Monday, December 15, 2008

Imagine being lucky enough to take “White Christmas” for granted!

The Phoenix, which claims to be the oldest continually operating cinema in Britain (there are other claimants to the title, I understand) is small, friendly, and, best of all, a two minute walk from my front door.
For that, I'll happily put up with 360 nights of pretentious independent cinema a year, so long as the rest of the time they continue to do the sort of thing they did last night: a 9pm showing of White Christmas with free sherry and mince pies.
A reassuringly large crowd turned out for it, too. I'd never seen this relic before: I need to be in the mood for this kind of musical and only occasionally am, plus I'd read all the reviews that assured me it was an at best pleasant, completely unexceptional product of Hollywood's fifties decline.
What a treat it turned out to be! Bing Crosby confirming yet again that as well as a voice he really did have something special as a screen presence (though God knows what it was: it certainly defies sober analysis), and Danny Kaye confirming yet again what a superb all-rounder he was, albeit cursed, like Donald O'Connor, to have entered the industry a decade too late for anybody to know quite what to do with him.
The first film in VistaVision, the titles proclaimed, taking us right back to that moment when Hollywood began advertising its desperation with wide screens and three hour biblical epics and polaroid glasses. But behind the half-filled canvas and the distorted picture was an entirely old-fashioned enterprise, filmed in that scrumptious, thick Technicolor that made every frame look like it had been painted on to the screen.
All in the studio, too, before the real locations fetish gripped filmland and consigned the movie lots to oblivion (it predates that fifties innovation at least). Everything, from a 1945 war zone to the snowy Vermont resort that fills the screen in the final number, was movie makebelieve, conjured from plywood and plastic by the industry's last great craftsmen. What price realism against this? A charming and simple story, lovely lead performances, heroes like Grady Sutton and Sig Ruman and Mary Wickes in support, great Irving Berlin numbers. How long it has been since I have been so delighted by a film which I had never seen before, and of which my expectations were by no means high.

The real surprise for us was Vera-Ellen (above), who actually figures prominently in quite a few MGM musicals (including On The Town) but who I only really knew from Love Happy, the Marx Brothers' reviled but entirely painless swan song (in which she alluringly performs the 'Sadie Thompson number'). We were struck by two things about her: the incredible dancing talent, which made her relative obscurity seem completely inexplicable, and her almost impossibly thin waist. She seems not just thinner but considerably more than five years older than the fleshy, healthy girl in Love Happy.
She was, sadly, prematurely aged by anorexia, before the condition had been diagnosed, and apparently wears high collars throughout the film to disguise its effect on her neck. Such a shame, because she's terrific; vivacious, a great dancer, and in some shots a dead ringer for her childhood friend Doris Day.

It just seems incredible now that there was ever a time when a film such as this could be taken for granted.
Most film guides written by reviewers who were alive when it came out are pretty sniffy about it. Hollywood's decline was going at full speed by 1954, but films like this remind you it was still way nearer the top than the bottom (or, as we call it, The Dark Knight).
Imagine the luxury - the sheer, decadent luxury! - of being able to turn your nose up at a film this gorgeous!
Truth is it is nothing special - so long as you're looking backwards and contrasting it with Singing in the Rain or Dames or The Gay Divorcee. But view it with a fifty-year breeze blowing in the opposite direction and the situation looks very different indeed. Christ, what a tumble we've taken!
It takes a truly perverse imagination (or one so enslaved to contemporaneity as to be thoroughly blinkered) to be unable to recognise the cultural decline of the West, or to imagine how it could have been swifter, or more extreme and precipitous. But films like this, unlike memories, cannot be challenged or denied. Their testimony cannot be altered or twisted or misquoted or misconstrued. They preserve and thus they indict, and their very gentleness hides their revolutionary power.
No wonder the stormtroopers of modernity try so hard to pervert their simplicity and mourn their absent cynicism. Time Out, London's weekly waft of rotting consensus, calls it "pornographically soppy" and "as sickly-sweet as an eggnog tsunami", fantasises what it mysteriously terms "harmless misogyny" and, with giveaway poverty of reference, describes Kaye's artistry as "incessant, proto-Jim Carrey clowning". They know the truth as surely as we do: that in the road travelled from Irving Berlin to The X Factor, the fall of the Roman Empire had nothing on us.
Hence their desperation. Hence the smell they give off.

Fascinating to listen to the other audience members leaving the cinema: trying to come to acceptable terms with the almost guilty happiness the film gave them, attempting to rationalise the dim awareness that if every night at the movies was something like this, they'd miss out on nothing at all. But headed back for all that to the world they know best, the film's powerful shot of sheer warmth and pleasure already half-forgotten, or filed away, or filtered through that cultivated irony that keeps the truth from cutting too deeply, but still, still, with a strangely happy heart, and those wonderful songs going round and round and round.