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White Christmas, or Modernism

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 13, Number 2, April 2006
pp. 291-308 | 10.1353/mod.2006.0051

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Modernism/modernity 13.2 (2006) 291-308

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White Christmas, or Modernism

White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1954) is usually known as just another contributor to the white noise of the holiday season. An ineluctable feature of the holiday landscape, its excessive visibility has rendered it invisible to criticism. The film has not been the subject of any serious scholarship—either on the genre of the musical or on Michael Curtiz, its director. In the three major monographs on Curtiz, White Christmas only merits a single paragraph in the most recent by James Robertson, who dismisses the film as "a glossy Vistavision [sic] reworking of Mark Sandrich's 1942 Holiday Inn . . . "1 True, White Christmas was the director's 167th film and has to be situated within an oeuvre that includes Casablanca (1942, USA), Mildred Pierce (1945, USA) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, USA). Yet the slighting of White Christmas by later historians and critics seems odd for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the film was not just another "glossy Vistavision reworking" of another holiday classic. It was actually the first VistaVision [note uppercase V] film to be produced by Paramount Studios. It was also extraordinarily successful: it was the highest grossing film of 1954, the year it was released, making some twelve million dollars, and it has continued to be a money-spinner ever since. Yet despite its industrial specificity and its ubiquity, the film has not figured importantly in recent scholarship on widescreen production and exhibition practices.

Of course, not every film—not even one that enjoyed spectacular financial success—deserves serious exegesis. But White Christmas's status as the first VistaVision film ever made gives it an emblematic place in film history at a critical moment, the period when the studio system was being redefined and Hollywood [End Page 291] was battling to gain back viewers lost to television and other leisurely post-war pursuits. White Christmas compels our attention because it so manifestly visualizes and materializes the historical conditions under which it was produced. Like most backstage musicals, White Christmas exhibits a requisite, almost knee-jerk reflexivity. But that reflexivity is impressive both because it constitutes a self-consciousness about the film's generic conventions, and because it broods on the film's conditions of industrial manufacture and consumption, in this film's case the VistaVision mode of production and exhibition.

Jane Feuer has argued that the reflexivity typical of the Hollywood musical serves primarily to bolster the genre's legitimacy and ensure its viability. With the studio system's decline, such reflexivity underwent a process of mutation. What Feuer calls "late genre" films produced in the "late" or "post studio" era (from the late 1940s onward) tend toward "critical reflexivity," a mode in which the films "systematically deconstruct those very elements that give the genre its regularity."2 These "critically reflexive" musicals, Feuer claims, are "modernist" (though she offers the term in quotation marks).

To illustrate her notion of this new, modernist form of reflexivity, Feuer uses the George Cukor film A Star Is Born, released in 1954, the same year as White Christmas. She dwells on the long scene in which Judy Garland's character Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester rehearses a musical number from her new film before her husband Norman Maine (played by James Mason) in the comfort of the living room of their Malibu pleasure dome. In between breathlessly performing the song, Garland signals the scenic shifts that will occur in the finished film: "Now I'm at the top of the Eiffel Tower! . . . Now I'm in China!" The scene is a raucous and sustained parody of the musical convention in which song and dance numbers are bodied forth spontaneously and fantastically. Garland's number, says Feuer, "systematically debunks the principle of the spontaneous generation of performance in musicals."3

White Christmas is not a debunking, deconstructive musical. Nor is it interested in demystifying the myth of spontaneous entertainment or questioning whether the musical was, in 1954, a viable genre. Quite the opposite, in fact: White Christmas nostalgically seeks to return its spectators...