Silver Bells — lessons in being American

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One of my favorite movie scenes is the “Silver Bells” scene from the movie The Lemon Drop Kid. To me it as one of those all-American type scenes. And it is a scene that could never be made today.

The scene paints what some might call a Norman Rockwell type Christmas scene that the main characters wander through while singing “Silver Bells”, all to advance the plot of the movie. But this is in New York City, and most of the illustrations of Christmas are highly, sometimes subtly, ethnic. Those vignettes, especially the one with the Chinese kids, are why the scene could not be made. The stereotypes used would raise the hue and cry of racism, possibly sexism.

And yet that is what makes this all-American. All these people, all these backgrounds, sharing the common holiday, yet still with the flavors of their ethnic backgrounds, all as Americans. Sure, they are Polish, German, Chinese, Slavic, etc., but first and most importantly of all they are American. And they can be proud of it.

Today the hyphens and distinctions get bigger. Back in the Lemon Drop Kid days all those people would have become more and more American, would have dropped old world rivalries in the quest to be American.

Today, we encourage them to keep the old world connections, keep the distinctions, and not blend in. We think this is helping them preserve their heritage, getting rid of old stereotypes. But what we don’t realize is all that really happens is old stereotypes get replaced by new ones. People who would have been outsiders for awhile now become outsiders always. 

Sure, the old system wasn’t perfect, but the examples of why and how it wasn’t perfect show that the new was is not the best way. It didn’t always include groups; we ended up with ethnic enclaves like Chinatown in various cities. But this showed that encouraging ethnic enclaves means a failure, not a success of the system.

We want to be careful about looking at scenes from old movies, like the one that started this post, and feel that we are more superior than they are — look how far we’ve come, etc. — because, as this analysis shows, they achieved a lot of things that we are now unraveling and tearing down without even realizing it. Certainly is enough to cure me of Chronological Snobbery.

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An Evening of Movies, Musicals and Miscellany

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Today is going to be a mix of various shows we watched last night.

First, a return to The Lemon Drop Kid.  I made comments on it during my Christmas Carol series for its feature piece — Silver Bells. Now I am going to take a brief look at a cuter song — It Doesn’t Cost a Dime to Dream:

Spoken:

I’ll show you how to own the moon
And how to bounce the world just like a toy balloon.
I’ll show you how to have your way
And help yourself to wishes on a silver tray. 

Someday we’ll fly to Bali Ha’i
Or any other island you would like to buy;
You can travel cheap when you’re fast asleep
‘Cause it doesn’t cost a dime to dream. 

We’ll line our walls with dollar bills
And use the wrinkled ones to wipe our windowsills.
Pour our old champagne down the kitchen drain.
It doesn’t cost a dime to dream. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) Poster

We will call at the president’s family residence,
Pay off the national debt.
And if we find the president slightly hesitant,
We’ll say we have a lot left yet! 

A fancy home, why that’s a snap.
To get from room to room we’ll have to have a map.
Just to see this prize only close your eyes.
It doesn’t cost a dime to dream. 

We play roulette, we place our bets,
We lose a million bucks and cut out crêpes suzettes.
Call the U.S. mint, what we need they’ll print
‘Cause it doesn’t cost a dime to dream.

We’ll have a maid who has a maid
Who has a maid to serve the maids lemonade.
We will spend our dough just like H-2-O.
It doesn’t cost a dime to dream. 

We will call at the president’s family residence,
Pay off the national debt.
And if we find the president slightly hesitant,
We’ll say we have a lot left yet! 

To keep our dog in perfect trim
We’ll have a butler and a footman just for him.
We will splash with vim in the social swim,
Be the finest fishes in the stream. 

I can see it now,
‘Course I don’t know how,
But it doesn’t cost a dime to dream.
It doesn’t cost a dime to dream.

Bob Hope sings this with his female lead, Marilyn Maxwell, in a charming duet as they put the ladies in the “Nelly Thursday Home for Old Dolls” to sleep on the crap tables they are using for their beds.  Context gives an added fun to what they are dreaming.

Next Stephen Sondheim. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Song title: A Comedy Tonight

[PSEUDOLUS]

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) Poster

Something appealing,
Something appalling,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns;
Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!

Old situations,
New complications,
Nothing portentous or polite;
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

Something convulsive,
Something repulsive,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Something aesthetic,
Something frenetic,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Nothing with gods, nothing with fate;
Weighty affairs will just have to wait!

Nothing that’s formal,
Nothing that’s normal,
No recitations to recite;
Open up the curtain:
Comedy Tonight!

Something erratic,
Something dramatic,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Frenzy and frolic,
Strictly symbolic,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

[ENTIRE COMPANY]
Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everybody:
Comedy tonight!
Something that’s gaudy,
Something that’s bawdy–

[PSEUDOLUS]
Something for everybawdy!

[ENTIRE COMPANY]
Comedy tonight!

[MILES GLORIOSUS]
Nothing that’s grim.

[DOMINA]
Nothing that’s Greek.

[PSEUDOLUS]
[Indicating DOMINA:]
She plays Medea later this week.

[WOMEN]
Stunning surprises!

[MEN]
Cunning disguises!

[ALL]
Hundreds of actors out of sight!

[ERRONIUS]
Pantaloons and tunics!

[SENEX]
Courtesans and eunuchs!

[HERO]
Funerals and chases!

[LYCUS]
Baritones and basses!

[PHILIA]
Panderers!

[HERO]
Philanderers!

[HYSTERIUM]
Cupidity!

[MILES]
Timidity!

[LYCUS]
Mistakes!

[ERRONIUS]
Fakes!

[DOMINA]
Rhymes!

[PHILIA]
Crimes!

[PSEUDOLUS]
Tumblers!
Grumblers!
Bumblers!
Fumblers!

[ALL]
No royal curse, no Trojan horse,
And a happy ending, of course!
Goodness and badness,
Panic is madness–
This time it all turns out all right!
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

Love Sondheim’s word plays.  And with a topic set in the classical world, he does a good job with his classical references and allusions — much of which goes unappreciated in our under educated age.

Reminds me of a scene from Eric Flint’s book 1632. The uptimer American doctors were in a conversation with downtimer doctor Balthazar Abrabanel about bringing him up to  date with all the modern medical knowledge he didn’t know. But when they started pumping him about downtime knowledge and cures, as replacements for their limited supply of 20th century antibiotics he mentioned a downtime text and said:

“Of course, you should examine the text yourself before we prescribe anything.  You do read Arabic?” Then seeing their expressions he said “Well, no matter, I believe I have most of it in a Greek translation.”

Which brought a sheepish grin from the Americans’ faces.  When Miss Mailey, the high school teach ended up in the conversation, her comments were:

“Americans are ignorant louts when it comes to languages” and “Did you think you were actually smarter than these people?”

Sort of a comment that belongs with yesterday’s column as well.

Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) PosterWhich works as well as the next thing for a segue into movie number three of the evening: Yours, Mine and Ours, starring Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball. A real family movie. Widow with 8 children and widower with 10 children court and marry. References to Fanny Hill, and the 60s free love movement, answered with a great line  by the Henry Fonda character as they are headed to the hospital for birth of #19, with his stepdaughter asking how she should respond to a boyfriend pressuring her to have sex with him.

” It’s giving life that counts. Until you’re ready for it, all the rest is just a big fraud. All the crazy haircuts in the world won’t keep it turning. Life isn’t a love in, it’s the dishes and the orthodontist and the shoe repairman and… ground round instead of roast beef. And I’ll tell you something else: it isn’t going to a bed with a man that proves you’re in love with him; it’s getting up in the morning and facing the drab, miserable, wonderful everyday world with him that counts.

“I suppose having 19 kids is carrying it a bit too far, but if we had it to do over who would we skip… you?”