Friday, December 26, 2008

The snow always shines on TV

Earlier this month as the holiday season came upon us, I was chatting with my dean about favorite holiday flicks; my head currently embroiled in Ernst Lubitsch films, I mentioned The Shop Around the Corner as a favorite. "For me," she said, "I love nothing better than the hokey wonderland that is White Christmas. I just love that film."

"If you can believe this," I said, "I've never seen it."

Her jaw dropped. Indeed, somehow I have never managed to catch Bing, Danny, Rosemary and Vera-Ellen do their post-WW2 tinsel-wrapped spectacle in any form (television, video or otherwise). I have no idea why I missed this, since I'm a sucker for everything that the movie stands for: musicals, Bing Crosby crooning, implausibly mild Vermont winters, etc. My dean (who is not a film expert, mind you) was genuinely upset that I had not seen this; within two days, a DVD copy that had been lying around her house appeared in my departmental mailbox. The end-of-semester grading mayhem quickly commenced, however, and I didn't get to watching it, despite her constant cajoling in the hallways, until a few days before Christmas, with my parents in town and a cold wind blowing outside.

Since I'm still ovewhelmed by holiday cooking, I'll say that my first response is that White Christmas is something like a meringue: a light, fluffy, pretty confection that isn't very filling. I was stunned to find that a drag routine done by two of the most popular jocks in my Peruvian high school was lifted verbatim from this movie (costumes and all!); I was less stunned to discover that Donald O'Connor was originally slated to do Danny Kaye's part, given its similarity to his role in Singin' in the Rain.

I decided to post about the movie after reading a holiday posting by Glenn Kenny on the film, mainly because one particular aspect piqued my professional curiosity and has stuck with me. The plot finds Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye up in Vermont at Christmastime, where their beloved general has fallen on hard time following the War while running an inn; to cheer him up, the boys decide to ask all the members of their infantry who live in New England to come to Vermont for a surprise. In order get them there quickly, however, Bing decides to go to New York and appear on the Ed Harrison television show (Harrison also being a fellow infantryman, coincidentally enough) to encourage them to come. Everyone watches this show, including the general (Kaye must fake a knee injury to get the general out of the room from where the television set is located) and Rosemary Clooney, who watches backstage from the nightclub act that she is doing in New York when she mistakenly thinks Bing is using the general's plight for cash.

This use of television fascinates me and I want to investigate it more. For one thing, using television as part of the plot seems to run counter to the entire point of the movie in the first place, since the film was known and marketed at the time for being the first to be filmed in Vistavision, Paramount's entry into the widescreen market. From what I understand (and it's been a while since I've read Bolton's book on widescreen), this technological innovation was meant to combat the encroachment of television into the entertainment market. (Drive-in theaters and 3D also were technological innovations, but widescreen is the most interesting to me). It is therefore somewhat surprising for me to see a television screen within a wide theatrical screen. From an international perspective, this might have been the first time that some countries would have seen televisions and how they might be used; according to this, television didn't arrive in Peru until 1958, and this movie was released four years earlier and was undoubtedly screened there. So what was the general reaction to seeing television in this film? And what about in the United States? Why did Paramount choose to include the use of television as part of the plot, when the movie industry was trying to combat television? How many other movies in the 1950s did this? What kind of relationship between TV and movies existed for this?

We'll see. Give me your thoughts, if you want, and let's see what happens.


Matt said...

This is a fascinating observation. I haven't yet seen this film and, but for your insight, might well have died without seeing it.

Precisely what this use of TV in film may have meant would certainly depend on how the shot was composed and what everyone/thing else not on TV is doing during the broadcast. I'm guessing that the TV image does not at any point fill the movie frame--is that right?

More broadly, is it possible that the film industry regarded the new medium as no threat in 1954? Not too long after that, Ernie Kovacs was producing some of the most insightful skits about the medium on the medium. I've looked long and hard for an old Kovacs skit in which he enters a set that has a TV on a pedestal. Kovacs turns it on and finds his own image conversing with him on the tell more would spoil it, but I'd really love to find this on YouTube...

Next stop, Netflix...

Middento said...

No, no. By 1954, the movie industry in the US was *terrified* of television -- hence, the introduction of widescreen in the first place, which you couldn't get on TV.

As for the composition, the still I've provided comes from the film itself: not only does the TV image fill the screen, but Vistavision allows us to also see the actual television set. (It's even weirder than you thought! Whee!)

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