For the 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social norms and political attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than a few holiday and Christmas favorites?
This 1954 classic starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen was one of my absolute favorites growing up. The dance numbers, the costumes, and the crooning all made my little musical theatre geek heart soar! But let’s be clear from the start… This is a very, very WHITE Christmas. There are exactly two men of color in the film, with only one of them delivering a single line and neither of them ever fully facing the camera. The jazz and flamenco-inspired bits of music and dance scattered throughout the film enhance the performances of the all-white company, the titular song having ironically been written by the exceptional – and Jewish immigrant – Irving Berlin. This Christmas classic fits neatly in the white-powered Golden Age of Hollywood.
The greatest travesty of this film could easily – and should – be cut from the digital version now streaming through platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Get rid of the entire number up to through the ridiculous banter about Old Mr. Bones and go immediately into “Mandy” beginning with Vera-Ellen’s fabulous tapping. If you haven’t seen the film, I’m referring to a heinous bit of fluff that waxes fondly about the grand old days of the… “Minstrel Show.” For those not from the American South and unfamiliar with this disgusting part of America’s theatrical history, minstrel shows were the precursor to vaudeville. However, unlike vaudeville, these variety acts were centered around the revolting American pastime of insulting, making fun of, and all-around dehumanizing Blacks in America. They became popular across the nation beginning in the 1830s, and they typically consisted of portrayals of Southern plantation owners and dandies with their slaves – typically whites in blackface, though in later years sometimes Black performers took on these roles. The slave and servant characters were usually portrayed as dumb, ridiculous, and lazy, feeding into the centuries-old myth that Blacks were intellectually and otherwise inferior. Sadly, this form of theatre lasted throughout the Jim Crow Era, only losing favor under the immense push of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s.
Why does that matter? you may ask. Surely it was just a sign of the times and nothing more. We can’t judge history through a modern lens. The thing is, this movie came out in 1954, smack dab during the fight to push these heinous shows out of existence. There were plenty of other stage acts that were funny and entertaining, and certainly plenty of acts that perhaps deserved a shout out by a major studio picture with top talent (here’s looking at you, vaudeville!) But the studio choose to specifically come out in favor of bringing back minstrel shows. Right at the beginning of what we now call the Civil Rights Movement. It was a pointed gesture, and it deserves to be rebuked today.
Getting back to today, what does this minute-long clip from an otherwise delightful movie have to do with modern viewers? For most of white America, it means nothing. Unless you’re a Southerner and a fan of theatre history, the term “minstrel” may only bring to mind a roaming, Medieval bard. But to our Black community, this is a continued slap in the face. Keeping this small chunk of song in the film is a rankling reminder that white America still doesn’t get it. What’s worse, that they still don’t even care.
There are a few other slights in the film against historically marginalized communities. For one, the male leads giggle their way through performing a lip-synched song about being sisters while adorning their masculine outfits with feminine accessories. My first response to this scene was that, “At least they weren’t actually pretending to be women and were merely poking fun at the fact that they were clearly two men singing about being sisters.” But I stand firm in the belief that any sentence that begins with “At least…” is going to end with an inappropriate comment. This sentence is no exception. Sure, it’s lightly silly, and they don’t go out of their way to put on dresses or actively make fun of transgender people. But it is still a jab at the transgender community. And no, this was not an entirely unheard of community at the time – especially in Hollywood. In the 1920s large cities had flourishing undergrounds where homosexual, transgender, and other LGBTQ+ individuals were welcome to be who they were. While this scene is not quite as malicious as the “Minstrel Show” song, it still stands to be criticized.
Perhaps more insidious is the consistent, implied reaffirming of male and female roles in relationships. This is the sort of aspect that truly impacts perceived social norms in viewers. From talking about looking strong in front of the “womenfolk” to Danny Kaye’s sharp retort of “Oh, that’s an absolute must!” to Vera-Ellen’s remark that her fiancé has “got to be a man,” the film largely affirms the strict gender roles and “moral” heterosexuality we associate with 1950s American culture.
That being said, there are some ways the film bucks against misogynist trends in film. It passes the Bechdel Test several times over! And it offers an array of female types that keeps the idea of femininity from being pigeon-holed into one archetype. Vera-Ellen’s character Judy is more ambitious and forward, while Rosemary Clooney’s Betty is conservative and dedicated to steady, hard work. We see a similar pattern in the two male leads, with Bing Crosby’s character Bob acting out of compassion and steady dedication and Danny Kaye’s Phil coming across as somewhat flighty and nervous. I especially appreciate the implication made in the first few scenes of the film that Bob prefers intelligent women over mere beauty and that Phil has chased women from varied physical types. For 1950s Hollywood, portraying the long, lean Vera-Ellen as being just as becoming as the curvaceous Rosemary Clooney showed some level of progressiveness on the part of casting. (Granted, they both had pinched waists and blonde hair.)
Other implied messages include: respect for the U.S. military and for seniority, the importance of kind gestures as a form of gratitude, and the realization that chosen family can be just as loving and cherished as biological family.
In all, the film is still an elegant and fun classic, but one that deserves some editing. While much of the humor and implied gender roles can be overlooked today as relics of history, the minstrel show song is one that desperately needs to be cut from the digital version. Film buffs can hold onto this useless video clip for posterity and education’s sake, but the contemporary American public has zero use for it. After such a cut, this film would offer a welcome Christmas message of the importance of doing kind things for others, of compassion, and of gratitude.