Monday, May 11, 2015

Birthday Take: Irving Berlin in "White Christmas" (1954)

Scene from White Christmas
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Irving Berlin
Born: May 11, 1888
Died: September 22, 1989 (101 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Song - White Christmas (nominated) with "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep"

The Take

When somebody thinks of the old standards that are sung, nobody really pays mind to who actually wrote them. To majority of people who have heard "White Christmas" on an annual basis, the answer usually goes to that voice. It's the one we've recognized for many years now and cannot imagine anyone else singing in quite the same way. For the most part, "White Christmas" is a Bing Crosby song because he has personalized it and made it into his own, even using it into the titular film in a small subgenre of Christmas movies: the one that honors the troops and veterans of American wars past. It is a subtext lost to time for anyone who hasn't seen the film or its opening sequence in which the song is first seen performed before an army in a war torn location. It somehow brings peace to the world around them. It is beautiful, quaint and has earned its place as one of the most successful songs in music history.

However, there's the man who helped to pen the song: Irving Berlin. While aficionados are likely to recognize that name, he is a behind the scenes face that gets lost in the shuffle. For readers of my other column Best Song, Berlin has written three of the songs discussed and has a total of six that spans from 1936 to White Christmas in 1955. These will all be discussed in time, but reflects how influential he was as a writer and composer for his career. His music ranged from the upbeat to more melodic and sentimental tracks. He served as a song writer for majority of the songs that were put into the iconic film, including the titular track. However, despite all of these things, Berlin received a nomination for a song that most audiences wouldn't likely recognize.

The song that received a nomination from White Christmas was for "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep." Considering that much like Berling, Crosby was a major star that racked up lots of Oscar nominations, it makes sense why any song with his voice would make the list. In hindsight, it seems humorous that this was on there. However, its song about being humble and loving what you have is a modest and appropriate song for a film that is about honoring patriots. It may be the most Crosby of the songs in the film and features additional vocals by Rosemary Clooney. However, it helps that the reputation of White Christmas has aged rather well over time and that the songs, great or just good, have remained timeless in their own ways.

While it is likely that Berlin's legacy will be overshadowed by Crosby, it doesn't hurt that he helped to secularize Christmas and in the process made one of the most accessible soundtracks focused on the holiday. When thinking about early cinema with any sense of nostalgia, it is hard to ignore this particular standard. If there's anything that would be particularly striking, even by those standards, it is that White Christmas only walked away with one nomination - which was for this song. In a film ripe with catchy numbers, Berlin made the most of personalizing each song to progress plot and make lyrical beauty in the process. He was an artist that emphasized his performers' attributes and made them something more complicated and interesting.

For those not familiar with Berlin's work, you likely already are. If you have heard "White Christmas," you will know his words. He may have not been a singer, but he gave words to the best of them. Still, it is funny that there's a lot of complicated layers to understanding the history of White Christmas or its titular song, which was actually nominated for the film Holiday Inn, which it won for. If anything, it showed the impact of song and that even the best of them could go on to make movies based around them. It may be a silly prospect, but it did help to make a holiday movie standard. So instead of harping much longer, just take some time to listen and recognize how he brought life to his performers with some of the tightest melodies of their era and in the process made timeless music.

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