A Little Larceny
About halfway through the 1954 Paramount crowd-pleaser and Bing Crosby star vehicle White Christmas there comes “Choreography,” featuring a rubber-faced, bumbling Danny Kaye, playing army vet and entertainer Phil Davis, partner of Crosby's Bob Wallace. Kaye, in an eggplant turtleneck and slacks ensemble and matching beret, stands amid a raft of a half-dozen young women in unadorned purple-gray calf-length dresses. “The theatah, the theatah,” he intones with mock upper-class gravitas, “what's happened to the theatah / Especially where dancing is concerned.” Then the music kicks back in, a sour mash of Igor Stravinsky's “The Rites of Spring” and Leonard Bernstein's “Age of Anxiety,” or anyway music designed to evoke, with a wink, things of that sort, a discordant twelve-tone sketch on the subject of angst and disconnection, a series of tempest-evoking crescendo. The company behind Kaye, their high ponytails swaying, engage in dramatic, swooping motions, then freeze and fire off a series of stilted movements, all while mugging with expressions that lie somewhere between pained and unimpressed. We don't know just what's going on here, but it's clear there is much sturm. If the criminally charismatic Danny Kaye weren't at the center of the bit it would hardly be watchable.
“Choreography” is a less-than-sophisticated poke at modern dance as pioneered by Martha Graham. Later on in the number, Kaye leaps up onto a tripedal piece of industrial-looking sculpture in blue, a knock-off Calder, and continues his faux-serious interpretive dance. When the music abruptly switches gears and settles into a more classicist Tin Pan Alley mode, Kaye adopts the vernacular. “Chaps who did taps,” he sings, “aren't tapping anymore / They're doing choreography.”
In its totality, the piece is a laundry list of benign dog whistles, the sort of lampoonery which inevitably results when orthodoxies rub uncomfortably up against foreign bodies, all of it underlined by the nigh on paralysing fear of nihilistic negation of everything one body politic holds dear and true. The targets of “Choreography” all represent hallmarks of modernism, paraded in an effort to mock the perceived self-seriousness such cultural texts exhibited or represented.
A decade earlier they said Charlie Parker couldn't really play, that he lacked the foundation of knowledge required to understand the music he was apparently deconstructing. He wasn't innovating, they said, but simply obfuscating. Just making a racket. “Choreography” is the same criticism wearing a different sweater. Modern dance isn't dance at all, it says, it's just movement. Martha Graham, of course, could dance circles around any of her critics. And Charlie Parker? Bird knew his stuff, from Brahms to Stravinsky to, yes, Louis Armstrong. His art sprang directly from an informed place; he could only deconstruct because he knew exactly which girders and beams and fasteners to remove. And, as though he anticipated all this, he did his own rendition of “White Christmas,” on December 25, 1948.
The truth is that underneath the populism of White Christmas, the behind the scenes machinations were far more complicated and cynical than the eye-popping widescreen VistaVision final product would ever let on. This was comfort food cooked by committee; seductive Christmas memories and WASPy nostalgia served up by a team tasked specifically with warming hearts, including the Jewish Russian emigre – Irving Berlin – who wrote all of the film's music, from “Choreography” to the title cut, a nugget so popular when it first appeared in 1942's Holiday Inn, then too sung by Crosby, that they figured it was worth framing with a whole feature length motion picture a dozen years later.
But never mind all that; just enjoy the number. Kaye goes on: “Heps who did steps,” he sings, “that would stop the show in days that used to be / through the air they keep flying like a duck that is dying” – that one never fails to get a laugh at my house – “instead of dance it's choreography!” Then down from the rafters descends fawn-legged and wasp-waisted Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) – half of the film's Haynes Sisters, alongside Rosemary Clooney's Betty – who begins to tap, to the consternation of the modern dancers, who look on in dismay as they're shown how it's really done, and with a smile big as California on her face. When her partner, played by John Brascia, in a taupe suit cut bayonet-sharp, explodes out of the floor, into the air, and lands squarely yet gracefully on his feet, modernism is left quaking in its drab boots.
White Christmas is light as a soufflé and as comforting as mashed potatoes, and in my family we make a point of watching it each December; even my 6-year-olds are into it. But cozy and cheering as it might be, it was ever something more: a studio confection directed by the eminently capable Michael Curtiz (Angels with Dirty Faces, Mildred Pierce, Casablanca, and dozens more) which was simultaneously a chronicle of a clash of ideas, one a pipe dream of an absolutist past, a trumped-up and bastardized memory, the fiction of a Utopia in decline, and the other something resembling, from the vantage of the film's sound stage world, total absurdity. If it hadn't hit you already, you're left staring it in the face when, after an act of charitable kindness toward one of their (racial, economic, religious) own, during the sweet-as-cocoa finale rendition of “White Christmas,” the set dressing is raised to reveal the thrown-open barn doors, which afford a look at the snow falling soft and delicate as ash on a perfect New England countryside, a scene lifted straight out of a Currier & Ives print. At that point, those assembled raise their glasses in a toast to a pretty fantasy of what they'd like to imagine used to be.
The American culture industry was shipping out products like White Christmas with reliable regularity— trifles made not without some care and craft, but generally with little eye toward longevity, and certainly no expectation that they become time capsules of the era's subcutaneous anxiety. But some, including White Christmas, were dipped in the waters of dread, and they still bear the mark.
Wallace and Davis had been to war – the film opens with them in theater, attempting to gift their fellow GIs some small measure of Christmas cheer while the air is lit up with artillery – and so had seen firsthand the threat to the American way of life, and had traded bullets with those who'd been present as the Enlightenment's promise of governance-by-reason slid into something grotesque and seemingly anti-logical. Though borne of reason, the events of the first half of their century looked a lot like an absurdist nightmare, a perversion of the notion that the light of reason would illuminate the world.
The New England framed by the barn doors in the closing scene of White Christmas was a pastoral world on the verge of becoming a mercantile society. Soon industrialism would dissect labor and divide up the day and, as Rebecca Solnit suggests in River of Shadows, Eadweard Muybridge, the famous British photographer, would divide up the second. Says German philosopher Max Horkheimer in 1947's Eclipse of Reason: reason narrowed into pragmatism, which narrowed into industrialization, which morphed with some ease into authoritarianism. There was a chain, and Wallace & Davis and the Haynes Sisters recognized it, as did screenwriters Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank, and director Curtiz, too. Really, no one alive at the midpoint of the last century could miss it. Science and reason ushered in mechanized production, which allowed for mechanized slaughter. Writes Horkheimer, “science can be used to serve the most diabolical social forces.” Even with the fall of the Axis, this remained the case. Wallace, Davis, their old dear pal General Tom Waverly, and their buddies from the 151st Division all survived the horrors of war only to find themselves living under the threat of global annihilation; the war had merely gone cold. President Truman's notion of containment had not halted nuclear proliferation, as the Soviets' rejection of the Baruch Plan in 1953 attested.
Draw a straight line from that bucolic snowy Vermont countryside vista, through reason, through industrialization, and right on up to totalitarianism's total subjugation of nature, using the pencil of human corruptibility. “Everybody's got a little larceny operating in them, surely you know that,” says Bob to Betty, his dark assessment of human nature suggesting the inevitable rise of authoritarianism. The modern, means Bob, though often comfortable, is suspect. Better to retreat into the panacea of an imagined past.
Contemporary calls by red ballcap-wearing demagogues to #MAGA endeavor to invoke a time of peace and affluence, of racial homogeneity, a time when, as Bob Wallace sings, there were “jobs galore,” leisure was cheap, and the pervading creep of the modern, with its incipient suggestion of progressive values, had yet to seep into every aspect of public discourse. Here then, surely, in this postwar America, can be located the prelapsarian Golden Era – the Great America which is to be remade – of peace and plenitude and paternal conservatism. Only it seems that then, too, if we take White Christmasseriously, folks were in search of another, “simpler” time, which suggests only that this business of looking back is something of a shell game, a moving target, or maybe just that locating that time you seek requires a bit of invention.
No generation's got a monopoly on yearning. Tom Brokaw's “Greatest Generation” had witnessed the perversion of a tradition of reason and its ability to contort seemingly stable institutions, or as Horkheimer puts it, a time when “whole nations – and Germany is not alone in this – seem to have awakened one morning only to discover that their most cherished ideals were merely bubbles.” When the threat was beaten back, it revealed a new danger, equally rooted in a faith in progress and rational inquiry. They freaked out a bit. The cultural relics of the period confirm this. Film noir was an overt reaction to that anxiety, a cynical depiction of pervasive existential dread. White Christmas, soaked in primary colors and relentlessly bubbly, reacted to the same undercurrent of dread with wistfulness. Both reactions make plain the fact that the capitalist orgy made possible by the affluence wrought by the war machine would not be enough to bury the fear of planetary extermination, nor to ease new doubts, namely that it couldn't happen here, too. The “venerable historical documents,” as Horkheimer has it, were surely flammable, and the “interests of the people... do not offer any guarantee against tyranny.”
Under such trying circumstances the mind begins to cast about for safe harbor, for a cloistered enclave in which to revive faith, even if the details of said dominion require inventing. The past is as good a candidate as any other. You know, when America was great, and all our Christmases were white.
header image: Title screenshot from the theatrical trailer for the film White Christmas (1954) / wikimedia commons