A Very White Christmas in Atlanta: The Plaza Lets It Snow with Two Bing Crosby/Irving Berlin Christmas Classics

Posted on: Dec 20th, 2013 By:

HOLIDAY INN (1942); Dir. Mark Sandrich; Starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds; Friday, Dec. 20 – Wednesday, Dec 25 (visit the Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954); Dir. Michael Curtiz; Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen; Wednesday, Dec 25 – Tuesday, Dec 31 , in repertory with MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947) (visit the Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

How much Bing is too much Bing? Trick question. There can’t be enough Bing this time of year. So when the Plaza Theatre offers up Der Bingle in HOLIDAY INN and WHITE CHRISTMAS—teamed with stars like Fred Astaire, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye and Marjorie Reynolds and built around numbers by the legendary Irving Berlin—well, it’s a Christmas present for every classic Hollywood musical lover.

In 1940, songwriter Irving Berlin came to Paramount Pictures with an idea he’d first toyed with after writing the song “Easter Parade” in 1932: a film set at an inn open only on holidays, featuring a series of different holiday-themed musical numbers. Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby—both riding high on waves of popularity—were quickly attached to the project, and filming began on November 1941. However, despite its reputation (and that the film begins and ends during the holidays), the film isn’t really a Christmas film at all. It’s the tale of a love triangle between Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby, as the retired stage performer who runs Holiday Inn), Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire, as Jim’s caddish former performing partner on a path set for stardom) and Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds, as the inn’s featured performer and Jim’s love interest, who is tempted by the future of fame and fortune promised by Ted).

Furthermore, while the song “White Christmas” is featured three times (once in the opening credits, twice in the film itself), its appearances are dictated more by the dramatic developments of the plot than to evoke memories of Christmases past or holidays longed for in the future. In fact, the song was unpopular at first (being released in the middle of summer might have had something to do with that) and was overshadowed by another song from HOLIDAY INN. “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” Crosby himself was initially indifferent to the song, simply saying “I don’t think we have any problems with that one” when first hearing it. (Irving Berlin, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic, calling out to his secretary “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written—heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”)

By the end of October, things had changed. The song skyrocketed to the top of the “Your Hit Parade” chart where it sat until the new year dawned. It also nabbed the “Best Song” Oscar in the 1942 Academy Awards. To date, it is the best-selling single of all time. (There’s some dispute over that, however: because standard record charts weren’t in existence when Crosby’s single was released, there’s a lack of hard info on just how many copies were sold. As a result, some have claimed that Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” holds that title at 33 million copies sold. However, Guinness World Records—after extensive examination—concluded that the single had sold 50 million copies as of 2007, thus beating out Elton.)

As a result, the film has become somewhat pigeon-holed as a Christmas staple, even though little of the film takes place during that holiday (the Fourth of July seems to take a much more prominent role, due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunging the country into war during the filming). What the film lacks in explicit Christmas content, though, it more than makes up in the fantastic performances of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Berlin’s music is tailor-made to be sung with the easy-going elegance of the film’s stars, and Astaire is at the top of his game during the film’s dance sequences. Marjorie Reynolds is a standout dancer and utterly convincing as the aspiring performer Linda (though her singing was dubbed by Martha Mears). The film is crisply directed with a sure hand by Mark Sandrich, a veteran of numerous Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, and his camera showcases the musical performances beautifully.

Because the film was such a success, and because people just kept buying that Bing single, Paramount decided to return to the well again 12 years later with the film WHITE CHRISTMAS. It was intended to be the third Crosby/Astaire/Berlin feature (after 1946’s BLUE SKIES), but Astaire passed on the script. Crosby did, too, deciding to spend time at home after the death of his wife. When Bing returned to the project, finding a co-star proved problematic. Donald O’Connor was slated to take Astaire’s role, but suffered an injury prior to filming, so Danny Kaye stepped in at the last minute.

Determined to take full advantage of “White Christmas”’s perennial popularity, Paramount decided that the entire film should take place at the holidays. This time, the plot revolves around two ex-Army men who have made it big in show biz after WWII (Crosby and Kaye). They find themselves tangled up in a romance with two aspiring singer/dancers (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and a deal to perform a new show at a ski resort run by their former commander over Christmas. However, when the winter proves unusually warm and no snow is due on the forecast, the resort’s future is in jeopardy and the team step in to try to save the day.

Keeping in line with the song’s continued success, the film was the top moneymaker of 1954, bringing in almost twice as much as its closest competitor, THE CAINE MUTINY. And why not? It’s hard to go wrong with such an appealing cast and such a great set of Irving Berlin tunes. However, I feel it lacks the dramatic edge of HOLIDAY INN, and while it may be a more traditional Christmas movie, it errs on the side of schmaltz a little too often for my taste. Danny Kaye makes for a particularly saccharine replacement for Astaire, replacing Astaire’s lean elegance for a cloying sweetness.

But on the plus side, Crosby’s as on as he ever was (though he’s a bit long in the tooth by this point to be the love interest of Rosemary Clooney, some 25 years his junior), and Clooney and Vera-Ellen are both incredibly engaging. Director Michael Curtiz brings his trademark flair for inventive camera set-ups and capturing the emotion of a scene to the proceedings and makes the film—Paramount’s first shot in the widescreen VistaVision process—a visual delight. My small criticisms aside, the film is undoubtedly worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great Hollywood musicals, and is a bona fide Christmas classic.

With the holidays as hectic as they are, it’s important to take the time to cool down. And here’s a perfect excuse to do just that. Simply sit back at the Plaza and let the glorious tunes of Irving Berlin and the incomparable pipes of Bing Crosby carry you away to a White Christmas of your own.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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A Sexy Silent Scandal at The Strand Theatre: Daring to Reopen Louise Brooks’ PANDORA’S BOX

Posted on: Nov 21st, 2012 By:

PANDORA’S BOX (1929); Dir: Georg Wilhelm Pabst; Starring Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer; with live organ accompaniment by Ron Carter; Sun. Nov. 25 3:00 p.m.; The Strand Theatre

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Ever since The Earl Smith Strand Theatre found new life on the Square in Marietta, the theater’s event schedule has cast a wide net. In between the usual live events and mainstream film titles, The Strand quietly stands as one of the last venues in Atlanta to regularly seek out and book classic silent films, a callback to its roots as an old movie house. (The Strand’s first ever show was the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle, TOP HAT.) Except that by the time The Strand opened, the talkies had already taken hold, so the decision to run silent pictures in an increasingly-noisy age of media strikes me as more than nostalgia. It’s incredibly brave.

And so, fittingly, The Strand has found a brave picture to screen. There are few silents more daring than PANDORA’S BOX (1929), playing Sunday afternoon Nov. 25 at 3 p.m.—even braver!—accompanied by a full organ score. PANDORA’S BOX doesn’t fit the mold of the typical silent melodrama. Louise Brooks stars as Lulu, a young woman whose ambition is eclipsed only by her voracious sexual appetite. She uses sex as a weapon to get what she wants, or who she wants, and the film largely deals with an escalating series of consequences, from murder, to imprisonment, and finally… well, I won’t spoil it, but Lulu’s story crosses with a famous historical figure, and her final reward is a spot in historical infamy.

PANDORA’S BOX is directed by the great Austrian director G.W. Pabst, whose list of leading ladies includes such names as Greta Garbo and Leni Riefenstahl, but he cast no lady as magnetic or iconic as Brooks, whose distinctive flapper style and bobbed haircut are more famous today than her name. Brooks was an American actress who rubbed elbows with names like William Randolph Hearst, but who grew dissatisfied with the American system and fled to Europe, where audiences came out in droves to see her magnetism and sexuality portrayed on screen. Lulu is a part born for Brooks and, although the film met with a fair amount of pushback from concerned censors, eventually made Brooks an international star. Today, her name is inseparable from the film’s title.

I mentioned censors, but it’s important to note that PANDORA’S BOX was a pre-code picture. In fact, the film came to America in December 1929, only three months before the adoption of the Hays Code that put a lid on the titillation and sexual experimentation of the earliest studio pictures. (Even in the ’20s, people knew the truth about film audiences—sex sells tickets.) PANDORA’S BOX contains a litany of elements that would soon disappear from American cinemas, such as frank sexuality and a disrespect for marriage. Just a decade later, Lulu’s actions would have classified her as a femme fatale, and she’d certainly snare a young hero or two to their doom. Here, the reality is a bit more complicated, and although it’s true that Lulu faces retribution for her loose morals, it’s hard to ignore the allure of her behavior, which is what the Hays Code was trying to snuff out in the first place.

Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz and Louise Brooks (center) as Lulu in PANDORA'S BOX (1929), directed by G.W. Pabst. Credit: UCLA Film and Television Archive

PANDORA’S BOX is also a landmark film in queer cinema, as it does contain (if briefly) one of the first ever screen representations of a lesbian. Played by Alice Roberts, the Countess Geschwitz enters the film dressed in men’s clothes—a tuxedo—and fawns over Lulu, suggesting that the two have a sexual past. Within a year, even such a minor reference to homosexuality would be strictly outlawed on American screens.

PANDORA’S BOX is widely available online, but as with all films, especially from this era, it belongs on the screen (and trust me when I say that a live organ makes all the difference in the world). The film arrived at the end of the golden period of silent films, the end of the pre-code movies, and even puts a symbolic coda on the decade of decadence that was the 1920s. It stands proud as a threshold between two very different eras of cinema. But its sexuality, its spectacle and the compelling nature of its tragic antihero also remind us of another, sometimes-forgotten fact: what excites and thrills us today is the same as it ever was. We didn’t change—the pictures did.

For more about The Strand’s efforts to screen silents as they should be with live organ scores, read our Kool Kat interview with organist Ron Carter, who will be accompanying PANDORA’s BOX here

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