature Review

The film, White Christmas (1954), was directed by Michael Curtiz and was based around war and the postwar season of World War II and starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. The title alone gives away the initial theme of the film, letting viewers know that it has something to do with Christmas. It is known as a comedy/musical/romance film to many and seen during the holidays, even to this day. To the average viewer, it is a Christmas classic, known for its timeless music and story created by Irving Berlin, its dance numbers, and lavish costumes. However, for those that analyze the film, it focuses on the economic struggle, or lack of, people faced postwar, the gender role that the males and females played, and the artistry of the sets and themes for each scene and how they played a role in the portrayal of the time era the film revolved around.

As a whole, the economy was not at its best during World War II and still saw struggling, yet growing times for some, after the war. World War II led to technology with engineering new products for war to increase in force, along with the government stepping in to help the economy grow (Tassava, 2008). The Great Depression was occurring as well during this time. Christopher J. Tassava states in The American economy during World War II:

“The war decisively ended the depression itself. The federal government emerged from the war as a potent economic actor, able to regulate economic activity and to partially control the economy through spending and consumption. American industry was revitalized by the war, and many sectors were by 1945 either sharply oriented to defense production (for example, aerospace and electronics) or completely dependent on it (atomic energy). The organized labor movement, strengthened by the war beyond even its depression-era height, became a major counterbalance to both the government and private industry. The war’s rapid scientific and technological changes continued and intensified trends begun during the Great Depression and created a permanent expectation of continued innovation on the part of many scientists, engineers, government officials and citizens. Similarly, the substantial increases in personal income and frequently, if not always, in quality of life during the war led many Americans to foresee permanent improvements to their material circumstances, even as others feared a postwar return of the depression. Finally, the war’s global scale severely damaged every major economy in the world except for the United States, which thus enjoyed unprecedented economic and political power after 1945 (Tassava, 2008).”

Tassava speaks briefly about technology and science, both of which are known to be fields for only males to partake in. Those were not fields women were involved in back in the day, but also not a lot of people were specialized in both fields, even as males. To the eyes of people today, this seems very unrealistic, but what many need to remember is that the United States was not as populated as it is today. With that said, there was a rise in the economy post war for a few years, but that does not mean that everyone, soldier, family, woman, or child were economically stable. Soldiers did not come home to how things were before they left, and when some came home they may have had nothing. Irving Berlin embodies these aspects into his story of White Christmas as best and as “Hollywood” one could do, and grabs viewers attention to come to theaters and listen to the music, letting White Christmas be one to remember.

Irving Berlin wrote the music for both Holiday Inn and White Christmas, both of which starred Bing Crosby. White Christmas did not just start out as a film, it started out as a song. The song “White Christmas” was to be promoted around Christmas time, but it became an unexpected hit the moment it started playing overseas for soldiers in war. It gave soldiers hope and allowed them to envision Christmas for their families during the holiday season overseas (Whiting, 2004). With the song being such a hit, Berlin wrote a full movie based around the song and the times people were facing during the war and postwar times. It ended up being one of the best films out in 1954 and one of only three films that focused on World War II and the holidays. The film brought theaters back to life, especially postwar, because it incorporated the attributes of war and how society was with the economy. Berlin traveled the world, visiting soldiers as they were in war and would play music for them, much like the opening scene of the film where Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are putting on a show for the soldiers. There were no women as soldiers, which begins the argument of gender roles and how they were played throughout the film.

Gender roles were, and still are, distinct throughout every generation to the present day. Without films and movie making, gender roles would not be as evident as they are today. In an interview with Rosemary Clooney reflecting back to White Christmas, she says, “I have never understood the whole plot of White Christmas, it has many plot turns, but there was one that took the cake. I get mad at Bing, and I go racing off to New York and get a job – just like that was the easiest thing in the world! And I’m singing in this very beautiful nightclub, and Bing comes down from Vermont to get me” (Ward Morehouse III, 2000). This ties into gender role, whether it was noticed in the 1950’s or not, but in today’s society it is viewed as saying the woman is meant to be showed off in a night club. That is just one example of many the film displays. In the beginning, the film, as stated earlier, it starts off with showing the masculinity of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in a war scene with female nurses at the camps. Transitioning from the war, the two men go on to put on shows and end up at a club where Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen are introduced in the film. The women were highlighted throughout their show, and there is even a scene showing them in their dressing room with the manager, who is a male, calling to them to get ready for their next set. Viewers can argue that it is sexist, because viewers do not see the two men being yelled at or ordered to do something, minus their General Waverly of war, whom they then work for and put on shows at the General Waverly’s ski resort. Which can exemplify gender roles for the 1950s. According to All that Hollywood Allows: Re-reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama, author Jackie Byars discusses Sigmund Freud’s theory on gender role:

“Sigmund Freud’s description of the family romance depends on a notion of psychic development beginning with a masculine origin that he dissimulated as unisex. He described male development as normal, juxtaposing female development in terms of its deviance from this norm. According to Freud, the relationship of the male child with his mother eventually takes on sexual overtones, and the child begins to see his father as a rival for his mother’s affections. He fantasizes about murdering or castrating his father but then fears retaliation (his own castration) and so denies himself the love for his mother, instead identifying with his father, and is reassured of his sexual superiority to all that is feminine. For the male, the entry into adult social order is the road to normalcy, and the “naturally” transfers his early, primary, narcissistic self-love to “normal” object love, first to his mother and later to some other woman. For the female, Freud believed, this was impossible. Focusing on anatomical difference, with the male as norm, Freud posited a “genital trauma” in the female child as she realizes that she is anatomically “inferior”- she does not possess a penis. She comes to despise herself and all those like her, especially her mother, and the feelings of castration and inadequacy manifest themselves in “penis envy.” She turns angrily from her mother, who is not only penis-less but also a rival for the affections of her father, now the object of her love. Eventually, she regains self-esteem through a narcissistic vanity. But, according to Freud, women never develop “normal” objective-love through their children (Byars).”

Through Sigmund Freud’s explanation of gender roles, it helps explain Berlin’s idea of having a traveling sister act working, something that women were not accustom to do, even for some wives of soldiers. They were working women, doing what Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye’s characters were doing. Between the sisters, Rosemary Clooney’s character was more of the mother figure to Vera-Ellen, and the same applies to Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, Kaye’s character is more childish and Crosby’s character helps him, more of a fatherly figure supplying guidance to Kaye. In Irving’s story, he makes sure that it is known that the men are more established in their business, digging deeper in how men trump women in the work force. There is even tension between Clooney and Crosby’s character, emphasizing on Freud’s methodology on the male and female behavior. Clooney’s character, being the older sister, has more on her shoulders, yet she possesses jealousy when seeing Crosby’s character and how confident and successful he is. There are evident romantic feelings between the two, but Clooney’s stubbornness is revealed, reflecting back on Freud’s logic of “penis envy”. Therefore, viewers continue to see the distinction between both men and women roles throughout the film and class distinction, much like ideology and what was expected from people in the 1950s.

Ideology plays a role in films, especially in today’s era of film. In Mapping Ideology, by Slavoj Zizek, they write:

“Ideology proper emerges only with the division of labour and the class split, only when the ‘wrong’ ideas lose their ‘immediate’ character and are ‘elaborated’ by intellectuals in order to serve (to legitimize) the existing relations of domination – in short, only when the division into Master and Servant is conjugated with the division of labour itself into intellectual and physical labor (Zizek, 1994).”

How viewers digest the films they are watching, interpret them, apply them in some way, to better understand what they had just watch, is in fact, very prominent in today’s society. The same applies for films in the 1950s. Ideology is essentially the idea of something. Some can argue by not believing in class distinction between the working class and upper class, but according to ideology, it is just that, and from ideology comes psychoanalytic film theory.

Psychoanalytic film theory derives from ideology and without ideology, there would not be psychoanalytic film theory. However, they are still two separate ideas in understanding and uncovering the meaning of films using forms of psychology. In the article, Psychoanalytic Film Theory, Todd McGowen describes the two different era’s of when psychoanalytic theory was introduced, and still used in today’s films:

“Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, focused on a formal critique of cinema’s dissemination of ideology, and especially on the role of the cinematic apparatus in this process. The main figures of this first wave were Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, and Laura Mulvey. They took their primary inspiration from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and they most often read Lacan through the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s account of subject formation. The second wave of psychoanalytic film theory has also had its basis in Lacan’s thought, though with a significantly different emphasis. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this manifestation of psychoanalytic film theory, which continues to remain productive even today, shifted the focus from cinema’s ideological work to the relationship between cinema and a trauma that disrupts the functioning of ideology. In Lacan’s terms, the terrain of psychoanalytic film theory shifted from the axis of the symbolic order and the imaginary to that of the symbolic order and the real. Although psychoanalytic film theorists continue to discuss cinema’s relationship to ideology, they have ceased looking for ideology in the cinematic apparatus itself and begun to look for it in filmic structure. Cinema remains a site for the dissemination of ideology, but it has also become a potential site of political and psychic disruption (McGowen, 2015).”

Psychoanalytic film theory is more troublesome to fully grasp on the ideological spectrums of this specific theory, however, it is, from a psychology standpoint, when one reaches satisfaction. More refined, it is when one reaches their “fantasy”, or the image created in the sub-conscious mind that viewers believe is ideal and realistic, when in fact, it is not. Films have the power to transport viewers to a place where there are no worries, that the “fantasy” created is realistic and achievable for real life. In Linda Mizejewski’s journal entry in Minstrelsy and Wartime Buddies: Racial and Sexual Histories in White Christmas she says:

“Yet given this theme of wartime nostalgia and happy return, the finale presents a puzzling reversal that is key to this film’s significance in cultural history. With its trajectory from wartime loneliness to holiday celebration, the obvious project of White Christmas is to produce “home,” the site for which the sad soldiers yearned in the opening scene. However, the site of the finale is not “home” but a nightclub, and the emotional punch of the scene is evoked not by the sparkling wives but by the surprise reunion organized for the retired general, embellished with the sentimental songs about military life. Thus the finale reverses not just the physical circumstances of the soldiers, but also the object of nostalgia, which is no longer for “home” but for the Army, the scene of male camaraderie revealed in the opening. That homosocial world has been exchanged for the familiarity of “home,” which, as described by Freud in “The Uncanny” (51), is inevitably the familiarity of female sexuality, the element that was missing during the wartime scene and which threatens that earlier scene’s homo- social bonds (Mizejewski, 2008).”

White Christmas is a fantasy. There are two significant parts of the film where reality sinks in for the actors and actresses, and that is when Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen’s characters arrive in Vermont expecting snow, and there is no snow. Another part is when the General Waverly comes to the realization that the ski resort is doing poorly, with not many clients coming in, because of the lack of snow on the ground. Other than those two scenes, the film is revolved around a fantasy. Mizejewski brings up an excellent point by elaborating on the importance viewers need to realize and separate from reality and fiction is the meaning of “home”. Home is not a ski resort, or a barn where the performances at the end of the film took place, home is not war, home is where families are and sleep at night. When White Christmas first came out, without psychoanalytic film theory, viewers of the film embodied the holiday season around films like this one. This led to false-consciousness, by believing in something fictional, dreaming to have a “White Christmas” dressed in lavish clothes with singing and dancing. However, by beginning to analyze films this way with the psychoanalytic film theory and critique film artists work using realistic ideology, it opened the doors to become more critical on films and the problems they brought up, or coincidentally contributed to, real world problems with race, gender, and economic standings.

Being a film in the 1950s, when racial issues began to arise, White Christmas was in the middle of it. Viewers can argue the song choice, the lack of African American actors and actresses, though that was common because many African Americans were not seen in films, and the interpretation of just what “home” was postwar. White Christmas embodies a perfect, unrealistic, postwar scenario, because once soldiers arrived back home, society had changed. As Linda Mizejewski discusses further more in a journal entry in Minstrelsy and Wartime Buddies: Racial and Sexual Histories in White Christmas, she mentions:

“By the time White Christmas was in production, the NAACP had begun to organize the first challenges to Jim Crow laws and to the separate-but-equal ruling regarding schools. The school cases began to appear in front of the Supreme Court in 1952, leading up to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, the year White Christmas was released. During this time, racial politics had been stirred in Holly- wood, too, resulting in a new cautiousness about racial representation, particularly concerning blackface performance, which had been a part of Holiday Inn. The specific racial revisions of Holiday Inn in White Christmas suggest the contradictions and ambivalence of the new racial conscious- ness, with its strong attachments to the older entertainment traditions (Mizejewski, 2008).”

The film has a very angelic ambiance about it, pure, and white, but that was not what society portrayed in the 1950s.   Viewers do not see African Americans in the film once. Even the song choices revealed there were no considerations for African Americans. Some may even argue the title as being racist because “White Christmas” may be symbolic to wishing for a snowy white Christmas morning, but for some, they may interpret the film as being a film about Caucasians ideal envision of Christmas and the holiday season. It does not once leave room for African Americans to dream of Christmas the way Caucasians do, because it is not realistic. However, the film still remained a hit, due to the fact it embodied the “American dream” by having people come together, dressed in their best clothes, and act happily with everyone surrounding them spreading unrealistic “happy holidays” and cheers.

VistaVision was new to Paramount in Hollywood, California. It was apart of the reason for the film being such a hit, with selling tickets, and the large set designs to help convey the story and time period of the film. However there is a scene that goes against the “old times” and challenges artistry with “modern times”. Every scene shown in White Christmas is large and lavish with every detail thought out. Midway through the film there is a piece called “Choreography” and it is with Vera-Ellen dancing and Kaye singing. It is simplistic and lacked any extravagant detail to the set design. It was modern. A term that was not used back in the 1950s because people did not know what modern was. From then to know, society has in fact, modernized and has become simplistic. To add onto modern times today in contrast of how life was lived in the 1950s, both men and women most likely work. Women now are considered to “wear the pants” in the relationship and are the moneymakers. There are still gender role issues with money and respect for women, and even racial issues with jobs that African Americans work and Hispanic, but life is more modernized. The piece, “Choreography”, incorporates both modern/contemporary and tap together. To the artistic eye they do not go together. Transcending to the fact that times are changing. Viewers must use ideology and even the conscious mind to realize the message Berlin wanted to write, and Curtiz helped make alive, whether they knew it or not it was a futuristic piece at the time. John David Rhodes in White Christmas, or Modernism, mentions that “Choreography” is an unfit match between modern dance and tap and is uncomfortable (Rhodes, 2006). It is uncomfortable because Hollywood had not seen something so prevalent to how dance has evolved and also society. When Kaye is singing, the dancers around him stare at him. At a critics point of view from 1950 it is just another scene in another movie, but today, it is something that occurs in society. Everyone starring and looking at others, without it being an uncommon thing compared to the 1950s. It was like Berlin took a look into today’s day and age and applied it to White Christmas for this specific piece.

White Christmas is and always will be an all time classic for American history. It is because of the expanded knowledge viewers are exposed to that leads to the dissection of the film. By understanding the elements and logic put into the film, it helps viewers create a deeper appreciation of the film and see just how far filmmaking has come, especially with Sigmund Freud’s logic. Films today embody White Christmas by Curtiz’s creativity through set and Berlin’s approach of giving unrealistic situations and dreams, because many films today are fiction. With the array of imagination, White Christmas still remains a classic for those who dare to dream of experiencing a Christmas much like this one.

Resources

Allen, A. Psychoanalysis and Cinema: Some Preliminary Distinction. A Companion to Film Theory. p. 124.

Byars, J. All That Hollywood Allows. All That Hollywood Allows: Re-Reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama. p. 99.

McGowan, T. (2011). Psychoanalytic Film Theory. Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies. doi: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0052

Mizejewski, L. (2008). Minstrelsy and wartime buddies: Racial and Sexual histories in white Christmas. Journal Of Popular Film And Television, (1), 21.

Morehouse III, W. (2000, December 8). Singer recalls a ‘White Christmas’ past. Christian Science Monitor. p. 19.

Rhodes, J. D. (2006). White Christmas, or Modernism. Modernism/Modernity, (2). p. 291.

Tassava, Christopher. (2008, February 10). The American Economy during World War II. EH.Net Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-american-economy-during-world-war-ii/

Whiting, J. (2004). White Christmas. The Life and Times of Irving Berlin. p. 37.

Zizek, Slavoj. (1994). Mapping Ideology. Introduction. p. 13.

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