30 November 2016

'White Christmas' (1954) is an Olive Drab Fairy Tale

An epiphany of sorts occurred earlier this week, as the Sherpa household took its first steps into this decidedly snow-less Advent season: "White Christmas" (1954), a beloved movie musical that stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, has as much to say about civil-military reintegration as it does getting into the proper holiday spirit.

The movie opens in the European Theater on Christmas Eve, 1944. Army Capt. Bob Wallace (played by Crosby) and Pvt. Phil Davis (Kaye) are entertaining their fellow troops of the fictional U.S. 151st Division. Wallace is a celebrated Broadway entertainer. Davis is hustling for a big break. The first song is the movie's titular track—the big guns are upfront. Fire for effect.

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" manages to deliver the same melancholy as "I'll Be Home for Christmas," a similarly brief 1943 tune composed by Walter Kent, and also popularized by Crosby. Lyricist Kim Gannon wrote the latter based on a poem by Buck Kent. Listening to each song, it's easy to put oneself in the mindset of a soldier deployed far away from home, although only the latter was explicitly written with that intent.

Just in case you don't remember it, Berlin's song goes:
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow […]
While the division's new spit-and-polish commander gets sidetracked on a "shortcut" route back to headquarters ("There's no Christmas in the Army, Colonel!"), outgoing division commander Maj. Gen. Thomas F. Waverly (played by Dean Jagger) says a heartfelt and bittersweet good-bye to the troops. The scene accurately captures the shoulder-chuck joshing and good-natured posturing that is universal among soldiers, in my opinion, as well as the hail-and-farewell affection between officers and subordinates.

(Another example of such humor, later in the film: "We wouldn’t be any good as generals," says the former Pvt. Davis. Waverly gently chides, half-smiling: "You weren’t any good as privates.")

To an upbeat marching tempo, the troops sing a tongue-in-cheek tune called "The Old Man." The title evokes the military custom of informally referring to a commander as "the old man," as long as he is not present:
We'll follow the old man wherever he wants to go
Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe

We'll stay with the old man wherever he wants to stay
Long as he stays away from the battle's fray

Because we love him, we love him
Especially when he keeps us on the ball

And we'll tell the kiddies we answered duty's call
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all
After the war, Wallace and Davis team up on stage to great success. They meet two sisters, who are also entertainers. Eventually, through a series of misadventures, the four encounter the retired general in Vermont, where he owns a failing winter-season resort. There is no snow.

To help bail out their former commander, Wallace and Davis bring their full song-and-dance troupe to Vermont. Wallace surreptitiously reaches out to the division's alumni via an old Army buddy's television variety program. "Remember, then, your objective is Pine Tree, Vermont," says Wallace to the national TV audience. "Synchronize your watches for Operation Waverly!" The troops show up en masse. The girls maneuver the general to wear his old uniform to that evening's stage performance. It is a hugely successful surprise operation. Everyone eats cake.

Appropriately enough, the cake has a tank topper.

Before Santa Crosby shows up, and before the cast sings "White Christmas" one more time, the cast performs a number called "Gee, I Wish I was Back in the Army":
[...] When I mustered out
I thought without a doubt
That I was through with all my care and strife
I thought that I was then
The happiest of men
But after months of tough civilian life 
Gee, I wish I was back in the Army
The Army wasn't really bad at all [...]
There's a double-romance in the movie, too, of course, with lots of understandings and misunderstandings along the way. That alone is usually worth the price of admission. Then again, I've had a crush on Rosemary Clooney since I was my son's age. But for me, at least this year, the primary story was that of the general. And the tribe of old soldiers that deployed themselves to do a good deed for an old Army friend. Because they love him.

God bless our buddies everywhere. God bless us, everyone.

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