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TIFF.40 - The Review - Curated for you.

 

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DEC 20 2015  –  ISSUE 11
TheREVIEW
"I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph." – Shirley Temple
Guest curator
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The blonde at the film
Cameron Howard is a writer based in Durham, NC. She writes a blog about classic movies called TheBlondeAtTheFilm.com and is currently working on a book about classic Hollywood.
It's that time of year again. And whether I mean to or not, I find myself looking back, taking stock, pausing to wonder how I got here, where I'm going, and why yet another artist decided to record "White Christmas."

Once November eases into December, we're bombarded by messages of nostalgia and renewal, traditions and reinvention, home and that "new, improved you" you can finally capture come January 1st. (This year it will happen!) It’s a classic soundtrack of nostalgia and hope, telling us to pause and look back at the past but also spring forward into the future. No wonder we love to hear Bing Crosby (or Sharon Jones or Otis Redding or T-Swizzle) croon "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas." But every tradition, every classic, has an origin.

Nostalgia colours our perceptions and makes us feel as though the present was somehow preordained, but of course it's never that simple. So here are the stories of three "Christmas classics" and the New Year's song that rules them all. I wonder how we’ll reinvent them next year?
 
Just like the ones you used to know
Congratulations! You are the only living person who hasn't recorded a cover of "White Christmas"
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Even if you wanted to, you probably couldn't avoid hearing at least one version of “White Christmas” this season, as it is the most-recorded Christmas song ever. Written by Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby introduced it to the world when he sang it on his radio show on Christmas Day in 1941. "White Christmas" is an enchanting, resonant mix of nostalgia ("I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know") and cheer ("May your days be merry and bright"). Crosby recorded the tune in May 1942, and performed it as a duet with Marjorie Reynolds (whose singing was dubbed by Martha Mears) in the film Holiday Inn, which was released that August. Crosby would be associated with the song for the rest of his career.

"White Christmas" topped the charts and won the Academy Award for Best Song. It skyrocketed back to #1 twice in the 1940s, and remains the best-selling single in history. Crosby’s 1942 version, and a second recording in 1947, have sold a combined 100 million copies, with hundreds of other versions of the song selling another 50 million. Indeed, other artists began recording "White Christmas" as early as 1942, and they haven’t stopped since.

It’s not surprising that Hollywood capitalized on the song’s popularity with White Christmas (1954), a project that had been in the works since 1949. Originally, the movie was to reunite Holiday Inn's starring duo, Crosby and Fred Astaire. But in the end, it is Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney in red satin and white fur crooning with Crosby on his signature song. White Christmas was the highest-grossing movie of 1954, and now the film and its titular song are firmly entrenched in the holiday canon.
Throw on some red satin & listen to "White Christmas"
The Perfect Summer Song?
"Baby It's Cold Outside" premiered in a warmer climate
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The mention of cold weather can sometimes be enough to propel a song into the Christmas canon. This seems to have happened with "Baby, It’s Cold Outside," a staple of Christmas specials and albums. The song had been around since 1944, when songwriter Frank Loesser began performing the duet at parties with his wife Lynn Garland. He eventually sold the song to MGM, who added it to the score of Neptune’s Daughter (1949).

Within the film, this now-ubiquitous Christmas song has nothing to do with either the holiday or actual cold weather. It's sung in the summer, sandwiched between a bathing suit fashion show and a polo match. Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams perform the song after an evening out. Montalban tries to get a reluctant Williams to stay a little longer, claiming that the beautiful, warm evening has suddenly transformed into a blizzard. The song continues without interruption to a scene between the other couple in the film, Betty Garrett and Red Skelton. But in this rendition of the song, it's the woman singing the "wolf" part and the man trying to go home. (The switching of the "wolf" roles mitigates some of the problematic elements of the song, which many have noted, and makes it surprisingly modern. Besides the performance in this film, it's rare to find a version of the song where the woman is the wolf). 

The song is played for comedy, with Montalban and Garrett throwing out one amusing, specious reason after another for their paramours to stay. Meanwhile, Williams and Skelton roll their eyes and keep moving towards the door. And it has nothing to do with Christmas.

The song was a hit, with eight other recordings besides the Neptune’s Daughter version released in 1949 alone. It won Best Song at the Oscars in March 1950, and Skelton, Garrett, Montalban and Arlene Dahl performed "Baby, It’s Cold Outside" at the show. (Williams was pregnant). 

Since then, this lighthearted, comic song that originated as a party trick has become a Christmas classic, which only makes it funnier. It conjures up holiday fireside flings and introduces a little sex into the generally chaste holiday repertoire. All this despite its very un-Christmas origin.
Is it cold outside, though?
it may be your last
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" isn't really all that merry
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Hugh Martin originally wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" for Judy Garland to perform in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), set in 1903-04, but he had WWII soldiers on his mind, which explains its wistful melody and surprisingly poignant lyrics. It’s certainly no "Jingle Bells," and Martin’s original version was even darker than what appears in the film. With lyrics like "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past," it’s not exactly what you want to hear over cookies and eggnog.

When Garland, her co-star Tom Drake, and director Vincente Minnelli heard the song, they thought that the lyrics were too depressing, especially because Garland was supposed to sing it to her five-year-old sister, played by Margaret O'Brien. The family is about to move from their beloved St. Louis to New York (which explains this other discarded lyric: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Pop that champagne cork/Next year we may all be living in New York.") They are dreading the change, and the sisters believe that this may well be their last "Merry Christmas."

Still, Garland thought that the song was too sad. Martin remembered Garland saying, "If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they'll think I'm a monster." But at first Martin refused to make changes. He explained years later that he was "young then and kind of arrogant," and told Garland, "Well, I'm sorry you don't like it, Judy, but that's the way it is, and I don't really want to write a new lyric." Fortunately he was eventually persuaded to re-work some lines, changing "It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past," to "Let your heart be light/Next year all our troubles will be out of sight."

Garland gives a stunning, moving performance, gazing out on a snowy Christmas Eve in a deep red gown with teary O’Brien beside her. Garland also recorded the song for Decca Records in 1944, and it became a hit, especially resonating with soldiers as Martin originally intended. But that wasn’t the end of Martin's revisions. Frank Sinatra asked Martin to change some more lyrics when he recorded the song for his Christmas album in 1957. Sinatra thought the "Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow" line was too dark, so Martin changed it to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." Those are the lyrics that most artists record, and the version you’ll hear blasting from shops this holiday season.

But even the most cheerful recordings with the twice-lightened lyrics can’t completely mask the song's melancholy and golden-tinged nostalgia.
Have Yourself some melancholy misery
Pop Champagne
Singing in the New Year
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When it comes to New Years, "Auld Lang Syne" (which can be translated as "long, long ago" or "days long since,") has that holiday on lockdown. The lyrics come from a poem by Robert Burns written in 1788 and set to an old folk melody. The Scots began singing the song on New Year's Eve to say goodbye to the old year and to welcome the new, and the custom spread around the English-speaking world.

Countless films feature the tune as characters count down to midnight. It provides a suitably nostalgic but sometimes excited soundtrack to the big epiphanies, onslaughts of memories, new beginnings, or dashed hopes that midnight on New Year's Eve can bring.

A favourite New Year's Eve scene comes in The Apartment (1960), when Shirley MacLaine is hit with a big realization just as midnight strikes. The joyful countdown and “Auld Lang Syne” assaulting her from all sides provides a perfect counterpoint to her internal tumult.

But "Auld Lang Syne" isn't the only tune to usher in another year on film: a lesser-known but memorable New Year’s Eve number plays in After the Thin Man.

In the film, a stuffy, painfully fancy dinner party is followed by a raucous celebration at a nightclub. The brassy number "Blow That Horn" helps usher in the New Year complete with miniature musical instruments hurled into the crowd (shocking that it didn’t become a classic New Year’s song…). Meanwhile, murder is committed and Nick and Nora enjoy a frightening number of cocktails, which is a very "Thin Man" way to welcome the new year.
We'll take a cup of kindness yet for Auld Lang Syne
New Year, Old Problems
Rollin' With Chaplin
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The above-mentioned scenes from The Apartment and After the Thin Man are chaotic and packed with drunken revelers, quite different from one of the most poignant New Year's Eve scenes ever: Charlie Chaplin’s pitiful dream dinner in The Gold Rush (1925). The Lone Prospector has fallen hard for a dance hall girl named Georgia, and he invites her to a New Year's Eve dinner at his cabin. She and her friends promise to be there, though they never intend to show up. As they enjoy a boisterous New Year's Eve party in town, the Lone Prospector dozes off at his beautifully set but empty table, and dreams that Georgia arrives. He is the perfect host, wowing his guests with the "Oceana Roll," better known as the "Dance of the Rolls."

Fatty Arbuckle had performed the roll dance briefly in The Rough House (1917), but Chaplin made it iconic.

The Lone Prospector wakes up from his happy dream as midnight strikes, and he realizes that Georgia isn't coming. Our hearts break with his as the sad strains of that classic New Year’s Eve tune drift up to his cabin from town.

Hopefully your New Year’s Eve will be much happier than the Lone Prospector's, though it will most likely include the same song
May your new year be filled with dancing (and dinner rolls)
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