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Best Version of “White Christmas” December 16, 2022

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Let’s play a game.  It’s [loosely] called “name the best version of (fill-in-the-blank Christmas song)”.  After all, there are but so many Christmas songs out there, some 200 years old (or older), some 150+ years old, some 80+ years old, some 65-ish, some more recent than that.  The point is, myriads of recording artists have cut their own versions of many of these songs for almost 125 years.  What makes things interesting is that each singer/group/ensemble has had their own “take” on them.  So, whose “take” is the best?  Let us explore that answer.

Why not start with Irving Berlin’s venerable “White Christmas”?  Yes, the man who wrote an estimated 1,500 songs over the course of his 101 years on this Earth, including “God Bless America” and many legendary songs from the Golden Age of the Great American Song Book (“Cheek to Cheek”, “Blue Skies”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “Easter Parade”, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, to name but a few) also gave us “White Christmas”.  It is altogether fitting and proper to take a look at this sing, since this year marks the 80th anniversary of its official release to the world.

The context behind the origins of “White Christmas” are multi-layered.  Just as Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era novel “Gone With The Wind” was a smashing success during the Great Depression, so was “White Christmas” at the dawn of America’s direct involvement in WWII.  While accounts vary as to exactly when Berlin actually wrote the song (within the years 1940 or ’41), it has been established that the first public performance of the song was indeed by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music hall, on Christmas Day of 1941, only 18 days after Pearl Harbor and 17 days after FDR asked Congress to declare war on Japan.

The song made a larger debut on-screen the following year in 1942 when it was featured in the now-classic movie “Holiday Inn”.  Crosby not only sang the song in the film, but also, as was customary at the time, recorded a studio version of the song on the Decca label as part of an accompanying album of songs from the movie.  He was accompanied by the Ken Darby Singers and the John Scott Trotter Orchestra when they made this recording on May 29, 1942.  It took them only 18 minutes to produce a rendition that satisfied everyone.

While the popularity of the 1942 movie Holiday Inn did eventually help propel record sales (it did top the charts by end of October of ’42), a stronger social undercurrent helped make the song legendary.  With America having officially joined the fight against the Axis powers after Pearl Harbor, the population was mobilized onto a war footing at an unprecedented scale and pace.  Yes, America had been mobilized a generation earlier in the First World War, but this new mobilization made the Allied Expeditionary Forces of old, and the industry supporting it, pale in comparison.

Within months after the fateful events of early December of 1941, many an able-bodied American man would be enlisted into service and deployed to many a spot abroad, or at least, far from home, from the deserts of North Africa to the Aleutian Islands, to air bases in England, to naval flotillas patrolling the South Pacific, and many spots in between. 

The song thus spoke to them, and to their families at home, of simpler times, or deep nostalgia.  The right mix of melancholy and comforting images of home during the Holidays resonated deeply with listeners during WWII, and the Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests to play this song during that time.

In its first year of recording and release, Bing Crosby’s first version of this song stayed at the top of the charts for 11 weeks.  Sales carried well into early 1943, and Decca re-released the song for Christmas seasons of 1945 and ’46.  For Holiday Inn, the song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song of 1942.

Ironically, the version with which most of us are familiar is Crosby’s re-recording of the song in 1947, also accompanied by both the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers.  The addition of the flutes and a slightly more pronounced celesta helps make it audibly different from the first version without being too overtly different.

Readers may or may not be aware that Crosby’s 1942 and ’47 renditions combined add up to the greatest-selling record of all time:  more so than any record by Elvis, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Elton John, or anybody.  By 1968, sales had reached 30 Million alone.  After much research, the Guinness Book of World Records concluded in 2007 that the record had sold at least 50 Million copies, though some estimates reach as high as 100 Million.

Twelve years after the song’s and the hit flick Holiday Inn’s initial release, Paramount was finally able to make a follow-up film for both, simply calling it “White Christmas”. It proceeded to become the most successful movie of 1954. While not as strong a film as its 1942 predecessor, it nevertheless has earned its place as a Christmas classic movie in its own right. That it was filmed in then-cutting-edge “VistaVision” has helped it translate well onto HDTV screens today. Naturally, the finale number was the movie’s namesake.

To broaden the scope:  in the 80 years since it was first recorded, “White Christmas” has been cut more than 500 times, making it the most-recorded Christmas song.  As mentioned in the beginning, many artists have offered their own “take” on it. For example, while Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters’ version [also] from 1954 is always a fun listen, it still is not has great as Bing’s original version.

That said, a solid runner-up is Darlene Love’s rendition on the also-classic album, Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You” from 1963.  As the first track of this perennially strong album, Love’s rendition packs much more of a virtual “punch” than people usually expect from the song, aided in part by Spector’s “Wall of Sound” audio effect, but also by the singer’s soulful efforts. Also notable of this version is that it includes the prelude verse that many other artists skip singing.

The real question is, which is really better, Bing’s 1942 version, or the 1947 remake?  Most folks would likely side with the latter, since that is the one with which they are familiar.  One cannot blame them, for that version is wonderful and timeless.  My vote is for the 1942 version:  the one that started it all.  It has a sharpness that the remake lacks, and the historian in me reflects on how it spoke to people’s hopes, fears, and comforts as we were beginning to take on a worldwide menace on an unprecedented scale.

The lasting legacy of Crosby’s 1942 version is grander than one might expect.  Its success on the charts legitimized the market for Christmas music.  To be sure, more than a few excellent versions of Christmas songs were recorded before this landmark cut, including notable examples by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller.  But Crosby, paired with Berlin’s incredible contribution to the Great American Christmas Songbook, finally opened the recording industry’s eyes to the potential goldmine they were sitting on with regard to recording music for the Christmas season.  In short, Crosby and Berlin, with White Christmas, paved the way for the bulk of popular Christmas music we have to enjoy today.


America’s Greatest Music: I’ll Be Seeing You December 4, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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“I’ll Be Seeing You” qualifies as one of the lower-echelon selections within the Great American Songbook.  That said, it stands out uniquely for the reason that it originated from one Broadway show but later became the namesake in a movie several years later.

Written by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal in 1938 and first performed that same year, it soon became a jazz standard and has been recorded by many notable artists over the course of the decades.  The show for which it was written was “Right This Way”, but six years later it was the title song in the 1944 film “I’ll Be Seeing You” starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten.

Billie Holiday recorded a version of the song the same year the aforementioned film was released.  Other artists, in no particular chronological order, who have covered the song include Bing Crosby (same year as Billie Holiday’s version), Anne Murray, Jo Stafford and Carmen McRae (both 1958), The Five Satins (1959), Brenda Lee (1962), Ray Charles (1967), Barry Manilow (1991), Etta James (1994), Rod Stewart (2002), Linda Ronstadt (2004), not to mention Jimmy Durante, Liza Minnelli, Mel Tormé, Michael Bublé, the Skyliners, even Queen Latifah, and a host of others.

But the one that clearly stands above the rest is definitely the Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey version from 1940.  A simple listen will verify this:

Not surprisingly, during World War II this song became an anthem for those who were serving overseas, what with its strongly emotional power, a power that Frank and Tommy capture very subtly in their landmark 1940 recording.

Captain America: A Great American Film August 5, 2011

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If you have not seen Captain America in the theatres yet and are looking for a good film to see this weekend, look no further.   This is a film that delivers.  To offer a small confession, I have seen more than a few superhero flicks in the theatres since the New Millenium began, and on the whole, I have not been disappointed by them (Hulk from 2003, however, is another matter entirely!).  Upon hearing the news that Captain America was to be released in the theatres this summer, I was more than interested, given my past moviegoing experiences for such fare, as well as with my admiration for the character and his patriotic attitude.

Moreover, as somebody who is a sucker for period pieces, I was all the more enthusiastic about seeing the film, since it takes place during WWII.  One of the great things about such movies in recent years is, given the high level technology and sophisticated techniques of filmmaking, each period piece tries to out-do each other with providing details of authenticity of past times, from the architecture to the clothing fashions to the cars and music of those respective eras.  The WWII-era backdrop in this movie is both nostalgic and convincing, so much so that it could show many of us who were born way after that time why that period was looked on as the “good ol’ days” by those who lived it.

Chris Evans plays the main character, who starts out in the story as Steve Rogers, one’s classic image of a 90-pound weakling, who, despite his skrawny body and sickly appearance, is nevertheless driven by a deep sense of patriotism and duty to one’s country.  Furthermore, despite these glaring weaknesses, he’s also resilient — somebody who quickly gets up no matter how many times he gets knocked down.  Rule no. 1 of any movie story is that the audience must be able to sympathize with the main character.  If you’re a red-blooded American, you cannot help but love Steve Rogers.  As Captain America, the hero is quite formidable yet still sympathetic.

Obviously, his weaknesses prevent him from passing physical muster for military service, despite trying to enlist several times.  This determination catches the eye of an immigrant scientist — played by Stanley Tucci — who is conducting a secret military experiment, offering him a chance to help his country in a special way.  Rogers takes the chance, and the story really takes off from there.

On the other side, the arch-villain Red Skull is played convincingly by Hugo Weaving.  No doubt moviegoers would instantly recognize him for his memorable work as Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy.  FYI, he also supplied the voice for Megatron in the Transformers trilogy, so clearly Weaving has had experience in these sorts of roles!

The love interest is supplied by a charismatic British intelligence agent played by Hayley Atwell.  The romance that eventually develops between her and Captain America has an appealingly old-fashioned feel, as if it were straight out of a real 1940s movie.  Tommy Lee Jones turns in yet another reliable performance, this time as a tough army commander, and the rest of the supporting cast is solid, too.

I was especially pleased to learn before attending the film’s showing that the movie was directed by Joe Johnston, whose previous credits include The Rocketeer, which I still contend is one of the most underrated movies of the 1990s.  One of the reasons I am so fond of that film is that it takes place in 1938 Los Angeles, and shows the sumptuous art deco architectural interiors of that time, the classic propeller airplanes, the 1930s cars of all sorts of makes and models, the period attire (gotta love those double-breasted suits and fedoras!), not to mention that 1938 was the height of the Swing Era, and I was able to identify at least three different Artie Shaw tunes.

Suffice it to say, Johnston pays just as close attention to detail with the WWII period trappings of Captain America that he did to that similar period in The Rocketeer.  If the viewer were to pay a few extra bucks for a 3-D showing, he or she would be all the more apt to be immersed in that era, particularly the artwork, the wartime propaganda posters, the clothes (always the clothes!), the cars, and more.

My only criticism of the film is that I found it rather light on contemporary recordings in its soundtrack.  I was able to make out I’ll Remember April by Woody Herman and Jersey Bounce by Benny Goodman, but that’s it.  As a long-time Goodman afficionado, I can vouch that Jersey Bounce is a decent record, and since it was recorded in 1942, it’s quite appropriate, but Benny and his band did other records of the time that were even a bit more peppy that could have provided the right mood and contemporary backdrop during some other scene, namely Yours Is My Heart Alone from 1940.  Surely they could have squeezed in Glenn Miller’s American Patrol (1942) some place, or an early ’40s Artie Shaw ballad, say Moonglow (1941), or even Stardust (1940) during one of the more tender scenes between Evans and Atwell.

Much credit is due to whomever chose to have the movie take place in the era when the character Captain America was created.  World War II provides the perfect patriotic setting where the true essence of the character can be appreciated by viewers of all ages.  In subsequent decades, namely the 1960s, the bleeding-heart comic book writers essentially perverted the character by superimposing their post-modern claptrap onto this paragon of patriotism, as Mark Steyn so eloqently observed.

They say that the numbers don’t lie.  That is especially the case when it comes to box office receipts.  It is no secret that Hollywood has been guilty of producing more than a few anti-American (or, at least anti-U.S. military/CIA) films in the recent years.  Ben Shapiro offers a laundry list of examples, such as the Bourne Ultimatum, Lions for Lambs, Shooter, Grace is Gone, Rendition, and The Torturer.  He could have also added Jarhead and Syriana to that list.  No doubt this sort of muddying of the moral waters appeals to post-modernists and other supposed sophisticates.

Yet the average public has chosen to favor other sorts of films, which explains why superhero movies have done so well at the box office since the beginning of the New Millenium.  X-Men grossed $157 Million by late 2000.  Spider-Man grossed $403 Million by late summer of 2002.  X2 tallied almost $215 Million by early fall of 2003, Batman Begins tallied $205 Million by October of 2005, Superman Returns rang up $200 Million by late October of ’06, and The Dark Knight set a record with $533 Million in box offices receipts.  In just a couple of weeks, Captain America already has brought in $130 Million in domestic sales alone.  The message is clear:  people like to watch movies where good and evil are easily defined.  Captain America not only delivers on that message alone, but it delivers with an unabashedly patriotic message that America stands for ideals that are worth fighting and dying for, and does so with fantastic period panache.  If you’re a red-blooded American, this film will give you your money’s worth.