21 Dec 2008 2:39 pm   //   Filed under: Movies, Music

The most offensive holiday movie

One of my favorite ways to celebrate the season is to attend the New York Pops holiday concerts at Carnegie Hall. Last night’s show ended with a sing-along to the song “White Christmas,” a thousand voices filling the concert hall with that familiar and peaceful tune. It was the perfect antidote to Scrooge-ism.

We rode the subway back home, lit up the tree, and surfed around for a Christmas movie to play. Sydney suggested “White Christmas,” but iTunes didn’t have it for rental and Netflix didn’t have it streaming. So I found “Holiday Inn,” the 1942 movie in which the song “White Christmas” first appeared, on Netflix. We hit play and sat back on the couch to watch.

“Holiday Inn” is a vehicle for the talents of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire: A bunch of song-and-dance numbers with some screwball comedy linking them together. Irving Berlin, of course, wrote the music. The movie features a different song for each holiday of the year, and the “White Christmas” scene – the first time audiences ever heard this song, in the middle of a terrible war – is still moving.

But later, the movie gets to a number so awful, it’s unbelievable. The characters put on a show celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday…

… and it’s a minstrel routine. We watched in shock as the characters casually applied black makeup while chatting back stage. Then our horror grew as Bing Crosby sauntered on stage as Honest Abe in blackface. From there, the whole scene spirals downward, as various black and white actors portray dim-witted, African-American stereotypes praising Lincoln for freeing the slaves.

Apparently this scene is usually cut from TV broadcasts of the movie, and rightly so. Films like this should still be available uncut as historical documents, but if they’re going to be screened for general viewing today, they need to be updated to remove these racist performances. Blackface has been so universally discredited and shamed that viewers today find it nauseating. As this scene unfolded, we were mortified.

I’m alarmed by how many people have apparently watched this film on Netflix and written glowing reviews about it, failing to take note of this racist scene. One reviewer writes: “This is when films were made ‘without’ any cursing and vulgarity, and had some substance. (***** Stars, Highly Recommend).”

So cursing and vulgarity are offensive, but blackface is OK? What the heck is wrong with people?

From now on, when I hear “White Christmas,” I’m going to think of two things: That lovely sing-along at Carnegie Hall, and Abe Lincoln in blackface. Bah humbug.