Mom & I watched “White Christmas” a couple days ago, me for the 4th time in 2 weeks, and her for the 1st time in decades. She loved it as much as I expected. Of course, it’s not really about Christmas at all, but is more of a redemption story for returning WW2 soldiers leaving behind the horror of that experience. But that isn’t the story either; the falling brick wall in the first war scene is comical in its backlot feel, but the loneliness & fear is evident when Bing sings “White Christmas” for the first time, and when we cut to the rotating newspaper of VE DAY! it’s with great relief. Then it becomes the story of what survival promised, and for our talented entertainers what comes next is “BOFFO!” 40s singing, tapping, orchestras, filmy curtains, flouncy dresses, and the dancing which captures the exuberance of post-war times.
The plot has considerable complexity for a movie which ultimately just wants to present the Wallace & Davis show to us, the viewer, standing in for the missing guests at General Waverly’s ski lodge. Romantic complications are virtually cliché now, but in 1946, I give credit for a misunderstanding involving telephone eavesdropping quickly corrected for our two MFEO leads, and for the comic relief pair falling in love sweetly & organically in spite of themselves. All this delightful business is set against a backdrop of a hurried flight from a villain, a deliciously romantic overnight train ride, Rosemary Clooney’s perfect song “Mr. Bones,” impossibly swishy & decadent red velvet Christmas ballgowns with white stoles, and the promise, eventually, of snow, snow, snow, snow, snow.
The War is the invisible character who becomes less and less a demon as the story plays out, and as it moves back, General Waverly moves to the front as the worthy beneficiary of redemption. There’s the dutiful & fluttery talk of the General’s financial concerns, but without too much clunky dialogue the real question emerges: what’s a person to do after a thing bigger than everyone ceases to define you? The General isn’t pathetic, but the actor & director inject these scenes with a universal pathos that illuminates the complications & nuances of being a war hero or a lowly private when the war isn’t there anymore. Watching it, I don’t learn history, exactly (there’s much to be studied about the real experiences of loss & suffering), but for the two hours of this movie, I’m left with a feeling that I have seen inside the larger, vaguer American identity complications, the kind talked about in presidential speeches.
It’s endlessly fascinating because I have two grandpas who served on opposite sides, though neither saw front line action, thank goodness. In my family’s history there is the exuberance of victory on the one hand with Grandpa T, and the devastation of Hitler in Germany with Grandpa M.
Not unlike Wallace & Davis and General Waverly, they left the war behind them and lived happy lives. Grandpa T returned home to his wife and toddler, rescued her from the house of her wicked stepmother, and spent his professional years as a meteorologist from his military training. Grandpa M spent a few more years in Germany before emigrating to the United States in 1953, with Grandma, Renate, and Dad. Our family’s history matches the joy of survival, love, and hope that “White Christmas” offers. I’m happy to be reminded.